A World of Mirrors
by Lois Bassen
Ti ChiWing is on a journey. This is his first departure from home and family in Canton, and he would feel better about it if his sister Lang is not also on another dusty bus traveling northeast. ChiWing travels northwest to Gansu, below the Mongolian border. As he boards the bus, his mother reminds him of Confucius’s day when scholars are sent into the backwaters of the empire. Their rise in the bureaucracy is as much determined by calligraphy and poetry as office skills. ChiWing’s mother thinks Confucius is a wise man for affirming the causal relationship between art and power. His professor’s father is absent; he is confined at home in disgrace.
ChiWing is on the bus with classmates. There is little talk. ChiWing looks out the dirty window at the countryside. Learning about farming is interesting. It is a course in botany. The commune in Gansu is another country. ChiWing jumps down off the back of a truck. The bus he boards in Canton breaks down days earlier. A deep scolding voice approaches. They are led to a long one-story stone building. The unpainted blocks have few windows. A windmill turns at one corner of the commune. Even at this distance, ChiWing hears its machinery needs oiling or readjustment.
Sounds in the barracks wake him from dreams. Always, he is traveling. Moonlight filters through rolled-down black cloth curtains. The sound of the windmill is the rattle of his vehicle.
Every day, comrades use thick ropes and canvas belts to move boulders. ChiWing works in a wide field, mounding earth around clusters of white melon seeds. He calls out to a boy from his barracks whose little red book is falling out of his pocket. The boy growls, and fear clutches ChiWing. The boy is from Chengtu, a slum tough who hates ChiWing’s southern, educated voice. He pinches ChiWing and would punch him if he would not be beaten by LaoShen who hates everyone from the cities and sees no difference between beggars and bright boys. They are all counterrevolutionary, you can’t get a day’s work out of any of them, and that’s what’s wrong with this country. Mao leads the way and only the peasants are strong enough to follow; the soft grabbers and readers and measurers of air can’t put fish head to melon mound worth a fart.
ChiWing sees where Chengtu is looking, to the field where girls work. ChiWing blushes; now he knows what Chengtu is doing. LaoShen stamps about the melon mounds.
“Chairman Mao says we have enough bastards like you,” LaoShen says, but he enjoys the boys’ lust and ogles the girls, too.
At red book meetings, they sit with girls in circles of eight with a leader who is older. Bump Girl has the biggest breasts that push out her blue jacket as if melons are inside. Needles always says, “The point is…” Tongueless never speaks, and the others ChiWing knows are Giggler, Bad City Girl, and Flowerface, who receives real ribbons from Shanghai where someone is not afraid to buy capitalist-roading gifts. All the boys have romantic fantasies about Flowerface, but they talk about getting into Bad City Girl. Her name is Lin; she also comes from Chengtu. Their leader often slaps Lin’s face.
Planting near each other, ChiWing means to help Lin. “All you do is mock. That does not build China.”
“Fuck China and fuck you,” Lin says she starts sex when ChiWing starts measuring air. “Put that little red book back in your pocket and take out what’s bothering you and stick the rest of that shit in with the melon seeds.”
ChiWing is speechless.
“What’re you staring at? Wha’d’ya think Mao’s doing here? Fucking without paying – at least I get a coin for it in Chengtu!”
ChiWing looks away to the windmill. “I can fix that,” he says.
“What else can you do?”
So begins a period of deceit ChWing realizes much later is the elementary school for his escape. He learns Lin’s reverse-rules, her world of mirrors. When he lies in his bunk at night before he sneaks out to meet Lin, he remembers his sister playing the piano under a mirror in the common room at the university in Canton. He listens to Lin’s plan to escape from the commune and agrees to improve it. She dreams of doing sex in Hong Kong, “Where Western coin buys the melons you stick in the mounds here.”
After they finish, he is soon ready but hesitates.
Lin reaches over in the dark and strokes his ear. ChiWing thinks she likes him after all. Then the hardness of her voice hardens him more. “Any woman can take it ten times more than a man. The half of the sky Mao says we hold up? That’s the heavy half.”
They are taken on a trip to Peking, to Tiananmen Square. ChiWing is overcome with nostalgia for city life. They parade by a reviewing stand, part of the dark blue waves of China. At a signal, they are released and scatter. The immense square empties. Its hollowness fills him. When they return to Gansu, Lin is gone. She did it! In bed that night, he decides that when he escapes leaving directions behind for repairing the windmill. At first, he does not believe he has courage to do it like Lin, but then word of his father’s capitalist-roading suicide arrives, fixing the plan in ChiWing’s mind, an incantation of the three rivers he must cross: Yellow, Yangtze, Pearl. It takes ChiWing two years to walk across China. Along the way, he loses his pipa, two teeth, and his few illusions about the New Order.
On a warm, misty October night in 1968, ChiWing hides on a wooded hill within view of a small harbor of fishing boats. Here he cannot see the Nine Dragons of Kowloon, the mountains that shape the land to the south. His father’s capitalist-roading spirit urges him forward. Behind him is the dark flow of the Yellow, Yangtze, Pearl.
In the water, there is only one thing to do: swim. He forgets to fear sharks. His arms reach a slimy piling. He smells tires, hears no voices. No gogangu teenage Gestapo on this side of the water! His chest aches, but he hauls himself onto the wooden dock. He awakens in a white-sheeted bed in the Holy Carpenter House in Hong Kong.
Three members of a panel from the National Cancer Institute are lunching at ChiWing’s apartment on Long Island, NY. The panel’s senior member is Nobel winner Paul Whitney. The future of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where ChiWing does research relies upon the grant Whitney has the power to withhold or bestow. The task of entertaining the investigators belongs to ChiWing as first assistant to the lab’s chief, a woman Whitney despises.
The men sit around a table cleared of grant application documents, now covered in a dark cloth.
“I’ve never met a woman with a first-rate mind,” Whitney says. “Why are your walls bare? I never saw bare walls in China.”
ChiWing brings tea things to the table. “Do you know dazibao?
“The wall posters, yes. I saw them in Peking in ’79. I was taken to see them, as a matter of fact.”
“You were there in a time oasis. My father’s name is on dazibao.”
Whitney understands. “I have only good memories of China. Of the rock in the garden of Yu Yuan in Shanghai.”
“T’ai-hu,” ChiWing says, imagining this notable Westerner officially posed by the great rock.
“My fondest memory is of climbing Tai Shan,” Whitney says.
“I remember in Gansu, we raised melons no Chinese outside of Hong Kong tasted.” ChiWing pours tea. “Our field director was LaoShen, an old man who had been given big white dentures by the ‘barefoot doctors’. He wore those teeth only on formal occasions, but he carried them with him all the time. He said the girls’ monthly curse withered the melons. But the girls joined in true communist fashion and their harvest dwarfed ours. He went crazy and the leaders became worried about his behavior when visitors came to our model commune. High Party officials did come from Peking itself. LaoShen roared into the meeting room and began screaming about women. He had a stroke and his teeth fell out of his pocket onto the table, chattering before the scandalized guests.”
Like a magician, ChiWing reaches into his chino slacks and pulls out fake false teeth with plastic gums, sets them on the table where they jump and rattle. The three startled guests recoil and then explode with laughter.
Whitney stands and pockets the false teeth.
“What can be done about the grant proposal to improve its chances?” Chi Wing asks.
“That’s easy,” Whitney says, “have us rewrite it.”
“That is too much to ask,” ChiWing says.
Whitney frowns and smiles at ChiWing. “Is it?”
“It is an honor to see how it is done,” Chi Wing says.