MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2009)
When winter was almost over, I told X Haiying the following account: In the midsummer of ’66, the Cultural Revolution had just started to cause an uproar. At the time, I was strolling through the campus when I saw my dad being paraded around by a gang of students–probably taken as a reactionary academic authority. He was wearing an old Sun Yat-sen jacket. On his head was a tall paper humiliation hat. With just one glance you could tell the hat had been pasted on a small wastepaper basket. He was carrying a stick with which he was hitting an iron dustpan. There was a group of them being paraded, and he was neither the first nor the last in line. It was probably three in the afternoon. Thin clouds covered the sun. The long and short of it, when I saw him, I smiled at him. When he got back home, he beat me fiercely; a boxer hitting a punching bag could not have been fiercer. Though I explained myself over and over, that my smiling was not malicious, it was no use. I was so angry that I gnashed my teeth, swearing I would hate him for the rest of my life. But when it was over and I had calmed down, I rescinded my oath.
Ever since I began to remember things, my father has been bald, with a really big head. In the Cultural Revolution he was not among the really unlucky ones, since altogether he was struggled against just once and paraded just that one time. Heaven knows how come he was so unfortunate as to be seen by me. After that, he didn’t understand me at all. For example, when I was fifteen years old, he said, “This kid so young, how come he has a full beard?” When he heard me laughing at home, he would make a big fuss, “What is that sound? It’s like a Japanese invader firing a gun!” My appearance was in fact a little exceptional: even though I’d never gone outside the Great Wall, my face looked like it had been sand-blasted, and even though I’d never done any heavy work, my hands were already as hard as sheet steel. But these things are too far off the topic. After my dad had beaten me so viciously, I decided to hate him, and then later thought: He is my dad, I eat and drink him, how can I hate him? As for those college students, none of them had beaten me, how could I hate them? From that day forth, I didn’t hate anyone. Later, in the tofu factory, though I wanted to hate that guy who had drawn the nudes and caused me so much trouble, I didn’t know who he was. When I found out he was that “corn bun,” I couldn’t summon up a bit of hatred for him.
I told X Haiying that I really love my dad. The reason: aside from providing for me, he also beat me every day until I was grown. It did me a lot of good, because in street fighting we claim a victory when the opponent is made to cry, and I was never made to cry. It was as if I had acquired the magical ability to withstand the points of sharp weapons on my bare skin. As I understand it, to train for kungfu, one must hit oneself over and over with bricks and sticks. With my dad beating me, I was spared that form of training. Because I love my father so much, I always dreamed that he might fall into a hole so I could rescue him. And then I would give him a good scolding. When I was under “helpful education,” I would also dream that X Haiying might one day fall into a hole so that I could rescue her. But these two walked very cautiously, never into trenches, disappointing my good intentions.
During the time of my “helpful education,” when I told X Haiying of my father’s being paraded and his beating me, she listened and then knitted her brow, saying nothing, probably feeling these matters to be unimportant. Actually what I said was very important. As for those people I cannot hate, I can only use love to dissolve hatred. I fell in love with her.
Concerning this matter of my falling in love with X Haiying, I must add: This love and my love for Zhan Ba were totally different. That fellow Zhan Ba was always flustered and exasperated, but when he saw me he was helpless. His appearance was incomparably cute; he was indeed my source of happiness. But X Haiying was my source of suffering, I always hoped she would fall into a pit. Nevertheless, I was tied to X Haiying even in my dreams. In people’s lives, joy and pain are hard to differentiate. So I only hope they are the genuine goods.
From January to May of 1974, X Haiying and I fiddle-faddled in the small office of the tofu factory, while in my heart I hated her awfully. This hatred–to use Freud’s words–is a love/hate mixed feeling that gets deeper day after day. Later I didn’t hate her, nor did I love her, we each went our own way, but that was later.
I told X Haiying that in the spring of ’67 on the campus where I grew up, lots of loudspeakers began to boom, everyone attacking each other. The arguing was endless, but it never came to blows–no excitement. But not very long after, they began to “clamp.” For readers not born in Beijing, a little explanation is necessary: Cricket fighting is called “clamping.” At first the crickets rub their wings to produce a belligerent sound, then they scratch feelers to provoke each other, finally they begin to bite and fight. So they–the college students–“clamped up.” From the brandishing of fists, they started to reenact a brief history of civilization. In the beginning, they came to blows in the manner of primitive men. At the time, I concluded that the fist was the essential element of the world and that I had better improve my combat skills. Later, they picked up rocks from the ground. By the autumn, their armaments had reached the level of ancient Rome: they had armor, swords, spears, slings, fortresses, and towers. It was at this time that I joined in the fray as an engineer, because I saw that the weaponry level of one faction was too inferior. Their armor was just two pieces of plywood for the front and back of their bodies, on top of which were pasted posters of Chairman Mao. When they went into battle they looked like a bunch of upright turtle people. And the spears in their hands were even more pathetic, nothing more than iron pipes, the tips of which were cut on a slant with hacksaws so they looked like writing brushes. They called the pipes “brush-becomes-spear.” This is how they rushed to the frontline, in wave after wave. Their opponents held sharp pikes with which they took aim at the indentation of Chairman Mao’s upper lip or the space between his eyebrows and, gently, pricked them to death. This made me indignant, so I ran to teach them how to forge armor and how to use the lathe in the school’s workshop to produce spear points. These spear points were made of such a tough alloy that their sharpness was unparalleled. What kind of armor their foes wore made no difference–just a light prick and their hearts would be pierced. I don’t have to tell you that these students were all in the liberal arts, otherwise there would have been no need for a mere high school student to serve as their engineer. But my help lasted just two months, because as their conflict went on into winter they entered the age of firearms. In the day, they looted the militia’s armory; at night, they shot people. At this stage they still wanted me to participate, but I knew that even if I joined in I would have only a small role. So I went home. In my view, making guns wasn’t difficult, the difficult part was to make ammunition. To do this, I needed to find some chemistry books to raise my level of knowledge. As for what happened after that phase–we all know. When winter was about to end, the higher authorities didn’t let them fight any more, because they felt they were evolving too quickly and, if not stopped, would start using atomic bombs and level Beijing. I had wanted to read up on nuclear physics in order to keep up with the situation. But then I decided not to read books in that field, because I didn’t much like physics, thinking it would be fine just knowing some basics. The real fun for me was math. This pretty much sums up my interest in science.
While I was telling X Haiying all this stuff, winter was about to end, and outside the breeze carried with it a touch of warmth. If spring’s blossoms mark the start of another year, apparently another year had passed. However, my current “helpful education” continued with no sign of stopping. I felt that I would spend my whole lifetime in this office. To talk about these childhood matters in that office at such a time bore with it a note of sadness.
Besides science, I was also interested in watching people fight. In the summer of ’67 many armed conflicts with spears and guns took place where I lived. I wanted to go watch, but I also was afraid that I might get pierced with a pike, so I climbed up into the treetops. Actually there was no one who wanted to attack me. When people passed, they only asked, “Little kid, where are the guys on that side?” I just shaded my eyes to look, and then I said, “It looks like a bunch are in the library.” When the fighting started, nine times out of ten it was far away from me, and I couldn’t see it clearly. There was an exception–one time, fighting broke out underneath my tree of shelter, and a person was stabbed to death.
The combatants all wore blue workmen’s clothes and wicker helmets, and like motorcyclists they had goggles–this was because throwing lime powder packs was a frequently used tactic. They all wore white towels around their necks; I don’t know what the towel was used for–perhaps it was a style thing. That day I hadn’t seen any of the plywood-equipped “brush-becomes-spear” men, so everyone was wearing standard armor: iron-clad protection, and sharp spears in their hands. After a burst of clattering sounds, I heard a queer cry–someone had been run through. Four to five feet of a three-yard spear had gone into his body; basically there were four feet coming out his back. That was evidence that the spearman had used considerable force and also was evidence that the armor was much too weak. Those who hadn’t been run through let out strange yells and ran to a place a stone’s throw away. All that remained was that unlucky guy spinning slowly on the spear, and me, stranded in the treetop. He turned and turned, crying out “E, e, e!” In the heat of that summer day, I felt a chill come over me. My heart was willing to help, but I was unable to; I thought, “Let’s wait and see; he’s already at the stage where he can only make vowel sounds, not consonants.”
Afterward, I gnawed my fingers and thought: the ancient book Comprehensive Accounts of the Taiping Era says that the rebel general An Lushan could dance like a whirling dervish; probably that dance was something like what I witnessed. The book says An Lushan was expert at holding a copper pot while dancing; though he wasn’t holding a pot, the man before my eyes had a long spear through his body, so it seemed as if he had four hands, and in this respect he was just about as magnificent. I was also thinking of something else, but now I can’t remember, because that man moved his head upward, raising one hand toward me. His face was stretched out so long that his eyeballs almost stuck out of his head; I could see the whites of his eyes and even the ligaments holding the eyeballs. His mouth was also stretched wide open–his bright yellow teeth seemed not to have been brushed in these hectic days, and the gaps between them were all bloody. His face seemed to zigzag in three directions–then he did a half turn and fell down. When later I spoke with X Haiying about this, I came to this conclusion: apart from the pain, that guy must have felt like he was waking from a dream. After she heard that she asked with a dull look on her face, “What dream? What waking?” But I very cunningly evaded the questions, saying, “That too I don’t know–I heard that every person on his death bed feels like he’s waking from a dream.”
When X Haiying and I were in that small room, sitting across from each other, with nothing to say, we brought up this sort of “what dream?” and “what awakening?” thing. Actually this wasn’t deliberate mystification, but something stirred me to talk it out. I felt that everyone had a lot odd things in their heads, and when that man was run through by the spear, his odd things certainly disappeared. I had heard that there were some superstitious women in the countryside who believed that fox spirits had entered their bodies and then they talked nonsense about the Jade Emperor. When a needle was stuck into their upper lips, they awakened from their trance right away. If a needle can have such an effect, what about a big spear piercing someone from front to back? Sometimes I feel my own brain isn’t at all clear either, but unless it’s absolutely necessary, I don’t ever want to experience the flavor of such a measure. Anyway, this is already a matter of long ago.
After I had grown up, I read some Freud where I found this sentence: In some sense, each of us has a little hysteria. I stopped when I saw that and was stupefied for quite a while by that word “hysteria.” The word originates from the Greek word for “uterus,” something I’ve never run across and am unable to imagine. I thought back to when I was twelve years old and I built myself a power supply that could emit all different voltages of AC and DC. Then I caught a batch of dragonflies and electrocuted them with various voltages. Depending on the combination of different voltages and AC/DC modes, the dying dragonflies would twitch in different ways–some of them got straighter, some more curved, some flapped their wings with great effort, others didn’t move at all. In short, there were all sorts of strange phenomena. It occurred to me that during the time of revolution the mega-prize winners might have been electrified dragonflies.
When I was young, I would go out to capture dragonflies; I put those I caught into a cage made of window screens and then took them out one by one to electrocute them. The dragonflies that hadn’t been executed looked with complete indifference at those in the process of dying. So I thought that it might be possible that only when the current passed through the dragonflies did they know they had won first prize in a lottery, like waking from a dream.
When I was six years old, the sky was purplish red and people on the playground were making steel. I cut open my arm. Later I was hungry enough to die. Then my teacher told me I was a pig. And then my father beat me for no reason. I endured all these things, living until I was fourteen. To endure a whole lifetime like this was no way to live, so I decided to find my own way out. My outlet was to indulge in fantasy. When Alice was roaming around the wonderland, she said, Everything’s growing curiouser and curiouser. Indulging in fantasy is just looking for the magical.
About my father beating me, there are still some things I want to amplify. When I saw my father wearing the tall hat and being paraded through the streets, I laughed. I received a beating for it. From this it’s easy to come to one conclusion: On that sort of occasion one ought to have a bitter look on one’s face. But that conclusion is mistaken, because putting on a long face will still get one a beating. The correct conclusion is that when it’s my turn to get a beating, I will get a beating, no matter if I’m crying or laughing. Since we live in the world and regardless of what we do, we will be beaten, so there is no significance to what we do. The only thing that is significant is to looking for magic.
In my experience, everyone who has had some sort of bad luck looks for magic. Take my father for example. Being a professor of literature in the second half of his life, he was always getting the short end of the stick–if it wasn’t that his scholarly point of view met with criticism, then he was almost accused of being associated with the rightist clique. Every time he had a bit of bad luck, he’d always do something strange–if it wasn’t saying bitterly of himself that his thought hadn’t been rectified, then it was brazenly, without a care, running to the party branch to present his application for party membership. Later he came up with a strange thought: he felt the cause of his run of bad luck was having committed a sin–giving life to a teenager with a full beard, a son with ugly features. Since he had already committed this sin, he wished to do something good to expiate it, which was to give me a beating. Related to this was my own bad luck in my early life. Because of these influences, since childhood I have been a little eccentric. I have never won first prize, though, because that is no less than being pierced through the chest by a long pike. I think if I won that fatal first prize, I could become completely normal in my last minute, regret my follies, and so forth. But this is nothing more than conjecture.
When I was a child, I was always making things: With a sewing machine bobbin and a rubber band, I built a car that could go. Using spare parts from a bicycle, I built a gun. With copper sheeting, I made an acetylene lamp. I made those things when I was in primary school. When I was older, I built even odder things. For example, I collected scrap copper and iron to build a steam engine. It could run for fifteen minutes fueled by just a few sheets of wastepaper. I built a piece of artillery using galvanized iron sheets. It only needed a little gasoline vapor put cautiously into the bore, which when ignited would then emit a loud bang, shoot forth a tongue of fire, and pop out the cork from a thermos bottle. Later, I built a gasoline engine of an ingenious design out of a discarded steam boiler. But due to its shape, it was very difficult to fit it to a vehicle, and moreover it sounded like thunder, so I had to take it to open country for its trial run. As I grew older, the things I built grew more complicated, but my materials were always scrap, because the place where I grew up, aside from chicken coops, had nothing but scrap metal. Because I made our house look like a dump and because I never did my homework, my dad hit me nearly every day. Today, if you gave me time and enough scrap, I could build a jet airplane capable of flight–of course, it wouldn’t fly far before it would come down. If everyone were inventive like me, we could certainly bring about a wonderful new world or, like that chicken, soar into the sky. But the place where I lived was limited, and many people lived there, so there was no room for yet more scrap. For these reasons, I had to find another way out.
When I was a child and saw that rooster take flight, I felt it was a touching sight. As it exerted itself to make its wings flutter, dust flew from the ground, but the touching part wasn’t that. Being a chicken, how could it have had the idea of flying sky-high? If a chicken could just fly five stories high, its life would not be wasted. I really admired that chicken.
In the “helpful education” time, I told X Haiying these things. She said, “Your idea is that you are very capable, right?” This sounded unpleasant. According to her formulation, I built those things just to display my ability to her. But at that time I didn’t really know her, so how could I have thought that? I knew there was a kind of person with long hair and big breasts whose talk was not worth listening to. So I ought not lower myself to the same level as she. That sort of idea is easy to come up with but hard to put into practice–because women are women, you have to lower yourself to their level.
After so many years, I have drawn another important idea from that sentence. At the time, I already stammered in front of her out of fear, so besides her mocking what she saw as showing off my abilities to her face, she also implied that to her I was indeed “incapable” of “something else.” Fortunately, at that time I wasn’t attuned to that sort of thing, otherwise I really can’t imagine what might have happened.
Now I have figured out what looking for magic is all about–it’s simply that a person having a bit of bad luck will immediately fantasize about winning a really grand prize. Take my dad for example: that time when he was almost accused of becoming a rightist, he went to hand in a party membership application, hoping that the party organization would get temporarily confused and let him in, thereby sort of winning a grand prize. When he was getting criticized, he fantasized that his thought could be corrected and he would no longer have to suffer criticism and could criticize others. As for me, after I went hungry and had been beaten, I strangely climbed up that blast furnace and invented all kinds of things. I wanted to discover a new world into which I could retreat or become a truly great personage. Dad and I were always having bad luck; we were alike in this respect. The difference is that when I was a kid, the things I thought up were more unusual than what he, an old guy, thought up.
During “helpful education” time, I told X Haiying about my seeing an automobile turn over in ’66. It went like this: In the winter of ’66, I was fourteen, classes at school had stopped, and each day I went into the city. The streets were full of cars, all helter-skelter. Some would go east a bit, west a bit, and then suddenly drive into a small shop, which is to say that those driving them had no control of the steering wheel. Some cars being driven unhurriedly would suddenly emit strange sounds, ooze out a serious cloud of black smoke, and crash into whatever was in front, which is to say that those driving them didn’t know how to use a manual shift. Some cars would rock from side to side for a little while and then crash into what was in front of them, which is to say that these drivers could neither steer nor shift. I stood in the middle of Chang’an Avenue watching these cars, thinking it was a lot of fun. If one of the cars were to come toward me, I would dodge to one side like a soccer goalie. One day I was in the Southern Pond neighborhood when I saw a vehicle drive past as if it were flying; it made a turn at an intersection, then flipped over. It could be it fell on its gas tank, for it caught fire. The middle section roasted and then very quickly became a fireball. The tires and the paint billowed black smoke–really interesting.
Later, when I could drive, I couldn’t figure out how one could possibly turn over a big truck on level ground. It would be possible only if the vehicle hit the curb or the tires on one side were insufficiently inflated. Which is to say the driver didn’t even know how to inflate a tire. But these are my afterthoughts. At that time, I charged toward the overturned vehicle, but the fire was so hot I couldn’t get close. After a while the fire went out (which showed that there wasn’t a lot of gas in the tank), and only then did I discover that there were three people inside. They were all burned to a crisp–if they’d been roasted quail, you could have smelled their scent. (By the way, I’m an expert in roasting quail.) My recounting of this incident made X Haiying feel sick. She also remarked that my ideology was not right–good people were burned, but I didn’t lament at all. In all fairness I should say I wanted to be moved, but no grief appeared. That business of grieving really cannot be forced. To me, that accident was refreshing. The time of revolution is just an era of malignant prizes. You just have to look at other people getting worse luck than you have–a bigger prize–and then you can be happy.
Aside from roasting quail, I was also good at making slingshots. In fact, it’s not enough to say I was good at making slingshots–I was devoted to and achieved mastery in constructing all kinds of catapulting machinery. In the fall of ’67, the fighting in the campus where I lived was fierce. The various factional forces set about to occupy the multi-storied buildings; when they did, they forced out the residents, punched through walls, and boarded up windows. And in the chinks between the boards, they put up large slingshots that flung bricks. It was a kind of stone-throwing catapult just like the crossbows installed on the walls of ancient Rome and catapults on the Greek city walls. I loved this sort of thing as much as life itself; furthermore, the sages I loved and admired–Euclid, Archimedes, Michelangelo, and da Vinci–they all built this sort of thing. But the slingshots built by those college students were really messed up, so much so you couldn’t really say they were “built”; they just turned over a wooden stool and on the stool’s legs fastened a length of bicycle inner tube. The brick didn’t go as far as one tossed by hand. I really couldn’t stand by and watch. Therefore, when “brush-becomes-spear” men rushed into our building one day and drove out all the residents, I joined in. This building wasn’t located in the central part of the campus and wasn’t especially sturdy, and occupying it would be totally meaningless, except for the fact of my own participation. At this time of the chaos of war, our family didn’t let me go out of doors. After the “brush-becomes-spear” men came, I was able to join the warfare indoors. But none of our family members had seen through my intention. They just meekly moved to their pokey living space in the neutral zone, leaving me to look after our stuff. The so-called neutral zone was a disused warehouse, the inside of which was full of people retreating from the combat in the university’s fortified zones. There were several hundred men and women living in the large building. By the doorway was a single water pipe and the roof had just one skylight. People from all cliques lived together and quarreled nonstop. The dense smell of farts and radish breath never dissipated. I didn’t go to that place to live but stayed on in the residents’ building. Afterward, I became very happy.
Concerning these two events, the vehicle accident and the fighting on campus, there are points I want to add. At the time the former occurred, Beijing’s sky was overcast–there was fog in the morning and fog at night; in a coal-burning metropolis in winter, this was inevitable. The streets were covered with frost that resembled the layer of congealed fat on top of cooling mutton broth. Automobiles riding unsteadily were everywhere on Beijing’s wide streets, like bumper cars at an amusement park. On the sidewalks, people pushed and jostled. A pedestrian’s cap might suddenly fly up into the sky, bouncing up and down on the tops of people’s heads like a kangaroo and then vanishing. Some said that it was because there were so many people that idle thieves could steal people’s caps this way, but I think it wasn’t that like that, at least not completely. At times I would also grab people’s caps and toss them into the air–purely out of a sense of humor. When the latter event occurred, the windows of all the campus buildings were gone, all that remained were black holes, where heads in wicker helmets could occasionally be seen. On the roofs, ordinary household furniture was piled up as fortifications, in the midst of which were tubes made of rolled-up iron netting. Those tubes were made from the fencing that surrounded the volleyball courts. You were safe behind the iron netting because bricks couldn’t penetrate it. That part of the campus was exactly like a big cockroach colony. The common point of those two periods was the plethora of high-pitched loudspeakers, and the deaths of many people. But I didn’t grieve a bit. My beloved epoch had suddenly descended upon the human world like a miracle. Our home had morphed into a cockroach nest, how could anyone scorn my scrap pile. Nothing could have made me happier. As for how disastrous it was for other people, as a teenager it was none of my concern.
When I was young, I thought of becoming an inventor because it seemed that at the core of creation and invention was a sort of magic that could cause you to rise from the ground and fly. So I studied mathematics and then electrical engineering. But today I find it has lost its magic, because regardless of what you’ve invented, you are still yourself in the end. The magic just enables you to construct a catapult that can kill people. But it really doesn’t matter if you don’t have such ability. When I was young, I didn’t get along with girls, whom I avoided like the plague. But today I am married, and often get dirty with my old lady, which shows I have grown up. When I was young, my viewpoint on life was like this: No matter the time or place, we all are acting in a sort of game; according to the rules of game, the one who obtains the highest score is the winner–there are no other goals. This view is always proved right in real life applications except during horrid periods. In real life applications, for example, in the game of school, you play to win high grades from the teacher’s hand; on the sports field, you play to win high scores from the referee’s hand; when I went to America, the grade was my salary, and so forth. But looked at as a whole, I still can’t see what’s right about this, because as far as I’m concerned, rules are always in flux. And if there isn’t one general rule, it’s the same as there being no rule at all.
I now think that because I had devoted myself to that catapult and youthful fantasies, I missed out on a lot of things. If I hadn’t had those obsessions, I still might have done a good many other things. If the general rule of the game was to build a complicated machine, I’d score pretty high. But if the rules of the game determined victory by the number of times one made love with a woman, I’d lose badly. But what is the general rule overarching the game? No one knows. Ideas concerning the general rule are called philosophy.
After I grew up and reached the age of thirty-five, I went abroad to study in America. Some times I had money, sometimes I didn’t; when I didn’t, I’d find work in a restaurant. Usually I worked in the kitchen washing dishes, because I have a little stammer, not a “back stammer” or a “middle stammer,” but a “front stammer”–if I can’t get one sentence out, then I get dumbstruck, especially if I’m speaking English. In the kitchen, I ran into a chef whose life-long career was buying lottery tickets. As one who had already studied six years of mathematics, I certainly could reckon the probability of winning the lottery. Pity was that I couldn’t explain it clearly to the chef. Each time he was ready to decide on which lottery number to buy, he’d get all mysterious. Sometimes he ran to New York’s Fu Hu Temple to offer incense to the Buddha and seek revelations; sometimes he wrote letters to a “Prince of Dallas” for a divination. Sometimes he begged me to supply him with a group of numerals, excluding pi. So I’d run out to the street to copy down license plates numbers, which came with a certain danger–several big black guys might jump out of the car to curse me and rush at me, demanding that I tell them why I was copying down their license plate number. I wasn’t prepared to stop to explain about the Chinese chef who needed the numerals, but would just start running, searching the side of the street for a drainpipe on a building to climb up. Fortunately, there were no gymnasts and no one carrying a gun among those guys. This sort of thing, needless to say, is more dangerous than Old Lu’s wanting to grab me. So I would always explain to the chef that in the lottery there is no secret to success, and if there were one, I couldn’t know it. But he used only one sentence to refute me: “If there really isn’t a secret to success, how could I be convinced there is?” Because I was unable to refute that argument, there was no use in saying anything else. For example, if I said: “Supposing I copied down a license plate that contained the numbers for the next lottery, why on earth wouldn’t I go to buy the ticket myself?” he would reply, “Who knows why you wouldn’t?” I would then break into my front stammer. From his point of view, those who had won the lottery had clearly discovered the secret and come into great fortune; and of course no one who has the secret would be willing to tell. What’s more, once spoken aloud, the secret wouldn’t work anymore. Maybe this secret can be found in a telephone book, or dreamt about in one’s sleep. Or maybe if you don’t have sex for a whole year or if you have sex right before buying the lottery ticket. Then there are those who say the secret is to eat the sanitary napkin of your old lady (naturally it is burned to ashes and then eaten). He said he had already tried that last thing–not very effective. That really startled me: since his head was completely white, how could his wife still be menstruating? Later I thought, who knows whose napkin he had eaten or how he came by it. And after that thought, I felt really nauseated. When we ate together, I really couldn’t bring myself to eat the food his chopsticks touched.
After I returned to China, the chef wrote me letters trying to get me to pick up discarded bus tickets on the Beijing streets to supply him numbers to choose from. But I thought, I’m not going to work in that restaurant anymore, why should I kiss his ass. I didn’t do it for him. But all these things happened much later. At the time, the gravest problem was that the chef had already bought an entire lifetime’s worth of lottery tickets and was already totally obsessed with them. Moreover, he was my immediate boss. Because I was unable to tell him to his face he was an idiot, I never made things clear, right up until I returned to China.
My family says that when I was small, aside from climbing the blast furnace, I did other foolish things–for example, break my leg climbing a tree, kill a neighbor’s chicken with a slingshot and then run away to the Western Hills for three days before returning, and so on. But I don’t remember any of that. For me, they don’t amount to anything. For my own reasons I believed that a marvelous new world lay inside the blast furnace. How could I have that notion? That kind of notion cannot be called idiotic, it’s just a little immature. At that time I was only twelve. Compared to someone more than fifty years old eating sanitary napkins, I was a lot better. Later that chef knew that eating that sort of thing was absolutely no help with the lottery, but he still “hit himself in the face in order to swell up and look fat,” calling it “the red obtained from lead,” the material used by Taoist alchemists to concoct pills of immortality, which have holistic effects to enhance bodily functions. I know that in traditional Chinese medicine there is a thing called “the yellow inside,” which, it is said, when eaten can be good for the stomach–it’s none other than human feces. But I didn’t dare raise the suggestion, fearing he’d be irritated with me. Later he changed his form of gambling, going instead to Atlantic City to play roulette–he could lose a month’s wages in one night’s play. To me, this is relatively normal. But he very quickly seemed to lose his senses again, considering himself capable of inventing a can’t-lose method in roulette, which oftentimes also caused him to be derelict in his cooking by putting in too much salt, enough to kill a water buffalo. And he recommended that I move out front to be a waiter. You know I like to wear black leather, and so several odd-looking young women would frequent my station and give me large tips. The boss said I was harmful to public morals and fired us both. Certainly I was 100% innocent in this. Wearing black clothing was a habit from childhood, because I was always climbing trees and buildings, and black clothing doesn’t show the dirt. One of those girls asked me if I was S or M, but I didn’t understand those things at all.
Later I went to the school library’s special collections department to look for some books to read and then understood what S is and what M is. When I bumped into that girl again I said to her, “I’m a little S and a little M. I’m the same as all those born during the time of revolution–half sadist, half masochist. And which half I am depends on whom I bump into.” When she heard this, she was dumbstruck, as if what I had said was idiotic. When I was newly arrived in America, I always made this sort of mistake–in a gas station I wanted to ask, Where is the air, but instead I asked, Where is the ass. But this incident wasn’t that sort, for I was speaking sincerely.
I have now reached the age of forty. Counting up my inventions since I was nine, they really are too numerous to reckon. My most recent invention is a stocking, the inside of which is treated with steel powder and halides. When the package is opened, the stocking generates heat, which lasts for 48 hours, at which point it’s just an ordinary stocking. With one stroke, it solves the dual problems of cold weather and looking attractive. I turned over this invention to a small-town factory to produce. Then I started getting letters of complaint, with threats of lawsuits. One person wrote that when his wife put on my stockings in the morning she was a 100 % Asian, but in the evening when she took off them off the lower half of her body had turned black. This happened because that factory used out-of-date ink to dye the stockings black, and you can’t say that my invention is no good. I still harbor an ardent love for inventing, but never again will I believe that an invention can change the course of events–in other words, first prize in the lottery doesn’t lie in inventions.
When I grew up, I got married and then went to America to study. In China I had studied mathematics. But after going abroad, I thought math was uninteresting, so I enrolled in the computer and EE (we call it radio) departments. My old lady in China studied the History of the Chinese Communist Party. After she left China, she felt party history was uninteresting, so she changed to PE, which we call physical education. Aside from going to school, we still had to earn a living. My old lady went to the gym to lead people in exercise, and from that she found her lifelong career. Today she feels that no amount of exercise is too much. She says that aside from eating and sleeping, she just wants to lead exercises, to stand in front of a large group of people and jump and skip about. As for me, I write software for people. It was only in America that I learned, if you want to live, you need a livelihood. As a matter of fact, making a living is dull and uninteresting, but I insisted on thinking of it as romantic.
In the department when I first received a job writing software, I thought to myself, “Good! Finally, here’s an opportunity to put my talent to good use.” On this point, I have a good many things to add. As an adult, I never seemed to fit in anywhere. To start with, I wanted to be an artist, but I’m colorblind. Then, when I was a graduate student in the math department, the thesis topic my advisor gave me was to explicate Karl Marx’s “Mathematics Manuscript.” Although I racked my brain and came up with more than 150 pages, what I ended up writing my advisor surely couldn’t remember now, nor can I. I can’t even find the printed version, or the handwritten one. So my having written this thesis is the same as not having written it at all, except for the many brain cells that were persecuted to death in the process. In short, I had never done any genuine work, unless you call making tofu genuine work. But no matter what sort of work you call making tofu, after it’s eaten it turns into excrement, it can’t turn into diamonds. I relate the above account in order to explain why I was so excited when I was given the software-writing job. Though it was a large-scale program that needed quite a few people collaborating, it gave me the chance to stand out from the others. The more I thought along these lines, the more helter-skelter my thoughts became, and I couldn’t get out a single line of source code. So I said to my old lady, when you go out, lock me up in the room. That’s the kind of freak I was, though my old lady didn’t notice a thing.
Locked alone in a room, I can concentrate. So when I wrote the first batch of software it was extremely poetic. Emperor Li Yu of the Southern Tang dynasty wrote a seven-character line in one of his lyrics, “Red bean grains–the parrot pecking–diminished.” My line of code attained this line’s level in terms of twistability and elasticity. Li Yu also has this fragment of verse, a five-character line: “gentle rain, flowing time, moist.” My code attained such brevity–what others took ten lines to write, I could do in one. When it came time to turn in a finished product, the professor took one look and was startled: “So short! Can it run?” I said, “Try it, okay?” When he was done, he shook my hand, saying, “Thank you!” But when it was time for payment, my pay was smaller than the others’. It turned out that the pay was per line, which made me furious. So when it came time to turn in the second batch of software, I “ate cotton and shit threads,” making the coding really long. An ancient poem says, “A single Buddhist monk returned home in solitude. He closed his door, he shut his windows, and he latched his brushwood gate”–quite a lot characters. My second batch of software attained that level. To put it simply, if others wrote one line, I would write twenty. When it was time to turn it in, the professor never asked if it could run, saying only, “You troublemaker!” I was ordered to shorten it. Capitalism is such a sham. When I got my degree, I didn’t hesitate a second before returning to China. This is because, speaking from my heart of hearts, I am a romantic poet. When I draw, I am a poet of color; when I write software, I am a poet of computer programming. How can a worn-out and dead capitalistic society contain such a romantic poet!
In America when I wanted to do EE, I did EE, when I wanted to do computers, I did computers, and I could make a little money at it. But still I wasn’t happy, at least not as happy as in ’67 when I was building catapults at my home. At that time, the doors and windows of our apartment were all knocked out, and a lot big holes had been punched in the walls. But I wore a carpenter’s apron made out of leather and behind one ear stuck a pencil, blue on one end and red on the other, directing a dozen or so university students in dismantling furniture to build defensive fortifications. In terms of engineering, they were all inferior to me, so by general acclaim they put me in charge. If my father had known this, he would surely have beat me, because the furniture we were dismantling was furniture from our home. Although now I am forty and he has passed the time when he can do as he please and has had a stroke, I think old habits die hard. Back then, when the higher authorities had put a stop to the armed fighting, he returned home. He took one look and was surprised to see there was nothing left of the household furnishings and that strange machine had been added to the study: from the front it resembled a French guillotine, while from the back it looked like a planing machine, with smooth tracks and smooth parts. In the front was a wind velocity instrument stolen from a weather station. And the whole thing had been built on a cement foundation, which couldn’t be dismantled–it made him very angry. This was the stone catapult I had constructed, which was the most accurate one in its class in the whole world. But a good deal of its parts came from our furniture. Losing the doors and windows and the furniture didn’t distress my dad, for they were government property. But he had lost quite a bit of his book collection, which I was supposed to have looked after. I told him some people with weapons wanted to borrow our books to read, what could I do about it? He felt what I had said was reasonable. Actually, that’s not how it was at all; I was busy to the max, so I had forgotten all about the things he had told me to look after. Furthermore, I was thinking: I am the Daddy of this building now. Whatever this Daddy thinks is the law. Who said that this Daddy should look after things for you?
Now I think that in criticizing capitalism one should not go against one’s conscience. How can modern society accommodate so many poets? Like a chicken coop, if it’s too crowded, the hens won’t lay eggs. If there are too many poets, there won’t be enough to eat. Because true poets are hell-raisers. In the autumn of ’67, when the “brush-becomes-spear” folks rushed into our apartment, after I helped move our household things to the neutral zone, I stayed behind to watch over our apartment. In an instant, I joined forces with them, bored holes in the walls of our apartment, and with my own hands smashed out every windowpane. Of course, I had my reasons–supposing I hadn’t broken out the windowpanes, when the bricks came hurtling in from outside, fragments of glass would fly around and wound people. Later tables and chairs were used to block up the window holes, and the rooms became very dark. In my view, it wasn’t dark enough–we still needed to blacken the inside walls with dark ink. Within a half a day’s time we made the inside of that building as dark as hell. Naturally, there was a sort of logic for doing it this way–supposing someone rushed in from the outside, he would see nothing but black and before his pupils could take in enough light for him to see the interior clearly, we could use a long spear to make a dozen or so big holes in him. These measures were just the first step in transforming the place where we lived into a termite’s nest. By winter, there wasn’t a single tile intact on the whole building. Every window opening on the first floor was solidly blocked up by welded rods, the tips of which had densely packed muzzles pointing outward, each sharper than a small dagger. All the corridors and doorways had been so solidly blocked that they couldn’t be blown open even by dynamite; there were also several crisscrossing cavities acting as passageways. It would take the former residents three days and three nights in there to find their own homes. Afterward people wanted to restore it to its former appearance, and the repair expenses were more than the cost of constructing the building in the first place. From this point you can understand why the “brush-becomes-spear” gang later on had lots of bad luck. And all that was my idea. If I, a single poet, could cause such a calamity, what would the world be like with poets running around everywhere? But if I can’t live as a poet, then I can’t live. So, to be or not to be–that’s the question.
When I was young, I read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and I thought I would like to live in ancient times. If I had my choice, I would live in ancient Greece or else in ancient Rome. Only those eras could give me the opportunities to do the things I want to. People of those eras were free to invent their own machinery–I don’t think Archimedes was beaten by his dad for having invented the water wheel. That’s why I should not have been born in the present age–I am an ancient in the present. I am Archimedes, I am Michelangelo. I have absolutely no connection with the present.
When I was receiving “helpful education” in the tofu factory, I still felt like an ancient in the present, but it’s flavor had already changed a bit. I could still think that if X Haiying’s rubber sanitary belt came into the hands of an ancient Roman sling soldier, it would seem like a precious weapon. And the triangular scraper we used to scrape the axle bushings could have, if it were sent back to ancient Greece, been used as a really effective spear tip. On the other hand, however, when I was chased by Old Lu everywhere and still needed to receive X Haiying’s “helpful education,” I wasn’t at all like an ancient in the present. Most important, I never again believed in the possibility of miracles. As the saying goes, circumstances create heroes. And the period of heroes who kick up a row had already vanished and would not come again.
Whenever I recalled that past era of heroes, it always started with these two things–that overturned truck of ’66 and the catapult of ’67, like the two stone lions at the entrance to a big courtyard that you had to pass between before going into the compound. I told X Haiying about these two things, but she didn’t understand their importance at all, because she isn’t an ancient in the present. In the fall of ’67, I climbed up a drainpipe to enter the lab building. At that time the “brush-becomes-spear” group, sixty or seventy in all, were squatting inside, with no water and no electricity, nothing to eat or drink, besieged on all sides, while outside a lot of loudspeakers were broadcasting “A Letter Urging the Surrender of the ‘Brush-Becomes-Spear’ Clique.” I told them that the building where my family lived, though inconspicuous, was actually a terrific stronghold, because there were a lot of tunnels beneath it. Among them were passages for heating pipes, electric power transmission cables, even sewers they could squeeze into. By following these passages they could get into Haidian and buy flat bread and twisted dough sticks. So at midnight they broke out of their encirclement and ran to our building. If they hadn’t occupied the dormitory, no one would have, because there was no military objective. As soon as they arrived, other people followed one after another and occupied the other buildings and encircled them, because they were now a military objective. Because of this turning point, the dormitories all turned into cockroach traps. When I talk about these events, I’m rather pleased with myself and have a feeling of accomplishment. But X Haiying had a worried look on her face, listening to my muddled thoughts and not knowing how to helpfully educate me.
When I was talking with X Haiying about this, I raised my head to look at her and discovered that in the afternoon sunlight her hair looked yellow. This illustrates the fact that nothing has a fixed color; when one wants to say what color something is, one must also explain what light it was in at the time. Her chin was perfectly round, and on her face was an expression of searching for the apt word with which to criticize me. That sort of expression reminded me of a teacher in my childhood whose plump figure resembled a combination of certain kinds of fruits and vegetables. She and I were clearly two sorts of creatures, like cats and dogs, blood feudatories. But she suddenly laughed at me, saying “Go on talking.” In a flash, I felt a rush of excitement, a kind of creepy feeling, as if I were grateful to her for being nice to me, a bastard. This illustrates that I also had the nature of being a slave.
When the “brush-becomes-spear” group rushed to our building, they were wearing wicker helmets and had white dust all over their bodies, like workers in a flour mill. Their bodies also had the sharp smell of quick lime; some had dark swellings at their temples, indicating they’d been hit by bricks. They must have been intercepted and attacked on their way. Later, when people talked about that clique, they would say those men were really bad, charging into peaceful residents’ home and driving families away like that. If this wasn’t like the Nazi Waffen-SS, then it was at least like Stalin’s armed collectivization force. In fact, the gang was actually quite cultivated. When there were young girls present, they didn’t say anything vulgar. At mealtime, if I hadn’t eaten, they wouldn’t eat. If the girl students hadn’t eaten, the male students wouldn’t eat. If someone in the ranks had nothing to eat, the chief wouldn’t eat. Aside from this, each one of them used toilet paper and never shit outside. They weren’t like combat troops; to the contrary, they resembled English gentlemen. I liked these people with all my heart, and my affection for them never wavered. But later these guys had the worst luck of anyone in the entire school, because in the late stage of the Cultural Revolution, at the time of summing up calamities, it was discovered that this insignificant little clique had killed more people than any other, and the destruction they caused was the most terrible. So their chief was arrested and taken to prison; moreover, the rest of them were sent down to the countryside, not a single one remaining in the city. They would live in a place without electricity and where three meals a day was a big problem. This illustrates that anyone I like has bad luck, and the qualities I like are never good qualities.
Now when I think about those “brush-becomes-spear” men, I cannot figure out what they were fighting for. For isms or ideas?–not convincing enough. To say that they–like myself–were fighting for the magical, this doesn’t sound quite right either, because I did that kind of fighting when I was fifteen and they weren’t fifteen yet. Perhaps some of them had fought for isms, some for ideas, and some others wanted to find magic through fighting. All these motives mix together like the mess, so to speak, puked up by a drunkard. You can’t figure out the motives of “brush-becomes-spear” men, just as you can’t tell what a drunkard has eaten through his vomit.
Now I ought to talk about how that business of my climbing the blast furnace wall ended. The year I turned thirteen, I finally climbed the furnace’s chimney and got into the small, homemade blast furnace. There was nothing much inside. Beside a pile of bricks, there was a straw mat, and beside it was a used condom, like a piece of a fish’s air bladder. Its insides contained some sticky jelly, though at that time I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, I had an idea. It made me think of the essence of myself that I saw in the wound I had when I was six–like wet cotton wadding. It was then that my truly pessimistic view of life appeared. From that time on, even if I hit a day of real bad luck, I would never more fantasize about some day winning a prize.
That business of the so-called wet cotton wadding was like this: when I got up in the morning, I felt something like Vaseline in my underwear, which stuck to my penis like the grease on a bicycle axle. Then, half-asleep, I started to recall dreaming about a girl’s breasts and butt. But how a girl’s breasts and butt could draw forth this stuff, I still didn’t understand. I didn’t like being in this state.
Concerning the wet cotton wadding affair and later thoughts, I didn’t say a word to X Haiying. I was taciturn about the latter because I hadn’t the ability to foresee my future growth, and I was taciturn about the former because I felt I shouldn’t say anything about this to a girl. Later she said to me, “You’re really filthy!” Now she is Zhan Ba’s old lady; I don’t know whether or not she suspects Zhan Ba of being filthy.
On philosophy, I now think this: it raises a good many questions, the question of ontology, the question of epistemology, etc., but to the Chinese, there is only one question that is important. That is, does the world have a so-called magical secret of success–a secret to success for buying lottery tickets, a secret for smelting golden pills of immortality, a secret for flying, and a secret for entering heaven on earth? If you say there aren’t any, how is it that I believe in their existence? If you say they exist, why can’t I see them? But after I climbed up that furnace chimney, I never again believed in such secrets. I’m the same as others: I also needed to love those I hate, earn enough to eat, get married and start a career, support a family; in short, bitterness is plentiful and happiness scant, and miracles just don’t happen. Though I’ve worked at it long and hard, I’ve never found a single bit of the magical. This world has only bad luck; there are no lucky prizes. In this sense, I’d say I’m a pessimist.