*This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental, especially me. © Text and artwork Julie O’Yang
A rose is a rose by another name
(The China Diary)
Some writers encounter significant, history altering events that make a great story without artistic fuss. I myself had never believed in such providence, however, until my recent journey to my homeland.
It came a bit out of the blue. P., a friend and film director had been hired by Dutch television to make a series prior to the Beijing Summer Olympics.
‘I’m leaving for China next week. Be great to talk to you before I went,’ said my friend on the phone.
‘Sure – Buy me lunch – ’
‘Green Harbour. Come on time,’ the punctual Dutchman demanded.
No sooner had he hung up than I started speculating. In China people eat together in order to get some serious business done. P. knew this. So what’s he up to, I wondered, already relishing the one-million-dollar contract around the corner, like the glow of one silly thought.
A few days later we sipped wine on the beach, while I glanced over the folio P. unfolded in a mild sun.
‘Interesting… China through the eye of the Chinese…’ I tossed a casual remark.
‘Are you kidding me?! This is the real deal, understand, here’s what we’re gonna do.’
‘I’m inviting you to host my series! Champagne?’ P. threw his bait spot on.
One month afterwards I arrived at the Beijing Capital Airport, escorted by a crew carrying tools and a camera bearing foreign letters. I returned home – not as a patriotic cheerleader, but as a troublemaker!
Day 1 How long is the claw of a dragon
6AM. Outside my window the dawn painted the Forbidden City gold and purple. Fighting jetlag, I paced around my hotel room; I must have sensed something. But then, I froze, listening to the keycard slipped in, followed by a quiet beep!. The door opened ajar – thank god I had put on the chain last night.
A tad later I heeded someone breathing faintly.
‘Who’s there?’ I wheezed, choked by hazy premonition. I failed to muster a sense of safety in the country I was born and raised, I had seen too many bitter tears to be freed of woes and torment.
Having no time to shilly-shally, I grabbed my cell phone and tiptoed straight to the door, ready to raze the face of Jack the Ripper or Lao Tze-Tung.
The breathing had stopped. I shoved my head around to catch the lift closing at the end of the corridor. My eyes fell upon the Post-It, which I removed.
‘Call me,’ read the grassy handwriting I recognized immediately. It’s him! My heart thumping, for a moment I fancied him within arm’s distance, his tender breath approaching mine…
Then the anger was firing my mind. Why does he have to scare me like this? Fear was the reason I chose to leave years ago. I left my native soil and turned my back on people I loved and who loved me. I was in search of a new place, a new life. A sanctuary of freedom, where I could live with dignity, with courage, with humour, with composure, of WORDS. Written words. I am a writer, despite everything.
The rising sun shone in my face. Time is a bad healer. After many years China and me, we are still this symbiosis of Love and Hate. He is Love and Hate.
He had closed the lightyears between us and found me, at last!
I dialled the number.
‘Hello – ’ his voice, nectar and cyanide.
‘So what are you now?’ I asked, improvising.
‘How long. “How long is the claw of a dragon…”’ he added, humming the facetious jingle.
‘Is that your…codename?’ I gulped. ‘So Mr. secret agent man, now we are foes, no?’ I shot back.
‘You are still la bête of hasty assessment.’ He was the beauty, I was the beast, I had wanted it that way, in the summer twenty years ago.
‘I heard you write books about China,’ he continued. ‘How about we turn your stay into one awesome story of yours? What do you say?’ Still that playful wizkid I remembered.
‘Try me,’ I volunteered.
‘You are here for four days to interview four guests – if our information is correct.’ He spoke in plural. ‘Still patching up the past, huh? Why can’t you let go? However, it’s not my button today. Talk whatever you want, you have our blessings. But in four days counting from now,’ – I conjured him checking his wristwatch, then his eyes lifting slowly, piercing me –
‘In four days, a murder will take place – ’
‘Where?’ Incredulous, I settled to play along.
‘The Forbidden City.’
Where we first kissed.
‘The murderer?’ I pursued.
‘That will be you! Every evening you come back you will find a peony in your room… You remember what we used to call the flower?’
‘…ari arban,’ I muttered.
‘A rose is a rose by another name,’ he joined me in assembly. ‘You will receive four flowers, on each of which something is written for you to work out the clue – ’
Four, the number of death.
He hung up.
10AM. Our studio was located on barracks. Owned by the PLA, nowadays the pavilion building operates as any other commercial companies in the country, and renting location has become its main business.
My first guest was a TV-personality dubbed the “Chinese Larry King”. Interviewing political heavyweights all over the world, Y. had cemented his nationwide reputation as Fatherland’s spokesperson. In our earlier meeting, however, Y. had tackled journalistic integrity, and I naively believed that our tête-à-tête would be frank and truthful. The “conscience of Chinese journalism” would be our focus today.
I felt tense, keen to unriddle how our champion is worth his salt without provoking the dinosaurs, instead Y. was a national idol. Besides, this was my big day, my début on telly.
‘Journalism is the engine of the propaganda machine and mouthpiece of the Party,’ the camera rolling, I opened fire. ‘Since 1949, the founding year of the People’s Republic, this has been the iron rule. Is the rule still unshakable?’
‘Journalists ARE messengers of the Party,’ my guest changed into his chameleon mask on the dot. ‘What’s more, today we also have a market to serve – ’
The lizard king curved his lips like a Mona Lisa.
‘Market journalism still succumbs to censorship? When do you know you have crossed the line?’ I urged.
‘I’m a patriot. We Chinese are all patriots, aren’t we?’ My guest gave me a sharp look.
‘If one is not a patriot, does that make him or her a bad person?’ Tempted, I maintained a neutral tactic. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, my personal rancour aside.
‘For all knows, every Chinese is proud of being Chinese. How could one question his Motherland?’ He posed the question that is not a question but a rule, as it is.
Suddenly it dawned on me. How long is the claw of a dragon. Perhaps the dragon is not the Almighty, as I saw, but a bunch of lizards and crawlers watching one another, dictating law and punishing and rewarding accordingly. Those who do it believe that they are doing the right thing! Lullaby of Self-censorship. China is China. It still is and always will be. La fatigue du Chine.
That evening I returned to my room to find my first peony, fiery and fragrant in the gloom. On the tag a single alphabet was written: L.
Day 2 Nixon, Tibet and the Chinese soul
Professor Z. was teaching at X university of the capital. Stylishly attired in a Chinese jacket , Z. had a pair of irreverent, twinkling eyes.
To kick-start our discussion, we watched an ancient documentary Z. brought along. Richard Nixon in black-and-white visiting China in 1972, the heyday of the Cultural Revolution. A shaky Chairman shaking the imperialist hand. Mao was gravely ill during the meeting, still four years later he would die.
‘I do believe the makeup is worth an Oscar!’ Z. chuckled. ‘Shining, healthy, sharp-witted, and beloved. These are among many superlatives I can’t think of right now, which I taught my students back then. We were fools!’
‘Professor, tell me why have you chosen this episode?’
‘Prometheus brought seed of fire to people,’ my guest replied. ‘Richard Nixon is the one who brought seed of democracy to China. It was a tremendous moment, our first step to hope!’
Suddenly, I got tears in my eyes.
‘Tibet,’ I composed myself. ‘Nearly forty years passed since Nixon, yet democracy doesn’t seem to evolve especially for the Dalai Lama and his people – ’
This is hot shit. This is dragon nerve that foreign media have been reluctant to touch since oblivion.
‘You don’t need to answer – ’ I offered peace.
‘No, please,’ the mildly ironic voice protested. ‘It is the Chinese belief that our government is like our parents. Which means whatever they do to you it’s for your own good! After all, for 2000 years we have deemed obedience to be our highest virtue. You get what you ask, don’t you?’
‘What do the Chinese ask?’
‘A bowl of rice and the promise of a Mercedes! That’s the Chinese dream! Our soul has never been in bloom!’
My heart sank into my shoes after a soaring moment that suspended the reality.
I spent a cheerless evening alone, musing his words. Our soul has never been in bloom. Back in my room, I found the second peony greeting me from the same spot on the pillow. Under its crimson shade I found the letter: O.
Day 3 Dirty laundry of the Chinese heart
Of all my guests, H. was the one I was dying to meet.
Born in the poverty-stricken countryside, H. became a hairdresser in her twenties, dreaming to work one day in the city, which she did. She opened her own hair salon only to discover what kind of a dream the city had to offer. These hair shops serve as brothels, but when H. refused to confine herself to carnal service, wanting to make a living by cutting others’ hair, she was doomed. To top it all she got pregnant by a man she fell in love with but who turned out to be a swindler. Nine months later she gave birth to a daughter, her reputation hung by a thread. She was an unwed mom who deserves nothing but shame and humiliation. Then, one day in her absence, the conman came to her house to steal away her child.
‘Where is your daughter now?’ I enquired. If I could I would have turned off the camera so we can have a real one-to-one, heart to heart.
‘I don’t know – Gone – ’ H. answered distractedly.
‘His family doesn’t want me to be near her, they took care of that.’
‘But you can’t just sit and wait, can you.’
‘No. In fact, that’s how I became a documentary maker.’
H. is one of the most celebrated independent filmmakers at the moment. Her visual diary she made about her daily life and those around her, in an upfront, even confronting style had won her appraisal from audience as well as professionals.
‘I was drifting from place to place, looking for my daughter. A friend gave me a camera. “Film everything you see,” was his instruction. For two years I lived like a vagrant, my camera was the only person I talked to – through my eyes.’
And she was born with eyes of a master!
Brave, gutsy, true to life and not shunning its dark side, the documentaries were scrupulous portraits of China never before seen. Every family has a skeleton in the cupboard waiting to spill out, but hang dirty linen in public is not particularly a Chinese penchant. Perhaps this is why the films found a way to the heart of millions. Where the official journalism fails she is willing to touch the wounds – and there are so many wounds that I wondered how we Chinese endured. How is it possible that people have lived through that kind of pain?
‘The Chinese soul is like a volcano,’ my guest observed. The soul-talking again. ‘I like the Fuji, picturesque curves rising towards the snow-capped top. But I don’t trust prettiness you know. I want to explore the innermost darkness. Ever since a child I prefer night-time hours, with a firefly passing by, and I would make a secret wish – ’
‘And your daughter? Any sign of her?’
‘Nope. But I will keep searching until I find the light little as a firefly – ’
I felt like the worst kind of crap after the day I spent with H. I wanted to call it off, my little game and all that. At this moment he phoned – as if he felt. We used to have such bond – We still do.
‘You are not going to break my heart again, are you?’ He sounded sad.
I had let him down, like I did everyone else. And yet it felt as if the game we played had its own logic, it was a way to remain true to myself.
I didn’t find the third flower as I should. After searching the 20 square metres thoroughly, I crawled on all fours to the bathroom to find it in the half-filled washbasin. The paper was soaked, from which I deciphered the blurred, inky veins: V.
I stared for a second. I had a hunch.
Day 4 Potatoes and pornography
My last guest was a Dutch businessman living in Shanghai. M. is the founder of Tudou, meaning potato. Chinese Youtube, five times bigger.
Either he’s from Alaska or Fiji or Tierra del Fuego, businessmen share one obsession: numbers. M. and I talked about the unfailing lure of growing in…zeros. The more zeros one adds the greater weight one counts.
‘Foreigner and Chinese media, does that promise a happy marriage?’ I requested, solemnly.
‘No,’ was the succinct answer.
‘Then what’s your little secret?’ I didn’t say dirty, little secret since I knew the answer to be.
‘Our daily censor team is a proven success.’
‘Politics and pornography.’
‘Why pornography?’ I asked with feigned naivety. ‘Pornography seems to me an unproven success in today’s China…’
Whatever his answer it didn’t matter anymore. My mind drifted. How long is the claw of a dragon. Yahoo and Google were among the first to contribute to the building of the “Great Chinese Firewall’. Not only did they help the authorities to clean “undesirable” information, the defenders of free word collaborated in tracing unwelcome voices. During my brief visit, I noted a selection of websites from inside as well as outside China had been blocked since ages. Glory to technology, hooray to millions of slippery gold-diggers, soon we will be welcoming the Chinese century!
Upset and feeling fooled, I took a cab straight to the hotel. I thought I would board the first flight and leave, forever. Gazing out of the shabby Honda threading through downtown traffic, I realized, with a start, that all this time I had been fooling myself too. I told myself it was a game, but the truth is: I wanted to see him. Is my heart still longing for something we have lost? Do I still believe in the message he has been trying so hard to make it heard?
I took a dash to my room and picked up the flower from the made bed, whose shy perfume brightened my comatose interior. Among the scented petals I uncovered the fourth letter: E.
I put them in a row. L.O.V.E. – which I knew was a place. I knew from the very beginning that this is a metaphor.
His face silhouetted against the sunset over the purple Forbidden City, rapturously beautiful. Once upon a time we had walked here, hand in hand, we believed we will be young at heart forever.
We had met during the summer camp of our high school. Both of us were selected for the diplomatic class of a special university – We were to become spies. After the summer I turned the offer down, whereas he opted for the charted career. Which explains how quickly he found me after we hadn’t long since heard from each other. I couldn’t quite put it behind me nevertheless, neither him.
He was one hotshot, a certain je ne sais quoi. We fell in love. In the evening we would sneak out, and he would take me through a secret passage that leads to the labyrinthine heart of the Forbidden City; the passage was used in ancient times by the emperor to visit his favourite concubine.
‘Hey, you found it,’ he greeted me, his eyes mute in the dusk.
He took my hand.
‘Let’s walk, like the old days.’
We disappeared in the shades of the purple wall, ever extending.
‘This is what China is famous for and what the Chinese are best at. Building walls. Wall separating people. Wall between you and me…’ He squeezed my hand quickly as he spoke. Heaving a sigh as though to lift the burden of thinking, he halted his pace abruptly, putting out one hand to chafe over weathered paint, baring four letters, one word:
We had carved those on a rainy day, the day summer began, two decades ago. It was my birthday. ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ he had cited, while his hand holding mine finished the last stroke we cut in ancient clay. I had told him it looked like a lost cuneiform chart. Inanna, he had said, the Sumerian goddess of love, she was also the goddess of war. The scar we had left there on the wall survived major renovations, the scar on me, us. Love.
‘The murder?’ I asked.
‘It’s over. ’
‘Where is the corpse?’
‘You are the corpse, J.!’ He paused briefly. ‘After we parted, I couldn’t get over you. I got married and became a father, you were there always.’ Past tense. ‘Today, for the first time, I tell myself that the girl I loved is dead. Thank you! La bête, mon amour…murderer of love…’
‘We were children…’ Is he going to accuse me of parricide, the slaughterer of our fathers and mothers and the hallowed past?
‘You think you could just rattle your tongue and start to criticize everything, because of what? Your foreign passport? It’s so easy for you – ’
‘I say what I say because I really think what I think. But you are right. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had the courage if I were not an outsider – ’
‘Outsider does not exist. You think you could be free? An individual? When people look at you they see a Chinese woman. They won’t let you because that’s the way it is… Pursued by a past, we all are. Haunted!’
His eyes locked on mine. ‘Today is the day to say goodbye. Today I can forget and make a fresh start. China must forget so people could all make a fresh start! We were children. Now it’s time to grow up.’
He lowered to kiss me for the last time. In his eyes I caught something shiny and wet.