Something in me rose up like a firecracker,
I wake up in the morning with a terrible headache. My
neighbors, all students, had kept me up all night with their after-exam
revelry. The walls in my apartment are as thin as rice paper. I heard
them say something about a big demonstration being planned in Tianenmen
Square today. It's an idea that's been brewing ever since Hu Yaobing
I don't get off of work until nine p.m. Leaving work is always a good feeling. It is always good to breathe in the night air. Except this time, when I leave the factory, I smell death. Not the sweet smell when you are near a dead body, but the sinister smell of something bearing down, trying to crush the self. I switch on my transistor radio.
.Police have successfully quashed a rebellion
in Tianenmen square
I know that it's impossible, and I pedal faster on my
bike. I rush up the stairs of my apartment and knock loudly on my neighbor's
door. No answer. Then I start knocking on everybody's door. No answer.
I run downstairs to the landlord's apartment. He is short, fat, and
dark, with a beard and mustache. He looks like Mr. Miyagi in Karate
Kid. When he answers the door I say "Where is everybody? What happened?"
That night I cannot sleep. I feel guilt and regret for being alive, as well as for not having gotten to know my neighbors better. Here are some of the dead:
Ye Yang-19 years old. He was studying biology; the first of his generation to go to college. He had a girlfriend who he had been seeing for several years. He told me, just a week ago, that he was planning to propose.
Deng Zhaio--- 18 years old. Very bright. Always wanting to know what I thought of this or that political reform. He was studying international relations. Very unlucky in love, but he had a good heart-He volunteered to work with disabled children.
Sheng Chan-19 years old. Studying Art. Often expressed his frustration with the state's censorship of political art. Was planning on moving to America someday.
Chen Dewei-21 years old. Was studying Math. He was scheduled to graduate this year.
All I want to do is stay inside, but it is unbearable to sit within the silent hole left by the dead. I get up to make some breakfast, and I find the refrigerator empty. Shit. That means I have to go to the market. Reluctantly, I dress and pull on my boots. When I get outside, I am immediately taken aback by the state of turmoil outside. The street is filled with students and cops, as if they were the only citizens, and the rest had decided to stay home too. Making my way through the crowd is nearly impossible without brushing up against an officer or banging into a student. It takes me an extra twenty minutes to get to the market.
Everyone in the market is arguing about the protests.
It is like a tsunami that released a fatal wave of emotion. I hurriedly
buy my groceries, and start my way back down The Avenue of Peace.
I jump down from the tank. The tank tries one more time to get around me. I keep jumping in front of it. Then all of a sudden I feel myself being pulled away. Four men surround me and push back through the crowd. I am not scared. There are four of them. They handcuff me and lead me to a black car with tinted windows and shove me in. I think they are undercover officers, but I'm not sure. I assume that they are going to execute me.
It takes me awhile to realize that they are all wearing
masks. "Who are you?" I ask.
For the next eleven years, I hid under China's floorboards,
in the homes of dissidents.
Qulan has osteopetrosis, a bone disorder that causes the
bones to thicken and break easily. For that reason she spends a lot
of time in bed. There is nothing she or I can do about it-there are
no doctors here. Doctors are paid only 70 dollars here, while receptionists
make 150. Her bones ache a lot. She also has hepatitis C. She got it
from a blood transfusion.
I am not sure that I believe in destiny. Oftentimes I
wonder why I did what I did. Would someone else have done what I did,
had I not taken a stand? It will forever be a mystery to me. I don't
feel sorry for myself. I have my life, and that's it. And even that
is an illusion.
My mother called heaven "The Land of 10,000 Swallows".
I asked her how far away it was, and whether we could visit. She said
it was very far away, and that I had to be a good boy if they were going
to let me in. As I watched her pull the long crimson threads through
her needle, she spoke of karma.
When I was a boy I was fascinated by the stealth and egalitarianism of ants. I would sit in the field and watch them for hours. Like little peasants, they carried bundles of food on their backs. Like construction workers, they built amazingly detailed underground tunnels. Their pragmatic approach to the world seemed like a Communist dream, yet, as I grew older and observed humanity, it seemed that humans were less strong than the ants.
My parents are both from Beijing. She and my father married in 1964 and I was born April 25, 1965. My grandparents were peasants from Huangshan Shi. My grandfather fought in the Sino-Japanese war on the Communist side. Once I asked him about it. He quoted the Tao: "The markings of tigers and leopards bring hunters; the quickness of monkeys and the hunting ability of dogs get them chained up." As a peasant who had taken part in several uprisings, he was a target for the Communist party, who wanted to recruit peasants to fight the Nationalists and the Japanese. "It is better to remain oblivious and unnoticeable" he advised me.
Of course, it was difficult to heed his advice when my hero was Bruce Lee. Once a month my father and I would go to the cinema and watch Bruce Lee movies. Trying to capture Bruce Lee was like pouring gasoline on a fire. Once at school I challenged my friend Chang to a Kung-Fu match. I was badly beaten. All my grandfather could say was "Told you so."
My grandfather took me fishing in the little mountain
stream by his home. We always kept one or two fish for ourselves, and
gave the rest away to people we met on the road. "When not one
person goes hungry, that is success. If you keep all the fish for yourself,
then people will gossip about you and call you greedy, and they will
not help you when the day comes that you are hungry. By not keeping
all of the fish, you ensure that there will always be fish."
"The Dalai Lama says that he will be reborn in a democratic country. How does he know that?"
"I'm not sure. But I hope he's right."
"Have you ever heard of the Dunhuang caves?"
"They are nearby. Close to the Mingsha San, or Dunes
of the Singing Sands. In 366 A.D a monk carved these caves. 492 caves,
filled with 50,000 manuscripts. Dunhuang was the town where the two
branches of the silk road merged for the final leg into China's capital.
The Dunhuang star chart is the oldest manuscript star map in the world
and one of the most valuable treasures in astronomy. The first part
of the document consists of a collection of predictions based on shapes
of clouds. Also, the first dinosaur eggs were found in the Gobi desert.
People and cultures are often judged by what we leave behind. I want
to know that I left something behind when I die."
I'm just not sure how you feel about
Qulan is a widow. She is the youngest widow I have ever met-only twenty-one years old. Her husband was killed over a year ago in a mining incident. Her hair is soft and wiry, like wild grass. No brush or comb can tame it, so she often braids it or puts it up with a clip.
I arrived here six months ago. I was smuggled in through a caravan bringing goods from China, like a fourteenth century bandit on the Silk Road. Qulan does not ask me about my situation. I am guessing that she knows something, because of her contacts in China. I have been busying myself by learning how to play the flute. I have a bamboo flute, given to me as a gift from the Shan family. For the past ten years I lived in their attic. Before that, I lived under the floorboards of the Yang family house. I am unable to disclose the precise location I was in, nor can I disclose exactly where I am now.
Tonight Qulan is making Khorkhog, a mutton stew cooked with stones. She uses dung as fuel. Nothing gets wasted here. She gathered these stones from the riverbed nearby. After she is done cooking with them, she will paint multiple colors on them, and set them on the Buddha shrine. She will also make a pile of stones outside. These are called ovoo, and they protect the land.
I return to the memory of that mountain stream I played
in as a boy. Chang and I built a bridge with river stones and driftwood.
The bridge was only up for a few days before a local official confronted
"A missionary came to visit us, too. My grandfather
asked him, 'If you and I are the same, then how could Jesus save one
and not the other? How can he stop the law of karma?"
When I look at Qulan I realize that what is softest in
the world drives the hardest. She is the petal that speaks of thorn,
the velvet peach that entwines the bramble. Just now someone has come
running through the door. It is Temujin, the nine year old boy who lives
next door. He comes and buries his face in Qulan's lap. He is weeping.
Violence is a big problem around here. Boys grow up wrestling, and when they get older, many of them turn their anger out on women and children. Drinking is a big problem, too. Mongolians drink almost as much as Russians.
Children outnumber adults here. The boys fight and the girls help their mothers with their chores. All of the children are scrappy. They are never spoiled. After the Great Famine in China, parents, who usually had just one child in accordance with the One Child policy, spoiled their children, especially with food. Now when I hear that obesity is a big problem in China, I am not surprised.
After W. and Temujin go to bed, I go to the altar and
assume my meditation position. Today I had "moderate" pain
in my back, and some nausea. In meditation I can befriend the pain.
I descend into ever-deeper silence. My leg joints are burning. I make
a note of the burning. I am tempted to cry out. I make a note of the
temptation. In Sanskrit 'dukkha' was compared to a potter's wheel that
squeaked around. In pain, time is both too fast and too slow. It is
like being pulled in two different directions at once. It is easy to
panic in such a state, but to do so only means more pain. I close my
eyes and chant the Bhaisajyaguru (Medicine Buddha) chant: (Tah-yah-tah)
OM, beck-and-zay beck-and-zay,
Fluenzas between sleeping gulls. The hospital is as crowded as a dream, and the service isn't any more logical. Crowded with boys who press matches to their hair to kill the lice. Young girls with oil-black hair pregnant with choices they don't know about. Amputees, their elbows molded into fists. The antenna picking up signals from Siberia; the body craters, space-shot as a reindeer.
Rice Sparrow, Singing Sands
I wake up one morning to find Qulan gone. I go outside, see her body crumpled by the well. I run to her. She is as cold and dead as the deer. She must have gotten up at night to get a drink of water, and her bones broke. She died of hypothermia. I pick her up gently and carry her back to the yurt.
It is time to go. I know what I must do. It is something I have been thinking of doing for a long time. I pack my notebooks in a sack and I load the horse. I tie Qulan to my back with rope. I am going to the caves of the Gobi desert. I will search for a cave, and when I find it, I will take Qulan and my notebooks. In a short time, the caves will be sealed with sand. I will die there, with my writing and Qulan. The sands will sing us to sleep, becoming oracle bones, becoming our ancestors.
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