Essay by Allen
Essay by Steven
by Reid Mitchell
by William Rainbolt
by Thomas Mallon
by William Rainbolt
Man Under Authority
by Reid Mitchell
by Allen Ballard
The Heavenly Kingdom
by Steven Leibo
History / Writing Fiction
virtual conference session
A Selection from Tienkuo: The Heavenly Kingdom
What follows are two chapters of Tienkuo: The Heavenly Kingdom.
(Silk Screen Press ©1994 ISBN 0-9640735-0-1 ). Reflecting
the third and the seventh chapters of the novel they were chosen to be
posted here because they are fairly self-contained and introduce two of
the three main characters in the book. Chapter three has been preceeded
by the events of the missionary son Jason Brandt's having run away from
his home in Hong Kong to follow the Allied soldiers who were traveling
north toward Canton as the opening stages of the Second Opium War began
in 1858. We watch as the boy earns his passage as a translator for the
English who need to hire local coolies and as he tries to learn more about
one of the coolies who appears to Jason to be a misplaced representative
of the scholar gentry class rather than merely a coolie.
As this chapter opens up Jason has convinced the sullen young coolie
to tell more about himself.
That evening, after Jason had labored to swallow the hard tack lieutenant
Richards had given him, he set out to look for the young Cantonese.
Getting started though had been difficult. Hedrick, as he told Jason to
address him, wanted to talk. So Jason had stayed for a time, listening
to Hedrick's homesick chatter about England; about how much he loved the
small country town near Dover, where he had grown up and of his family.
As they talked, they sat near a group of common soldiers and partially
listened to their conversations as well.
"I can tell you, at home I would not speak to such as them, even for
a moment. Hedrick commented quietly gesturing toward the soldiers.
"And here, at least, I don't have to socialize with them. They follow
orders, and if they're lucky, they can get back to the End Slum that spawned
As Jason sat there impatiently, his eyes wandered over the collection
of tents and seated groups that dotted the area before the walls.
He could hear the lively sounds of French coming from one of the encampments;
the voices both humorous and dogmatic. Even closer, the dark Indians
brought over from Calcutta sat tightly around camp fires, talking quietly
For Jason, it was clear that of those groups which surrounded him,
he really only felt comfortable with one; and it was certainly not the
British; neither the young aristocrat, Hedrick, nor his troops. The
Indians were simply a question in his mind, more Western looking than the
Chinese but even more mysterious. No, only with the Chinese did he
feel any affection or familiarity. After enduring more of Hedrick's
homesickness, he finally excused himself and drifted away from the campsite.
It took only a few minutes to accomplish his goal. His own coolie
gang had encamped only a few feet from their last assignment. At
something of a distance from them sat the young man Jason now knew to be
of the family of Wu. He approached him and sat down. The fellow
was slowly eating from a bowl of rice and looking out toward the city walls.
Wu looked up with a shy smile. "There is plenty of good rice
tonight. No millet for us. Your barbarian friends took what
they cared about, but left the rice stocks available for the picking. For
us, it will be quite enough. Do you want some?" Wu gestured.
Retrieving his bowl from his shoulder bag, Jason took a portion and
ate it slowly savoring the flavor, and allowing it to push from his tongue
the taste of beef jerky, which had formed the bulk of his dinner.
"So tell me, friend, as you began this morning. Why are you here?
You are obviously of the gentry."
Wu stared at him, reflecting for a moment.
"Of the gentry... well, perhaps my family has such pretensions,
but not for long. I was supposed to continue my family's place among
the literati, but my failure--- no, it was worse than that, my most blameworthy
carelessness, has destroyed everything now. I'll never pass the examinations;
never become the respected official everyone in my family expected."
Wu's chin tucked in and his lips briefly pinched together, an expression
"A barbarian like you could never hope to understand. Though you speak
the language of the Han, it's the patois of Hong Kong coolies, not of gentlemen."
Jason was put off, but started again. "I know my Chinese is not
refined, that I speak the language of the uncouth. But I would like
to learn. In fact, I would like you to serve as my teacher."
"Your intentions are honorable, but I am not the proper guide.
To merely assume such a role is to dishonor it with my identification."
Despite an apparent willingness to continue, the fellow turned away
from Jason, seeming to contemplate the scene, rapidly changing in the fading
light of twilight. It appeared he was momentarily overcome with emotion.
Jason considered asking another question, but thought better of it.
They sat in silence, both studying a distant pagoda's faint image, which
stretched upward, somewhat to their left.
"I'm from a village a few miles from here. My family isn't rich,
but there have been several high degree holders. And once, during
the reign of Chien-lung, even a Chin-shih, the highest imperial degree."
Jason listened silently, unsure of Chien-lung's era, but afraid to
"My father is very old. I was the only child. He has spent
everything on preparing me for the exams, and now..." The voice trailed
"Only one child, isn't that unusual for a Chinese family?" Jason
asked, hoping to pick up the momentum again.
"Well, only one boy. I have five older sisters. Girls
don't count. They can't bring great honor to the family in the exams.
They're never really part of the household -- they're raised only for some
other household. If you can't understand that, you can never see
the true path."
Jason blinked, and then bit his lip. If he were to learn from
the young man, he would have to be as humble as one expected of a Chinese
"Since I was three years old, my family has prepared me for the exams.
I can still remember the first characters I learned. Not one more than
seven strokes, and their message:
Let us present our work to father.
taught three thousand..
Seventy were capable gentlemen.
You young scholars,
eight or nine!
Work well to attain virtue,
and you will understand propriety.
Wu then hummed to himself, as he traced the characters in the
dirt. Jason's verbal skills were impressive, indeed. But he
had never seriously begun the effort to learn to read and write Chinese.
Staring down at the characters, he remembered, for a moment, his conversation
the year before, with his father. Jason had come home anxious to
learn to write Chinese. The old man would have none of it.
"How many times have I told you, your life's not here! You'll be needing
French far more than this gibberish; and besides, the Bible's already been
rendered into Chinese by the Reverend Morrison. There's no more work
to be done on that score." Jason had argued that the Church needed
men who could write tracts on the gospels in Chinese, but Reverend Brandt
"It's just a ruse, boy, you're no more willing to do the Lord's work
than to attend services for your own blessed soul." The old man had paused
for a moment, as if reflecting, "And for that, I blame only myself.
I have kept you in this heathen land too long." The conversation
had ended in another of their arguments, and in a renewal of the reverend's
letter writing campaign in search of an appropriate, affordable American
college. Nothing had come of Jason's plan. For the young American,
the characters remained as much a mystery as ever.
"It makes me sad, even as I remember my training," continued the young
Cantonese. "My parents sent me to the clan school. After I had mastered
the Primer of a Thousand Characters, we would sit every day in front of
Wang Laoshi, Teacher Wang, reciting the Analects over and over. With
the book closed and open we'd sit, reciting the text. Chu, my friend,
was always inattentive. Sometimes Wang Laoshi would hit him with the fan
shaped ruler, and remind us that "If education is not strict, it shows
the teacher is lazy." Wang, with his thin mustache and beady eyes,
wasn't going to let that be thought of him. He liked to act the great
lord over all of us, because he'd passed the first level of exams...but
to us, that was nothing. I would achieve glory in Peking in the final
imperial examinations. I wonder what he thinks of me now?" the boy's
voice trailed off for a moment.
The light of day was gone. The scatter of
camp fires among the tents lit groups of men engaged in eating, and cleaning
"So you're one of the missionaries of the barbarian religion?" Wu asked
"Not me, my father is a missionary."
As an after thought, "I'm not sure what I am, or will be."
"And will your father come after you? I remember what you said
on the barbarian ship."
"Maybe. I think so. I am not looking forward to that."
"And will you return home if he requires it?"
"I don't know."
"It is a grave thing to disobey one's father... at least it is
among my people." Wu said seriously.
"It is to us, as well. But tell me of your efforts in the exams",
Jason requested sincerely, with an enthusiasm born of the desire to move
the conversation away from his father.
"If you wish. It is a long story, and I suppose not a unique
one. From eight to fifteen, I studied constantly -- spending most
of my time learning the sacred texts of the Master, and at practicing the
hundreds of new characters we learned day by day."
Hugging his knees, Wu brought his head down at an odd angle, his eyes
losing focus clearly overwhelmed by the still painful memories. Finally
he began again.
"Sometimes I wanted to run away ... to spend time in Canton watching
the barbarians, your people...and hearing tales of the long haired rebels
fighting to the north. But mostly, I stayed in my place alongside
the other students. My family made it somewhat easier. It was
said that I was brilliant, that I would bring great honor to the entire
household, and someday even build a magnificent ancestral hall in honor
of being named a great official. He stopped, seeming lost in some
"We boys even had a poem we would recite to remind us of what study
could make possible.
To enrich your family, no need to buy good land:
books hold a thousand measures of grain.
For an easy life, no need to build a mansion:
In books are found houses of gold.
Going out, be not vexed by lack of a good go-between.
In books there are girls with faces of Jade.
A boy who wants to become a somebody
Devotes himself to the classics,
faces the window, and reads.
"Once when we told Wang Laoshi our poem, he scolded us severely.
The Classics were to cultivate our crude souls, not to lead us to women
and pleasure. If passing the exams brought such things, still, he
said, no one should pass who could possibly care about such insignificance.
He went on and on, but I thought that he, too, had probably liked the poem
during his own youth. Did I tell you how old the man was?"
"Very old! The say he was already a
student when the great emperor Ch'ien-lung still lived." Apparently
the age of Ch'ien-lung was quite distant. Jason, still not having
the slightest idea when that was, merely nodded and tried to look impressed.
"It was terribly important that I begin well. Though my friends
bought every preparation book and model answer pamphlet they could find,
I hardly ever looked at them. If those model answers could really
help, everyone would pass. I knew there was no easy way. I
worked as hard as I possibly could. One summer my family even used
the proceeds from a good harvest to have me study with a retired official,
a Chin-shir from the fourth year of Tao Kuang! Everything was going
wonderfully. Finally, it was time to start the district exams.
I knew I was ready. My only fear was that my grandfather might die
before the tests began. I would hardly be allowed to take the exam
if I were in mourning."
What I remember most was sitting there in the huge examination
hall, not only with my friends and classmates, but with a host of other
locals whose faces I hardly remembered. The older men had shaved
their beards, obviously trying to look young as possible. It was said that
the youngest were given the easiest questions. Those fellows, to
a man, had already flunked before, and hardly wanted more difficult questions."
His voice was getting more enthusiastic as he told his tale.
Pausing, Wu seemed to look within himself. Gradually his brows
came together, and his normally expressive features seemed to pucker, as
if he tasted a sour, repressed memory.
"Did you know, they say that the bandit Heavenly King of the Taiping
Long Hairs took the exams five times? And flunked them every time!
No wonder he started a revolution!" Wu's mood seemed to lighten.
The black eyes flashed in amusement as he commented on the leader of the
movement which Jason vaguely knew to be tearing the country apart in the
regions to the north of Canton.
"I remember sitting there with my inkstone, a gift from my Yeh-yeh,
grandfather, and the brushes, and lunch. I even had a bowl to relieve
myself. My Mei-mei, little sister, had giggled when she saw it, but
one could hardly take the time to relieve oneself. We sat there in incredible
tension. Those who accompanied us left. Finally the first questions
were carried around the room on a placard. What I remember most is
not the question, for it was an easy one from the Analects, but the suppressed
sighs of relief or pain as my comrades recognized the question, or not.
I, though, could not have been more confident. I started immediately,
stalling only for a moment, to remind myself to use my best calligraphy.
For, in my enthusiasm for the answer, I might forget the necessity of making
my characters as perfect as possible. Almost an hour later, I recall looking
up at the face of my cousin, his sheet obviously blank. I hurt a
moment for him; still, it was marvelous to feel so prepared myself."
"The rest of the afternoon was made tense only by
the incessant humming of one of my neighbors. We were supposed to
compose a poem as part of the examination; no doubt his constant mumbling
helped him form the work. It is well known that one can be dismissed
for such obnoxious habits, but no one from the Yamen said a thing. Still,
my work proceeded. When it grew dark, and our papers were stamped,
I had to wait a long time for a group of fifty to gather, so we would be
allowed to leave. As we stood there, one sensed both excitement and
exhaustion. Among the oldest, especially those newly shaven, there
was more tension; and for some, pained discouragement. I was
young. There would be other exams to take, but for them, time was
growing short. Their chances for an official career grew less each
year. Actually, I was only slightly aware of them. I had done well.
I could feel it."
Wu leaned back and folded his arms across his stomach. He gazed
heavenward, obviously reliving the moment. He straightened, leaned
forward, grasping his knees in recalled excitement. In the flickering
light of the camp fires, Wu's face seemed to provide its own radiance.
"When the results were announced I was in ecstasy. A rumor had
come to our compound. The results would be posted. I could
hardly contain myself as I left for the yamen. The women of the household
said nothing, merely watching closely as I prepared to go. Only Yeh-yeh
commented that the family's honor went with me."
Wu paused and directed an imperious gaze at Jason. "The family
honor! What can you know of family honor, barbarian!"
Jason masked his irritation. He tried relaxing his rigid form,
his hand stroking air in a calming motion. "Family honor is everything,
I know, much more so than anywhere else, I know..."
Wu relaxed, displaying once again a wry, sad
smile. "That was not necessary, for me to suddenly..." He shrugged,
"I was rude, forgive me." His eyelids seemed heavy with pain.
"A wound occasionally acts up, bringing forth inappropriate sentiments."
Like a dog shaking wet fur, Wu shook himself briefly. Finally, a smile
returned and he continued his narrative.
"The crowd was already huge when I arrived; and not only with
those of us who had taken the examinations. Many of the candidates
were there with their entire families. The lower classes milled around
as well, for they knew that at least for some families there would soon
be a time of rejoicing --- certainly an auspicious moment to order gifts
from the merchants present." "I suppose that some in the crowd
were thieves and pickpockets as well, but that hardly mattered. As
I got there the yamen doors opened and out stepped two rotund officials
carrying the scrolls. Try as I might, I could not at first push forward
enough to see the names posted in the traditional circular fashion on the
walls. The sheets were large enough, but the crowd too enormous.
Once those in front found the names they were searching for, a torrent
of voices rose. Not just the excited whispering of the previous few moments,
but real cries of anguish and, somewhat more quietly, of pleasure. As always,
many had failed, and the usual mumbling about the officials grew rather
louder than appropriate. At last some pulled back, away from the
wall, I was able to inch forward. Finally standing before the sheet,
being pushed from behind, I stared at the posters, searching throughout
the circle for my name and the red dot which indicated success. For
a moment I could not find it -- I felt the first tremors of panic, and
then, hearing my name mumbled aloud, I looked at the top position.
I had won first place!"
His voice, after the energy of his exclamation,
trailed off. Again obviously reliving, briefly, the feelings of fulfillment,
of pride hard earned, that had swept through him at the time. Jason
watched him closely, fascinated with the story; with a view of a life so
different from those of the coolies he had known.
"I just felt numb ... staring for a moment, to be
certain ... and then falling back into the crowd. I think a few friends,
and perhaps some relatives, patted me on the back as I retreated from the
wall, but I'm not sure. I had gained first position. My rise
had begun. What would Yeh-yeh say? As I emerged from
the crowd, I saw one of our servants hurrying off. So they would
know by the time I returned! That would be even nicer. I walked
quite slowly.. not really speaking to those who called out to me as I proceeded
home to our compound.
Books hold a thousand measures of gain.
In books are found houses of gold.
"I'm not sure why I thought of those lines, but I did. Over
the next several days we took more exams, but they were as nothing.
I was as ready as I could be. I remember only praying that I would
not make an error on the Sheng-lun Kuang-hsun, for the works of emperors
K'ang-hsi and Yung-cheng could hardly be reproduced with an error.
I had often heard that doing so might end your chances of ever taking the
exams again. But even that went well. I passed everything and was
ready for the qualifying examination. The only question was when the director
of studies would arrive. They said he had been in the capitol, conferring
at the Board of Rites. Still the exams would soon continue.
At least for those of us remaining in the competition. Canton is
a great city, and we have many fine scholars, so there are many families
with capable students. I spent my days studying and listening to
the hopes of my family. No fears invaded my nights. The
only unpleasantness was on those occasions when I happened to pass some
of the older men who had once again flunked, their attempts to hide their
graying beards having been of no avail. They now walked about, their
faces covered by stubby new growths, which spoke sadly but eloquently of
their despair. Many looked far older, weighed down, almost broken.
I remember wondering if flunking the third time was easier; or perhaps
even more difficult than the first. Such men occasionally gathered
in the tea houses and commiserated with each other, making charges about
the probable dishonesty of the examination graders. It was well known
that sometimes only the least qualified, the least important, were released
by their superiors to grade the exams. Sometimes the embittered ones
made sure that their voices were loud enough to be heard by those of us
practicing T'ai Ch'i in the courtyards. But that was only a means
of expressing their bitterness toward those of us who had placed well while
they had flunked.
Once the examination official arrived, we
successful ones would continue the path toward the chin-shih. In
those days, I indulged in extraordinary flights of fancy. To travel
all the way to Peking, and take the final examinations at the palace!
To be honored all over the realm. What, though, did I know?" Jason
saw his face twist in pain, his eyes cast down. "This one was too
Jason and Wu were distracted by the sounds of yelling in the distance,
the shrill cries of an enraged old woman, screaming at the top of her lungs.
Her speech, though Cantonese, was so emotion laden that Jason had
trouble understanding her.
"She says she has been robbed. That
the money for her son's funeral is gone. That the foreign soldiers
took it." Even as they listened, two English soldiers rushed
past them, shushing each other as they ran. There was little either
Jason or his friend could have done. It was over in a minute.
The two plunderers were long gone, and even the voice of the old woman,
whom they had never actually seen, quieted to an occasional groan that
cut the night. Within minutes, the earlier hum of conversation from
the various camps began again. Everything was as it had been.
"We have a saying; You don't make nails out
of good iron, nor soldiers out of good men." Perhaps it is that way
among your people as well?" Jason thought for a moment of explaining
the difference between Americans and English, but thought better of it.
Under the circumstances, it seemed a minor point indeed. For a moment,
he reflected whether Hedrick was involved in looting as well, but then,
remembering the tale, asked again what had occurred at the next qualifying
"They, too, had begun well. The Director
of Studies arrived. Many of us students, at least the youngest of us, followed
his sedan chair, as he and the prefect visited the Temple of the Master.
Once there, with great drama he lectured us on the Classics. I don't
remember a thing he said, except the date of the official examinations.
Four days later, at the third cannon shot, we were ready. It was
an event of great commotion. Officials arrived from everywhere, and
the yamen clerks started checking through everyone's goods. They
were looking for reference books, cheating sheets, even for money one might
bribe with. It was already very tense, especially after they found
something hidden in the robes of a young man who stood no more than twenty
feet from me. I never saw what it was, but the clerks were obviously
furious, and dragged the young man out by his pigtails. It was scary.
It seemed to take forever, but we were finally certified as officially
qualified to take the exam. Then I got my answer sheet and seat allocation.
I wrote my name, it was sealed, and that was it. Until it was all
over, I'd merely be a number. I remember putting it into the deepest
recess of my sleeve. If I lost the number, all would be lost.
We sat there as the officials prepared the
examination. I already knew I couldn't change seats, hum or even
drop my paper, but now I spotted a special seal indicating that one had
been spotted gazing about. It was incredible. The clerks carried
a whole set of seals to stamp on our papers. It wouldn't mean a failure,
but a judge could hardly ignore an answer with so prominent a seal affixed
to it, attesting to the candidate's poor behavior. I was terrified,
and did no more than stare straight at my writing table.
"Again, the exams went on for days. I passed the first set and
went on to the last part of the series. Finally the last formal session
arrived. I had made it. I was sure of it. We had only
to do a section of the five classics, and I had even been told that the
results were rarely stressed. Not at that late date in the process.
I wrote out the section from the Sheng-lun Kuang-hsun with a light heart,
and left the session filled with pride. It was certain that I would
go to the provisional examination. It was certain the palace examination
would eventually follow. I had visions of myself one day a viceroy."
"My only sadness was that such officials could
never serve in their home provinces. How proud my parents would be,
in either case. The moments passed slowly while we waited for the
crowd of fifty to gather."
"My confidence never wavered during the entire time
it took for the graders to make their decisions. Unlike my friends,
for me the days passed quickly." Wu raised his palms and face to
the sky, the picture of disgust. "I was so stupid! Finally,
it was time. The prefect responsible for the announcement left his
yamen. He was in full ceremonial robes, and was preceded by the sounds
of musicians --- I remember knowing some of them --- toward the prefectural
school. The three cannon shots were, to me, the sounds of my triumph.
But then, the lists, the announcements, I was not among them! Not
listed as a sheng-yuan, official student, the first level of the exams!
I didn't understand. What had happened?! I ran desperately to the
one yamen clerk I knew slightly, begging him to discover the error.
I couldn't go home until it was cleared up! He took pity on me, or
at least he was willing to accept the small sum I had brought with me to
buy rice cakes for the celebration. Even as I stood there, feeling
my mouth as dry as I had ever felt it, I could see the runners heading
toward the compounds of the successful candidates. The messengers
had reason to hurry, for they knew a handsome tip awaited them. My
own father had been discussing it even as I had set out what seemed like
"Let me see your seat number again." Wu handed it to the clerk,
studying his face for a clue.
"It is as I guessed. It was rumored
that someone had miswritten the sacred characters of the emperor.
There it is. To have shown such dis-respect." He walked off fingering
the coppers I had given him. I felt myself sinking to the ground.
A rough stone slab brushed my side as I contemplated his words. The
Sheng-lun Kuang-hsun, how could I have made such a mistake? I'd practiced
the characters a thousand times!
"But what had you done? I don't understand.
Couldn't you just have taken the examination again, the next time?" Jason
was thoroughly perplexed.
"You don't understand; with any other error,
perhaps something could have been salvaged; but not that. I had miswritten
the great K'ang-hsi's own essay. Nothing could be so terrible.
It might be years before I could take the exams again -- they say that
sometimes one might never again be able to compete. It's simply not
so easy as to try again. My name is marked. I insulted the
ancestor of the Sun of Heaven!"
"What did your parents say?"
"I don't know. I had dishonored
them all. I never went back. Perhaps they think I killed myself.
I have been wandering for months, mostly among the coolies in Hong Kong.
I don't really even know why I got on the ship with the other coolies.
But I thought that here, at least, I could discretely learn of my family's
"Will you contact them?" Jason asked.
Chapter seven introduces yet another important character, the stories
most important female character. The two young men, now traveling
north from Canton toward the famed capital of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great
Peace at Nanking have discovered an unconscious young woman along side
"It is obvious that you understand nothing
of li, of appropriate behavior as taught by master Confucius."
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What Jason did understand was that Wu was
furious with his insistence on caring for the still unconscious girl.
For more than an hour, as they had sought fire wood and built a makeshift
shelter, Wu had not spoken more than a few necessary words to him.
Later they sat watching the fire in silence
listening to the sounds of her deeply troubled sleep.
"You heard what the villagers said.
This woman has run off from her husband, abandoned her family -- slept
like some dog with her lover. Even her own family wouldn't take her
back. A woman has no greater responsi-bility than to honor her in-laws
and husband. This worthless one has insulted both. We should
have pushed her further into the stream. Do your people allow such
behavior from their women?" Wu asked sharply and then spit in the direction
of the sleeping form.
"I suppose not. But we don't know what
happened to her. It's not for us to judge." Though as Jason spoke
he remembered images from his father's sermons about the stoning of adulterous
wives. Was he doing the right thing by helping her? Wu was obviously
angry with him. He was certain his father would hardly be impressed
"Can a Chinese woman ever just leave her husband?" Jason
finally asked after a few moments. He knew it was possible though
rare at home.
"Of course not. What a thought!
Does a dog have the right to abandon its master? Divorce is possible.
They say the ancients did it more com-monly than today. A man can
divorce a woman if she sins against him, or especially, insults his parents.
In fact they can force it if that is the case. And if a wretch brings
disharmony upon the household by arguing with a concubine it's possible
as well." Wu commented, getting into a recitation from one of his study
"Learned master," the voice surprised them.
It was warm yet sarcastic, "you have forgotten something. If the
wretched one can't deliver a child to the husband, she can be sent home
as well. If she has a home."
Her voice, was curiously strong and certain
for a Chinese woman, especially one apparently so recently unconscious.
They both turned toward her in surprise.
"Did you save me?" She asked, her eyes
directly staring at Jason, seem-ingly not surprised that he understood
"Hardly. You were already lying near
the shore. Were you pushed in?" he asked noticing that she was ignoring
"No. And I won't thank you for stopping
my revenge. That woman would have been tormented for ever." She said
Jason had no idea what she was talking about.
He turned to look at Wu who was watching her closely.
"So you planned to commit suicide. To dishonor yourself
become a ghost. And who would you have tormented - ghost that
never was?" Wu's eye's remained steeled against the woman. Jason
was realizing the situation had gotten a lot more complex than he had recognized.
"How could one like you understand.
You speak the language of a scholar, though what you're doing here with
this barbarian, dressed like a coolie, I can't imagine."
Jason had spent almost his entire life in
Hong Kong. He had never heard even one Chinese woman speak as she
did. So full of anger and defiance. Even those few he'd seen
abandon their family to accept the missionary teachings remained almost
as passive as their more traditional sisters. Wu had noticed as well.
"So they threw you out for your insolent tongue."
He commented. Turning to Jason he lectured, almost as if the woman
"There are many reasons for refusing a wife.
If they are as beautiful as this one..." his words hardly sounded complimentary,
" ... they can attract lovers who would dishonor the family.
If they possess an evil tongue, as no woman should, they are even more
dangerous. Such a woman understands nothing of the harmony of a household.
This one's parents-in law chose poorly indeed."
Jason sat frozen, he'd spent months
practically begging Wu to teach him all he could of Chinese ways, but now
the lecture was more designed to insult their "guest" than anything else.
He was extremely uncomfortable. Wu neither seemed neither to notice
"Jason, she tried to kill herself. To
become a ghost, so she could, no doubt, further torment her family more
in death than she did in life."
With a humph, Wu got up and moved his sitting
place farther from the fire. He'd actually not gone more than a few
feet but the meaning of the gesture was obvious.
"There is something to what he says.
But he understands nothing." As she spoke, the anger softened a bit.
For a moment Jason sensed con-siderable private pain. Whatever it
was, it was clear she was not about to discuss it.
"We have food and you can stay with us for
a bit if you need help," he offered watching Wu's back as he spoke.
"Thank you, I've eaten. But maybe I
can sit here a while." Wu whumphed again from his seat in exile but said
Jason proceeded to prepare the vegetables
they had purchased that morning and set a few in front of each of them.
She ate with relish hardly trying to hide how hungry she obviously was.
After a time she turned to him.
"I have heard of the barbarians on the coast.
Those that fight with terrible weapons and worship as the long haired rebels
do. Are you one?" She looking right into his eyes as he spoke.
Jason could not get over the tone of her voice. No Chinese woman
had ever spoken so directly to him. She was unlike any one he had
"Yes, I suppose I am but I don't know much
about your rebels." At the mention of the Taipings, Wu's back stiffened.
It was obvious he feared Jason would stupidly reveal their intentions.
"My family is from America, Mai Guo, beautiful
country. But we live in Hong Kong." She looked puzzled. "It's
near Canton." She seemed to recognize the name.
"Canton, I have heard the men speak of it.
It is a great city. Is it beautiful and full of markets?"
For the next half hour he told her of Canton.
Her curiosity was enormous and Jason was proud of his knowledge.
At several points, Wu appeared almost ready correct him or to add some
detail but the young scholar held himself back. He approved of nothing
about the young woman, even of her interest in the city he himself loved
As night fell, Jason helped her prepare
bedding and then retired to the area Wu had set up for them.
"That woman will bring bad luck. I'm
sure of it. She has too much Yang, too much of the male element in
her for anyone's good."
Jason listened but said nothing. He
knew he could travel without Wu, but the young's man company had become
important to him. Especially since Wu, excited by their decision
to seek out the rebels, had begun to overcome his depression. But
despite Jason's feelings for Wu, he knew they could not leave her behind.
Not so much for her own safety, though he certainly wondered what would
become of her, but for himself as well. Jason felt an attraction
to her he couldn't explain even to himself, an attraction quite different
from what he'd once felt for the daughter of one of his father's ministerial
colleagues. Black Jade, as she was called was the most interesting
woman he had ever met. His only thought was how to convince her to
As dawn rose, Jason found himself awake watching
the two sleeping forms. Wu, slept deeply beside him, Black Jade about
ten feet away. Her face was toward him. She was, as Wu had
commented the day before, truly beautiful. Jason wondered, how true
it was, as Wu had said, that families would hesitate to arrange a marriage
with such a beauty. He studied her sleeping form, for now, unlike
when she was awake she appeared quite vulnerable. He looked at her
feet, how incredibly tiny they were. The stained lotus shoes still
fitting tightly to them. How odd, he thought to himself. He'd
not noticed them before, though as he now realized she had walked little
from the time they had first found her. The curious gait, he'd seen
so often before had hardly been apparent.
But now, as she lay sleeping before him, he studied the foot.
The right one, was now protruding from under the blanket. He could
stare at it as he had never been able to really look at a bound foot.
He remembered how often he'd heard his father, and even more often the
missionary wives, speak of the horrors of footbinding. How could
the Chinese so deform a child's foot he wondered. How little he really
knew of these people. More and more he realized that he knew nothing
of China. No more than snippets of the lives of Hong Kong coolies
and a bit of street life from Canton. He was almost embarrassed by
his recent sense of accomplish-ment regarding Chinese ways. Maybe
his father was right, these people were heathens, or at least too different
for a Westerner like Jason to make his home among them.
"You stare at my feet. It's not polite you
know." Her voice roused him from his thoughts and her comment
caught him off guard.
"They seem," he hesitated, "far smaller than the feet of our
women," he stammered out.
"I wish my former mother-in-law could hear
you. She felt they were horribly large. In her eyes my feet
were as ugly as a thing can be. Once as I approached her room she
said aloud to my husband's brother, 'look at this, the persons isn't even
here yet and her big feet have already arrived.'" Black Jade's voice was
calm, without a trace of pain.
"We have a saying. 'A pretty face is
nothing but small bound feet mean true character.' So I was doubly
nothing. My feet showed little character and were ugly to boot.
I used to hate them, to wish they were as small as the neighbor's girls.
But, at least I always understood one thing, whatever my mother did wrong
in binding them, at least, my feet are much stronger. I can walk
much further than most women and from that I always thought something positive
Jason said nothing more for Wu had woken and was already rising
to prepare a fire for tea.
"We must leave soon," Wu said to no
one in particular. For a moment Jason felt a sensation of panic.
It would be easy enough from sheer momentum to simply walk off after a
few pleasantries. He had to say something.
"What do you do now?" He asked abruptly
his voice showing more interest than he would have preferred.
"I don't know. You two destroyed my
plans for becoming a ghost. You or perhaps fate. Maybe just
the kitchen god playing with me. But in any case, that no longer
seems like such a good idea. The spirit world might not be as nice
as I'd like."
"We march north. You could come with
us for a time. From what we heard in the village they would not treat
you well if you're found."
From behind him Wu laughed. "Women who
betray their husbands shouldn't be treated well at all."
"Scholar, who isn't. I told you there
was no betrayal." Then turning again, toward Jason, "Perhaps you
are correct. There is little for me here. I will travel with
you for a time if you will allow it?"
"I would be very pleased."
"And your friend, his honorable scholar/coolie
person, does he allow it as well." Jason turned to Wu.
The latter merely shrugged his shoulders.
"If that is to be, we must move as quickly as possible. There are
too many imperial soldiers nearby."
Jason leaped to his feet offering Wu
the largest smile he'd ever cast in the young Chinese's direction.
Wu replied with a look of disgust and continued his packing.
Over the next several days they traveled with
little inconvenience. Although Black Jade was unable to march at
the pace they had earlier maintained she was nevertheless still able to
walk well. By morning of the second day she had taken over most of
the basic cooking and washing responsibilities and spent much of the rest
of her time asking Jason about America. Aside from her interest in
the world beyond China, which he found unusual for a Chinese, the conversation
turned out to be particularly helpful. For Wu, his own curiosity
aroused, became interested as well thus allowing some common ground between
the young man and the woman he so obviously disapproved of. If Wu
rarely addressed her directly, they were both nevertheless interested in
Jason's tales. The young American found himself carrying on a two-way
conversation among the three of them.
More awkward was Jason's realization of just how little he really knew
of America. He remembered it not at all from his early toddler years
and relied mostly on comments his father and his reverend's ass-ociates
had related over the years. And of course the many magazines and
newspapers which had circulated among the Hong Kong community.
To his surprise, he found that Wu was both
interested and appalled by Jason's tales of husband-wife relations in America.
That men and women might socialize with each other or that young women
were allowed to venture past their homes after marriage for social visits,
was appalling to the young man.
"They actually bring their wives to formal
social occasions. How unseemly!" The idea of young women venturing
forth unsuper-vised to visit other woman friends shocked him greatly.
"A woman should stay in the family compound.
No good can come from such liberty. The family's honor depends on
it," he pronounced with satisfaction. As he spoke his eyes rested
on Black Jade.
For her part, she frequently asked questions,
about marriage arrange-ments and bridal gifts but commented little on what
she heard. Jason could tell nevertheless that she was listening with
"And does the woman stay with the husband's
family?" She asked after reflection.
"Not always, though it certainly does happen
often." She seemed a bit disappointed at his answer, though hardly surprised.
"Does the new bride get along with the mother
in law?" She asked with interest.
For Jason's part, as he tried to answer he wished he knew more
of American family life.
He knew his own parents had lived with his father's family for a time
before departing for China but little more.
"Well, I doubt they get along well." She announced
defin-itively after hearing his comments. "There is always something
that makes it impossible."
Jason, unsure what else he could add turned
the conversation to other things. Wu had asked about the American
emperor and Jason was caught up trying to explain the U.S. government as
he understood it. Wu listened skeptically.
"How can such disorder bring about harmonious
government? If you let anyone lead how can you be sure they are properly
trained ... wise and capable of good example and leadership." Jason,
while feeling he should defend American democracy was unsure of the answer.
Marching alongside rice paddies, much of the remaining afternoon was spent
discussing what brought about good govern-ment. As it grew dark they
were little closer to resolving the issue. Black Jade said nothing.
She was clearly thinking about his comments on western family life.
Though if she had anything more to say on the subject she was keeping it
On the evening of the fourth day after she
had joined them Black Jade, finally began to tell her story. It had
begun as another one of their many conversations about China and the West
when she simply started to talk. At first offering little more than the
few tidbits of her past she had shared for days but then, almost as if
some hidden reservoir had been opened she began.
"My family is not without distinction, perhaps
I should say my father's family, for they say a girl knows not her true
family until she marries. We had a distant relative who once passed
the civil service exams and became a great official, a Futai I think.
Do you know much of our government?"
"A little, I know of the great civil
service examination system." Jason could feel Wu wince behind him.
"But where was your relative a governor - of what province?"
"I don't know. It was long ago.
Perhaps my father knew but he is long dead and hardly talked to me before
"When did you leave your parent's home?" he asked.
"Maybe three years ago, I was 16. I
remember being very excited."
So she was almost his age, Jason thought,
and them remembering the Chinese habit of counting a child a year old at
birth, he guessed he was about two years older.
"My father died last year. He'd
been sick for a long time and was hardly of much worth even before that."
Wu bolted forward. "You should never
speak that way of your father." He snapped appalled.
"Maybe not, but it is true. He had taken
up the smoking habit and hardly ever did more than come home to look for
funds. My mother had to work with the silk weavers just to bring
millet to us.
Wu relaxed a bit for even Jason knew how much Wu had been shocked by
the excessive opium smoking of the coolies he had worked with. Wu
had always prided himself on his self-discipline and his rejection of opium.
They sat for a few more minutes watching the
fire while Jason waited hoping she would begin again.
"My mother had a terrible time arranging a
marriage. The marriage brokers always complained that I had a bad
reputation for speaking disharmoniously and huge feet to boot. Maybe
I do speak less softly than is appropriate but I did look forward to mar-riage.
When word came that a family in the next village was interested, I was
terribly pleased. It was the family of Hsu -- said to be very highly
spoken of -- at least that is what the marriage broker told us. I
longed to live in a family of my own. My brother now controlled our
compound and though he was kind, it is well known that a daughter is truly
no child at all. Even an unfilial son will still bring water to aging
parents but a girl is raised for some other family. I was always
told that and wanted my own home. But I wish my mother had warned
me. A daughter at home may not be a real child but a daughter-in-law
who brings forth no children isn't even human." She said the last sentence
with more bitterness than Jason had seen before.
So that was it. Now he remembered the
comment several days before. When she had corrected Wu about divorce
in China. So she was barren. He didn't have time to reflect
further for she went on with her story.
"My mother had accepted a good bride
price from the Hsu family and they came for me one day from their village.
I was supposed to be fright-ened but I really wasn't. I wanted the
marriage and the broker's talk of the young man made him seem kind.
Of course I acted very shy and sat silently on the pony as I was brought
into the village. The marriage was like many others I'd seen before.
I stood with my husband, as one of his relatives read a long list of his
ancestors. I kowtowed deeply to each name and anticipated with pleasure
our married life together. Even my mother-in-law seemed kind enough
though she eyed me suspiciously."
"That first night we were never alone
as the neighbors and my husband's friends kept visiting us, but after that
our married life went reasonably well. He wanted many sons and I
was sure I would provide them for had not everyone told me even while I
was still in split pants that I was exceptionally healthy. Even as
a child when my feet were bound I was less ill than many of the other girls.
Some of them took on great fevers and even died. But, despite all
the pain I'd remained healthy? Surely Kuanyin, the goddess, would
grant me healthy sons. I even accepted living there with so many
strangers and his distant but correct mother. It was obvious she
was exceptionally close to her second son, my husband, but still she seemed
willing to accept me. But it was not to be." Her voice trailed off
and she appeared terribly strained.
"You don't have to talk if you don't want to." Jason said
after time. Although he said nothing even Wu had been listening inten-sively.
Regaining her usual composure, she went on. "No, I owe you the story.
You have been kind to me though thinking I was something other than I am.
No. I shall tell you my story, though it is a story few would find
surprising. By the middle of the second year, I had not born a child
and although my husband had said little his mother began to turn on me.
Among us the mother-in-law is empress over a daughter-in-law. I understood
that. My mother had told me enough stories of her own youth.
But this woman had begun to hate me. I was sure that she was talking
against me to my husband who himself became less open. My huge feet,
at least huge to them, now became an issue as they had not been and my
occasional effort to speak my mind was unacceptable. Once I heard
her threatening to force a divorce. If only I had a son I kept thinking,
but fate would not allow it."
"I was desperate, I had to have a son to open
the door, to allow for future generations but fate was cruel. My
mother-in-law tormented me constantly. All I heard was that the most
unfilial act possible was failure to have sons. She kept reminding
my husband that beautiful women bring tragedy. He never answered
her but I could tell he listened. One night when it was very late,
I crept out. I had hardly ever left our courtyard except when the
itinerant merchants came by and then only with a servant. But the
moon was out and I had a good idea where the temple of Kuanyin, the goddess
of fertility lay. I was lost for a few minutes, at one point some
of my husband's kinsmen almost saw me but I hid myself in the shadows."
"The temple was deserted and as I entered,
I hoped the goddess would understand. I stayed, and threw fortune
bones though I couldn't read their meaning. For weeks after that
I waited, but nothing. Still, the goddess had to listen eventually.
I took to stealing out, sometimes several times a night to pray at the
temple. I never saw anyone. I remained sure the goddess would
grant me a way to open the door to future generations. And something
might have happened if the household had not changed.
"One day, maybe six new moons ago, just after
the dragon boat festival, my husband returned with a concubine. No
one said anything to me. I stood there in shock as she was introduced.
Such a young thing, even younger than I, with feet so small they would
have pleased a court lady. My mother-in-law was beaming. I
could tell she was secretly pleased that I looked so distressed.
"Could you not protest?" Jason asked.
"What was there to protest? Concubines are
common and in a house without sons, almost essential. Besides, to
protest was to give further cause for hating me. Creating disharmony
in the household would have been more unacceptable behavior." Her
voice was resigned.
"The situation became intolerable, Constant Beauty, for that is her
name, treated me with none of the respect due the first wife. I knew
she was contemptuous and when, almost before three moons passed she was
pregnant, it became impossible. She laughed at me as I worked along
side her under the mother-in-law's direction. I was given the worst
jobs, the worst food. My husband said nothing. Once, when I
tried to talk of it he refused to listen. At night, when I heard
him moving in the dark toward her quarters I almost died. But at
least, it gave me more time to steal away to the temple. For if he
spent little time with me, still there was a chance, and only the goddess
could help. Her story ended as she sat quietly contemplating the
"So that was why you tried to kill yourself?"
Jason asked after a time.
"Actually not. What really occurred
was less planned. Something happened at the compound one night.
I still don't know why, but they were all aroused and my absence was noted.
I heard the commotion as I walked home. Hearing voices, I hid myself.
They knew I was gone and the servants were looking for me. But their
conversation, for I could hear it easily was unexpected. They assumed,
actually they said the old woman, my husband's mother, had declared I had
been stealing out for months ... that I had a lover somewhere.
That the sages had forewarned about beautiful women for a reason.
"They walked past before I could hear more. My story about
the temple would never have been believed. At first I started walking,
a bit each night but I had no food and within days I was starving.
It was then that I determined to kill myself. To punish the woman
as she had me. To return as a ghost to haunt her. The idea
was a sudden inspiration. I threw myself into the river. But
you know the rest." She ended her story without any more ado. If
she expected them to comment it was not apparent. Jason just looked
at her feeling at a loss. It was obvious she could never return.
"Could you return to your own mother?" He asked after a time.
"That would be impossible. I am not of their family and have
shamed them. No one would want me. I would only be a burden
on my brother." she answered matter-of-factly.
Jason looked over to Wu who had been listening intently. What
were the young man's thoughts he wondered.