Book Review: Peony in Love, by Lisa See

It is odd to encounter pride in subservience, but it should not be surprising. In China, the standard was set centuries ago by a woman named Ban Zhao, who argued that women were too important not to be taught to serve their men. The forcefulness of her advocacy for female education has led some modern scholars to call her a feminist, but the object of her advocacy – the inculcation of complaisance – has led the rest of us to balk at the term. There are few things more mind-blowingly paradoxical than the pride Ban Zhao took in the woman’s role as upholder.

Lisa See’s Peony in Love showcases this sort of pride in a seventeenth-century elite family. In the words of its protagonist (named Peony), “As women, we have to think about how to make our husbands happy by being good wives, bearing sons, running our households well, and being pretty so they don’t become distracted from their daily activities or loiter with concubines. We are not born with these abilities. They must be instilled in us by other women. Through lessons, aphorisms, and acquired skills we are molded…” (p. 73)

Chief among the instillers is Peony’s mother, whose molding of little girls starts with their feet. Footbinding, that most grotesque symbol of subjugation, is exactly what elicits the most pride from Peony’s mom:

‘More girls are having their feet bound than ever before in the history of our country,’ Mama explained. ‘The Manchu barbarians believe our women’s practice to be backward…but the Manchus can’t see us in our women’s chambers. We wrap our daughter’s feet as an act of rebellion against those foreigners….We have our women’s ways. This is what makes us valuable. It’s what makes us marriageable. And they cannot make us stop….They cannot compete with us or stop us from cherishing our culture. More importantly, our bound feet continue to be an enticement to our husbands.’ (p. 46)

So sayeth the mother, but does the daughter (Peony) take such pride in her condition? Indeed, her enthusiasm for the life that is planned for her is shaken by the opera The Peony Pavilion, which introduces the disruptive force of love. It is love that suggests to Peony a chance at a kind of escape:

I wanted to bury myself in thoughts of love. I had no way to get out of my [arranged] marriage, but maybe I could escape from it in the same way I had here in my natal home, by reading, writing, and imagining….I did have a certain kind of knowledge…and I would use it to save myself. I wouldn’t write poetry about butterflies and flowers. I had to find something that would not only be meaningful to me but would sustain me for the rest of my life.

A thousand years ago, the poet Han Yun wrote, ‘All things not at peace will cry out.’ He compared the human need to express feelings in writing to the natural force that impelled plants to rustle in the wind or metal to ring when struck. With that I realized what I would do….I would find all those places in The Peony Pavilion that illustrated [my thoughts about the Seven Emotions]. I would look inside myself and write not what the critics had observed or what my aunts discussed about these emotions but how I felt them myself. I would finish my project in time for my marriage….My project would be my salvation in the coming dark years. I might be locked up in my husband’s home, but my mind would travel… (p. 76-77)

The rest of this review is a spoiler.

Peony, therefore, pins her wishes on an inward escape; she has no hope of launching any kind of rebellion. Readers holding out for the latter will be disappointed, especially since Peony will, following the examples of Ban Zhao and of her own mother, reconcile herself to, and even express pride in, female subservience. Encountering a young woman whose feet she had helped to bind, Peony feels “a momentary flash of pride that her bound feet had turned out so well.” (p. 202) She resolves to bind another girl’s feet in order to give her a chance at an upward marriage. (pp. 223-224) She counsels another woman, “Your husband is Heaven. How could you not serve him?” (p. 173) It is very hard for the modern reader, myself included, to avoid feeling revolted at Peony’s failure to grow out of – nay, her success at growing into – this most ironic form of chauvinism.

However, in exact proportion as I sympathize with Peony in Love’s frustrated readers, I am compelled to respect its accomplished writer. Lisa See has done what I could not: She has created a convincing protagonist at peace with a world we could never accept. While writing Southern Rain, I found it impossible to imagine a female lead who was well-adjusted to repression. There was no way I could write sympathetically about a footbound heroine contentedly serving a pre-selected husband. Such a woman could only be a victim, in my view. So I dodged the challenge by making my heroine a social outsider, educated by nuns and with unbound feet. Lisa See, in rising to the challenge, has given us perhaps more insight into seventeenth-century China by taking us inside the mind of someone who is more fully representative of it: a teenage girl with absolutely no control over her life, warped in body, limited in mobility, fixed in destiny, and constrained in every conceivable way. What could Peony do besides make the best of her situation – even to the point of being proud of it, which most women apparently were – as well as read, write, and dream?

In its realistic delineation of its heroine’s limited options, Peony in Love must count as a great success. It is historically well-grounded and finely researched, right down to conceptions of the afterlife. The jury may still be out on the question of realism versus reader satisfaction, but See’s realistic book, like Peony’s life, is probably as satisfying as could be expected. 

Excerpt from Southern Rain: The Alluring Bodhisattva

The next scene foreshadows the meeting of the hero and heroine. The image is by Satomi Kamei.

Watching Nanjing fume from the sky or from the ground, neither Peng bird nor human would have noticed the elderly nun on a donkey cart making her way through the smog from Cock-Crow Temple on the north side of town to outside Treasure Gate, the southernmost portal of the city wall. Though missiles whizzed by her, she maintained her dignity, as did her cart driver, who seemed to have absorbed a bit of her gravitas. The nun was called One-Eyed Jingang, for partially blinding herself while studying the Diamond (Jingang) Sutra, and she was Cock-Crow Temple’s abbess. While unaccompanied women raised eyebrows if they ventured abroad on most days, the Spring Festival provided One-Eyed Jingang not only with the cover of smoke but also with an excuse to be out, for clergy were often called upon to offer prayers for the New Year. In fact, One-Eyed Jingang was expected at another place of worship, a monastery named the Temple at the Edge of Heaven, where a prayer meeting was planned for that morning. Before the chanting began, however, she wished to consult with the abbot on a matter of some delicacy.

Arriving at the Temple, One-Eyed Jingang alighted from the cart, paid its driver a little extra for the New Year, walked through the main gate, and ascended the stairway to the Mahayana Pavilion, where the abbot, whose dharma name was Baichi Shi’ai, or “Idiot in the Service of Love,” greeted her with ebullient good cheer. Fearless of gossip, he invited the nun into his office.

“Wisdom to you,” he saluted her, offering some tea. “Big Sister is a bit early. Have you come to help me choose today’s reading?”

“No, Big Brother,” the abbess returned, as she sat down on a stool. “I’m sure you’ve already found something appropriate. As it turns out, I’ve come to discuss something…inappropriate.”

She placed on Baichi Shi’ai’s desk the bulging sack she’d been carrying, which the abbot had assumed to be filled with boxed or string-bound folios of sutras. She untied the twine at its neck, just as somebody in the neighborhood set off another string of firecrackers like a drumroll.

The sack fell away, revealing a statuette of the Guanyin Bodhisattva, sculpted from rosewood. The carving stood about a foot tall, but its subject did not stand, nor did she sit cross-legged in stolid meditation. Rather, she lolled in a sultry position with one leg arched upward at a right angle, her arm draped over her knee. Although she was Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, she posed in the style of Tara, Mother of Liberation; but whatever compassion or liberation she offered her worshippers, it was of a primal, physical sort. Her sexuality was total, not of parts. It sprang not from flaring hips or curvaceous breasts but from her unworldly air of assurance and utter lack of inhibition. Against all convention, this Guanyin held her eyes open, inviting her faithful to advance and be saved. A mandorla of fire radiated from her body, a manifestation of the power of her love.

Baichi Shi’ai knew better than to resist the goddess’s charms. Instead, he gave rein to his native enthusiasm. “Oooh! Hail, Guanyin Bodhisattva!” he crowed.

“Yes, she does rather demand devotion,” observed One-Eyed Jingang. “I’m surprised you haven’t fallen to your knees.”

“Whose hands crafted such a powerful image?” asked the abbot. “Or was it a bolt of lightning striking a grateful tree that did the work?”

“Actually, it was created by one of my novices, a brilliant girl. Always reading, trying her hand at something new. I noticed her chiseling away at a hunk of wood from that old column we had replaced and decided to give her a bit of rosewood to see what she could do with better material. This is the result.”

Baichi Shi’ai nodded, still absorbed in Guanyin’s smoldering expression. “Where will you display it?” he asked, after a while.

“Display it?” the abbess exclaimed. “Good brother! It’s hard enough to protect the reputation of my convent without having something like that on a pedestal. Why give the next scandalmonger a chance to start yapping about the ‘lewd nuns of Cock-Crow Temple’?”

Baichi Shi’ai rounded his mouth. “Oh? You think this Guanyin is lewd?”

“No, I do not, but a lewd man would, and I’m tired of hearing lewd men talk nonsense about decent nuns.” One-Eyed Jingang cleared her throat. “So I was hoping that you, Teacher, would take this Guanyin off my hands.”

“And keep her here?” the abbot giggled. “My monks would explode! Even if I hid her away, they would sniff her out like tom cats.”

“You have that little faith in your brothers?”

“I have that much faith in my brothers.”

One-Eyed Jingang slumped. “Yes, I suppose we face the same difficulty. Since our calling is to free people from desire, it’s bad policy to introduce an object of desire into either of our sanctuaries. So what should we do with it?”

Baichi Shi’ai grinned. “You talk as though she were a problem to be gotten rid of, but Guanyin Bodhisattva cannot be a problem. Yes, neither of our temples is the proper place for her, but remember: Guanyin embodies compassion for the world.” He raised both his arms, in an encompassing gesture. “Let’s put her out into the world, then, where her compassion can do its work. If some starry-eyed lad falls in love with her, so much the better. Everyone in the world needs to be receptive to compassion, after all.”

One-Eyed Jingang thought for a bit and then nodded. “Yes, Brother, you are right. We should allow this Guanyin to play her part. I will consign her to the marketplace, to await the first receptive soul that comes along.”

She put the Guanyin back in its sack and tied it closed.

“So what will be today’s reading?” she asked, but her host didn’t answer, and both devotees of dharma continued to stare at the enshrouded idol for a long time.

Excerpt from Southern Rain: Chinese New Year’s Day

An earlier posting describes my first Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, in which I saw the streets of Taipei transformed into a veritable shooting gallery of bottle rockets. That memorable experience was one of the many inspirations for my novel, Southern Rain, which opens with this pyrotechnic description of the first day of the year. The time corresponds to February 1644 on the Western calendar. 

It is the seventeenth year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, the first day of the first month – Spring Festival – and smoke is rising over Nanjing, as its people celebrate the New Year by lighting things on fire.

Half the city’s population are setting off firecrackers, to the delight of the other half. In groups of young and old, they hang clusters of the paper-wrapped cylinders like bunches of red bananas from the eaves of temples and taverns. With the touch of an incense stick, the fuse commences to hiss and everybody scatters. If someone chances to round the corner unawares, on his way to visit relatives, he comes abreast of the little bombs the moment they begin to explode and finds himself engulfed in a thundering maelstrom. His chest thumps like a kettle drum hammered by madmen. He flails his arms about his head and staggers away as the crescendo continues, a blur of incandescence hanging in the air near which he passed, casting billows of smoke heavenward. Then, as the last charge on the string gives up its ghost and the echo rolls over the city and disappears into the hills, the celebrants clap and jump for joy, and even the rattled pedestrian grins and waves, signifying no hard feelings. He too is enjoying himself.

In addition to the hanging clusters, some firecrackers can be thrown, and some are miniature rockets. Explosives of these sorts transform Nanjing’s streets and alleys into gauntlets of spark-trailing missiles, air bursts, and ground bursts. Young boys in particular are fond of launching pocket rockets from their hands, to watch them ricochet off buildings and passersby. Their favorite targets are peddlers on donkey carts, because they pretend nothing is happening. They go right on hawking their snacks – “Steamed buns! Dumplings!” – while projectiles bounce off their bellies or lodge in the folds of their robes, sending sparks cascading from their torsos. The pinnacle of fun is to toss a cherry-bomb into the street, timed to explode when a cart passes over it. There it lies, its fuse sizzling, while, say, the noodle-man approaches, crooning “Thick noodles! Thin noodles! Sesame paste! Black bean paste!” and just as his cart reaches it, Bang! off it goes in a cloud of sulfur. Both man and beast jolt from the concussion but emerge unfazed, the peddler resuming his hawking, the donkey his hauling, showing no sign of distress. Onlookers beam and the young pyrotechnicians make ready the next barrage.

Not all that is set alight that day contains gunpowder. Nanjing’s denizens also burn joss paper – play money – as offerings to the gods or to their deceased ancestors. Clan after clan of them, Chens, Wangs, and Zhangs, gather in their kitchens or courtyards to burn wad after wad of the heavenly currency, which takes to the air in particulate form. The offering of joss paper is less likely than fireworks to involve the occasional victim, unless it takes place on the ground floor of a storied building and some poor soul is caught upstairs. In such a case, the unfortunate one, as soon as he realizes he is suffocating, makes a desperate dash to the nearest window and thrusts his head outside. Gasping for oxygen, not even this man complains but rejoices in the good cheer and bonhomie of festival time.

Thus does Nanjing exude mirth and merriment, acrid, dark, and thick. Smoke rises over Cock-Crow Temple, a nunnery on a hill. Smoke curls about the Drum Tower, whose beating of the time that day is drowned out in the din. Smoke mushrooms over Three Mountain Street, Nanjing’s always-bustling bazaar. Smoke hangs above the Qinhuai River, its famous pleasure quarter. Every tiled roof, every bridge and pagoda, every curvy street and winding canal is enveloped in haze. To the gigantic Peng bird of legend, soaring far above town on this New Year’s Day, Nanjing might appear as an exquisite incense censer made to resemble a fairyland. To Nanjing’s human residents, the column of smoke dwarfing their city is yet another of its many superlatives; Nanjing wears it like a plumed crown. The vast metropolis, ringed by a wall of eighteen gates, is the pearl of the Yangtze River valley and original capital of the Current Dynasty. It is opulent and lively and crammed with attractions, the subject of rhapsodies by songsters and poets who call it a paradise. If Nanjing’s celebrated “kingly air” is now tinged with ash, its people breathe it in even more deeply and feel all the more regal for it. They are as proud and prosperous as any people have dared to be. In a consuming exuberance, they revel and roister, until their city is choking with smoke.

From the Black Creek River to the Grand Canal

The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.

The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.

Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.

Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.

Image

Hammered by Kindness

Sharing my diary entries detailing my “long way home” return from Taiwan via Europe in 1992, and reliving my decision to switch from flophouses to luxury hotels, I’m reminded also of how my sudden reintroduction to attentive restaurant service, after weeks of Chinese and Russian shabbiness, produced literally intoxicating results.

It was in the Xx Restaurant in Budapest (or was it Munich?) that the waiter, on bringing me my menu, asked if I would like to have an aperitif, while I looked it over. What a considerate question! This was more like it, I enthused, someone who knows how to treat a guest. Not wishing to profane the moment with a “No, thank you,” I asked the nice man to bring me a gin and tonic, which I remembered was customary for summer, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

I sipped at the fizzy drink while perusing the bill of fare, and when the tuxedoed veteran returned to take my order for dinner, he asked me what sort of wine I would like with it. Of course! I remembered. One drinks wine with dinner at civilized establishments such as this one. I told my man that I would rely on him to provide the most appropriate ambrosia to match the veal I’d selected; and he brought the excellent white Burgundy for me to begin enjoying well in advance of my entrée. Naturally, I was careful also to finish off the gin and tonic, to avoid being rude.

The veal, balanced perfectly with the wine, melted in my mouth, and I leaned back in bliss, recalling how one week prior, I had considered myself lucky to be given a cold bowl of borscht, assuming I found the dining car of the Trans-Siberian open. When my hovering host cleared away my plate and asked me what I wanted for dessert, I started to cry, it had been so long since I’d been so well taken care of. I requested the chocolate mousse, and when he inquired, off-handedly, as to what sort of cordial I should like to go with it, accepted his recommendation of cherry liqueur.

A good half hour later, at the close of my repast, I wiped my mouth with the cloth napkin, paid the bill, took a deep breath of the fullest contentment and gratitude, rose to leave, and found that I could not walk.

Travel Journal: No More Roughing It; Arrival in Budapest (1992)

After the two [Ukrainian oil field workers] had both detrained, I had a very sublime conversation with my remaining compartment-mate. He was a Hungarian physicist who was “hanging up” whatever job he had in Moscow and returning home with his cat. For most of the conversation, it was this reserved gentleman who was asking me questions about Taiwan and other aspects of my life. Much as it happened during the Trans-Siberian conversation with the Australian woman, the relating of my exploits was quite therapeutic, but on this second train, this gentleman was the older-generation figure whose occasional encouragement and understanding I greatly appreciate, nay, crave. His questions also were aimed right at the point, the main idea, of each aspect we were talking about; he was [always] asking, “What was your purpose” for doing such-and-such? I was happy to have a purpose that guided me [and] that I could tell him. I think I meant that he was one of the few people who could understand my lofty life goals, as I expressed them; most folks simply smirked at how impractically I’d lived, “wasting” all that time in Taiwan, with little to show for it but weird experiences.

He also confirmed my observations re the Trans-Siberian, i.e., that trains in this part of the world were dangerous. Furthermore, it might have been a self-aggrandizing remark I’d made in Taiwan, that now was the last opportunity I had to adventure in Eurasia (before disunity and war, etc.); but my Hungarian companion seconded the emotion, explaining that the trains were daily witness to robbery and murder, and that he was leaving Moscow, in fact, on the strength of the sense of growing instability there.

True enough, our conversation had been initiated by the abrupt, uninvited entrance of two Ukrainian youths who had barged in for shock value (it sure shocked me as I looked and saw one of them sitting next to me and the other one blocking the door) but who finally didn’t seem to want anything other than to whine at the Hungarian before they got off. My companion later said that they were generally confused and specifically a bit drunk but at heart nice boys.

The effect of this gentleman’s descriptions of train-borne chaos was to put me on my guard during the crossing of the Hungarian border, in the early morning after my friend left, during a sunrise trip to the w.c., and upon arrival in Budapest, but after reaching that place, I saw that I’d definitely arrived in affluent, touristy, Europe and soon turned my thoughts from flight to food and other indulgences.

The first need-turned-indulgence, that of lodging, achieved its more luxurious state by the following means: The [homestay] hostess recommended by the [Moscow travel agency] turned out (after begging for change to use the pay phone) to be in Italy on holiday. I next was compelled by residual greenhorn desperation to book a guest room at a hostel through the services of a travel agency. Said travel agency gave me an address and a trolley number, but after riding the trolley all the way out to the burbs to where the room chanced to be, I found the host not at home. His absence was actually a blessing in disguise, for I opted on the spot to return to the center of town (before the host came back) and try my luck with a hotel.

I was not the only backpacker wandering the streets that morning, and after a while, I found the experience degrading. The prospect of carrying my belongings through city streets, looking for a room, I mean looking for a cheap room, was not inspiring. I therefore resolved to inquire for rooms at the first hotel I came across, which chanced to be the Astoria Hotel.

Rooms were US$100 a night, and I humiliated myself one last time by asking after cheaper flops in the area before I decided to reward myself for surviving a month on trains in the PRC and Russia. “You know what? Just put me up,” I said. My backpack and I were very happy for the pampering.

Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.

Tales of Old Beijing: The Modern Plaza Incident of 1999

The Modern Plaza sits across the street from People’s University and is accessible from it by footbridge. Its most significant architectural feature (for our purposes) is the fact that its second floor is bigger than its ground floor, creating a covered area in which temporary sales or exhibition tables may be placed.

One day (August 9, 1999) I left campus, crossed the footbridge, and made for the Modern Plaza, to pick up a few sundries. As I neared the entrance, I noticed that a special sale was indeed in progress under the overhang. About twenty high school girls were engaged in the campaign. They wore identical corporate t-shirts and were hawking what appeared to be cosmetics. The energetic young ladies beckoned me over, but I held up my index finger, signifying that I wished to complete my indoor shopping first but would be right back.

When I reemerged with newly-purchased sundries in hand, I dutifully returned to the little bazaar, to see what the ladies were selling. It turned out to be a sort of eye-relaxing gel in little blue tubes. The merchandise had obviously been acquired in bulk and was now being unloaded at a bargain discount. Moreover, an enticing promotion was in effect: If you bought even one tube of gel, you would be given a free “eye massage machine,” while supplies lasted. Apparently, the gel worked best in combination with the machine. Although I had never heard of either product, I found myself that afternoon with not much else to do, and come to think of it, a little something for tired eyes just might be the ticket. I volunteered for a demonstration.

I sat down on a little stool, and a slightly more mature  young lady (college age?), who, I hoped, had taken the five-minute course on how to apply the stuff, sat likewise on a stool, directly in front of me and actually between my legs. She directed me to close my eyes, and after my lids were shut, she began to apply the gel with her fingers to the outsides. The substance did have a cooling effect, and the overall experience was quite relaxing and a little hypnotic. Then the young optomasseuse announced that it was time for the machine. Her fingers withdrew from my eye sockets, and I heard her flip a switch. A little motor began buzzing, and then I felt a pulsating plastic globe gently kneading in a circular motion upon my closed eyes. I wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed it or not; I liked her fingers better. At any rate, she kept it up for only a few minutes, and then the buzzing stopped, signaling the end of the demonstration. She wiped the residual gel off my eyelashes with a Kleenex. Of course, I bought a tube of the gel and took possession also of the “eye massage machine,” which the optomasseuse showed me before putting into its box. It was a five-inch wand, battery powered, with about four or five interchangeable heads, such as smooth, rough, and ribbed. For some reason, it had a Playboy bunny symbol etched on its surface.

I thanked the optomasseuse for everything and rose to leave, but at that moment the sky opened up and it began pouring, very heavily for Beijing. There was nothing to do but to wait under the overhang, and the little sale area became an even friendlier island of refuge in the storm, as nothing brings strangers together better than a little shower. The gaggle of high school girls became especially peppy, and one of them sidled over to me. We exchanged pleasantries, but almost immediately, she began telling me about her boyfriend. I was not unprepared for this sudden revelation, for one of the graver responsibilities of an American man in China is to serve as impromptu confidante, counselor, and confessor for Chinese womanhood.

“Do you love him?” I asked, cutting to the heart of the matter. It seems I was always asking women “Do you love him?” back then.

Naturally, the girl didn’t know. I studied her carefully. She was no dope, bright and venturesome (she had, after all, come right over to me), just inexperienced.

Suddenly, I wanted to be in a French New Wave movie. “You see that white van in the parking lot?” I asked her. “Let’s run out, touch it, and run back.”

I’m sure she had never received such a proposal before. She beamed at the novelty but wanted to make certain what I was asking. “You mean that white van?” she pointed. “You want to race me through the rain, touch the van, and run back here?” She used a different word for “touch” from what I had. I’d said peng (碰); she said mo (摸), which sounded to me more like “stroke.”

“Yes,” I said. “Let’s run out and stroke the van and run back.”

Without another word, she screamed and took off into the deluge, and I followed. It was like a whirlwind, sprinting with the rain flying off our faces and pelting my freshly-massaged eyes, nearly slamming into the van, stroking its slippery surface, then stomping through lake-like puddles and back up the steps to the Modern Plaza, where everyone was cheering (if this happened today, all phones would have been on us) and marveling at the American graduate student and his dashing ideas. The girl and I were both soaked, her corporate t-shirt most of all, and people gave us towels.

We dried off, still panting; but there was a certain let-down of excitement, after our little race in the rain. The other stranded shoppers turned away, and the distance reestablished itself between me and my running mate. The downpour soon passed, and I bade her safe travels, took up my shopping bags, and returned to normal life.

For the next week or so, I continued to use the relaxing gel and the “eye massage machine,” before I realized that it was a vibrator (duh) and felt silly prodding my eyes every evening with a vibrator. I don’t think any of the high school girls at Modern Plaza that day knew what they were pushing, and their ignorance contributed to my obtuseness, for, since no one was behaving as though they were trafficking vibrators, I never saw that they were. If I were to chance upon a group of people talking into bananas, I would assume that they were telephones.

I donated the “eye massage machine” to a female friend who could make better use of it. I kept the gel…and the memories.

DSCN0124

China Journal: The Hunan Condition

Tuesday, August 24, 1999 – Beijing

Recently, I found myself in Hunan Province for a Ming dynasty history conference. I believe the conference took place in the otherwise insignificant Shimen County because of its proximity to the reputed final resting place of Li Zicheng [the rebel who destroyed the Ming dynasty].

In any case, the event was hovered over by a cohort of culture cadres anxious to soak up some gravitas from the luminous personages now gracing their satrapy. It was also swarming with reporters trying to do the same thing, although the latter group had special plans for me, the sole gringo, namely: making me appear to be some kind of benighted barbarian seeking Chinese wisdom. I did not comply with their request for an interview, nor did I confirm the rumor that I’d been seen carrying a loaf of bread to my hotel room because I couldn’t eat Chinese food. It intrigues me how opposite assumptions operate on the same plane: Foreigners are expected to be attracted to Chinese culture, but they are not expected to be able to absorb it (not in the form of Chinese food, anyway), due to congenital differences.

The conference proper was inspiring if a little overly formal. All the intellectuals participating identified with their Ming dynasty antecedents. They railed against arbitrary rule and implied that, if only government would recognize true talent, then all under heaven would be pacified. Their class allegiance prompted me to spout off a little about historical objectivity (I remarked that righteous scholars failed to save the Ming dynasty and even had the effrontery to suggest that they might have killed it). I also ventured to observe that their brand of opposition to the government was based on elitism, not democracy. As I pontificated to someone later (boy, was I getting full of myself), democracy, by giving everyone the ballot, neutralizes the power of the Ph.D.

The academic portion of the retreat completed, touring commenced. We visited what was said to be the Peach Blossom Spring immortalized by Tao Yuanming, and I soon found myself having a perfect experience. It was a relatively unspoiled place, and the weather was cool and misty, calling up various Daoist feelings of being one with nature and making me seek to emulate Tao’s fisherman by doing a little enthusiastic exploring. At what was represented to be the actual spring, a pool under a waterfall, I quickly disrobed and took a little dip with the stone turtle they have there. I felt greatly refreshed, and I admit I also enjoyed the notoriety I earned as the crazy young American. It started to rain, which made me even happier, and I got my fortune told at a nearby Daoist temple, which seemed to provide a certain religious meaning to the whole thing.

The next day, our group of scholars moved to Zhangjiajie. We toured the Chinese version of Luray Caverns. This time, I was not quite as alone as I’d been: In standard eunuch fashion, I fell in with a group of four young ladies from Taiwan, hovering on the periphery of their approach-avoidance gravitational pull; and I actually had a pretty good time with the impressive cave and the lovely company. When the ladies slowed down in the shopping area outside the cave, though, I became aware that I was reverting to the role of hungry dog, hanging around, waiting for whatever table scraps of attention they might throw down to me; and so I took my leave of them, bought a dress for Yuka [then my fiancée, now my wife], and escorted [senior scholar] Wei Qingyuan back to the waiting bus.

That night at the hotel, after dinner, I developed a headache and began asking females for aspirin. One of the Taiwanese ladies said she had some in her room. On the way thither, we passed the hotel’s massage parlor, where the pubescent hostesses were scantily clad and the light chaser framing the doorway had already been turned on. Upon reaching the Taiwanese ladies’ room (where the other three waited; it seemed they always stuck together for protection), I received the promised pills, and an awkward moment ensued, as my canine tendency began to reassert itself; but they sent me on my way rather decisively, with a final “Goodnight,” while closing and locking the door behind me.

In spite of the less than voluntary mode of my departure, I was still glad on the whole to be away from their debilitating presence. The problem now, as I returned to my room, was how to spend the rest of the evening in the very uncomfortable hotel. I decided to write a letter to Yuka.

The phone rang. It was one of the young hostesses from the massage parlor, asking if I required any servicing. I demurred. I said I had a girlfriend. She said it didn’t matter. I twisted in the wind for another minute or so, the tenacious young lady refusing to let me off the hook. Finally, I blurted one last “Sorry” and hung up the phone over her protests. Then, I sat down on the bed and repeated, as a mantra, the phrase “Nerves of steel.”

The phone rang every fifteen minutes or so, until around eleven. I didn’t answer.

The following day, we took a nature walk, along a path following a river in the woods. I was very impressed with the park, though the lack of any literary or religious significance kept my happiness from overflowing into euphoria. Also, I made it a point to escape from the group, especially the four Formosan ladies, and to enjoy the place with the peace of mind enabled by solitude. I did bump into the Formosan Four upon emerging from the woods at the end of the trail, and they said they missed my company. Whether they were trying to be polite or cruel, I really can’t say.

China Journal: A Barren Source of Amusement

This diary entry is from my second excursion to Asia, in 1998-1999, for the purpose of conducting research for my dissertation. Unlike my first visit, this time, the internet was available, and I sometimes used it to combat loneliness, with mixed results.

Sunday, August 29, 1999 – Beijing

The computer has been a barren source of amusement lately. I’d been frequenting the chat rooms and had actually managed to have a friendly chat once in a while. Very recently, though, the chat rooms were transformed by avatars, little pictures designed to represent each chatter in a glitzy environment; and now all anyone ever talks about are the stupid I.D. pictures. I began to fear that nobody would notice me at all without an avatar; so I dutifully downloaded the new software. I find the chat room’s revised look to be as conformist as it is distracting, the women having all chosen similar “naughty” representations of themselves, and the men, likewise, having selected boilerplate, shirtless hunks.

I spent the entire morning in an unsuccessful attempt to download a photo of Richard Nixon (the Norman Rockwell painting from the Portrait Gallery) to use as my avatar, before I decided that I’d passed an invisible line separating passing the time and wasting time. I went out on my bike all day.

1968 - Pres. Nixon - by Norman Rockwell by x-ray delta one, via Flickr