Qingxin remembers that the character 万comes fromin the Oracle Bone Script—a scorpion with large pincers and a poisonous sting at the end of its jointed tail. How does a bug come to mean ten thousand, as in “毛主席万鋸”—Chairman Mao lives ten thousand years, a slogan she’s made to write a thousand times a day? She wants to look it up in her Shuowen Jiezi, but all her books were confiscated and burned. If she remembers correctly, it’s speculated that scorpions once plagued the central plain, so when people saw the sign, they saw not just one scorpion but tens of thousands of them. Now, three millennia later, on the same central plain, she is labeled “毒蝎,” poisonous scorpion, and ordered to write a word that comes from the same insect a thousand times a day. Is she, then, a “poisonous scorpion,” releasing tens of thousands of scorpions back to the central plain each time she writes down the word? It’s confusing.
Another label she’s given is “牛鬼蛇神”—ox demon serpent god. Back before the Revolution, these gods and demons with human bodies and animal heads had powers and were treated with reverence. Now people labeled so are shaved a Ying-Yang Head and made to kneel, their faces distorted in fear and shame and in their effort to endure something they didn’t know they could endure. Their bodies remain human bodies that bleed and break easily and are subject to hours of beating by their former students who are given a new name too—Red Guards. What are they guarding? Their human sun, the Chairman? It’s all too confusing. Sometimes Qingxin wonders if Chairman Mao is indeed a god and will indeed live ten thousand years as she is condemned to write a thousand times a day.
“If you look at history,” her husband would say, “Qinshihuang did the same thing—burn books bury intellectuals—so that nothing except his own words would count. It’s the same they want—power, immortality, obedience, with only minor differences: one called himself the First Emperor, the other Chairman; one had scholars buried alive, the other has them tortured day after day by the students-turned-killers. You can tell those little monsters are enjoying it. They’ll eat us if they’re asked to, turning us into meatballs, and they’ll laugh and celebrate their vitality. This is not a world to live in. Soon we’ll forget we’re humans, we’ll lose the desire for the last bit of dignity.”
In the dark bed of their old apartment he would say those things, and she would hush him with “People can hear you,” looking around their small room as though ears were concealed in the lightless air. Their four-year-old daughter slept between them, her breaths faintly audible, each a thin hook cast into the unknown.
The character 无 is simplified from 無, which comes from —a person dancing, waving bouquets of flowers, for the dead. Now, the word means zero, nothing. There’s no more dancing for the dead, no rituals, just a dead body dumped somewhere, turned into zero, nothing. His body was dragged onto the shore. Three Red Guards took her there: “We got something to show you.” They looked mischievous. There was no dignity in that waxen face either, with garbage caught in his collar, riverweed in his hair.
They asked her to slap his face. She looked at them.
“Slap his face—he is bad,” one said. “He knew he was bad, that’s why he killed himself, which makes him even worse.”
“There’s no need to explain to her,” another said. “You do what we ask you to do. You are all bad!”
Both had been in her Chinese class and her husband’s history class—that was two months ago, in the pre-revolutionary era, when they were merely adolescent bullies with military fathers. Now they are judges and executioners.
His skin felt damp, rubbery. Since the Cultural Revolution, she hadn’t really touched his face—it would have been too much to bear, that gesture of sympathy, of looking into each other’s eyes and saying, “We will be fine. We will survive this.” She couldn’t make herself put on such an act, and she knew neither of them would want to receive it, as their sympathy could only confirm their individual misery and humiliation.
“Slap him! Not stroke!” they yelled, then laughed.
That night, when her daughter, Ming, asks about her father, Qingxin tells her he has gone to a place where he can sleep. “He hasn’t been able to sleep much,” she says. “Now he can sleep without ever being bothered again.”
Ming is quiet for a while. Then she says, “Word game, Mama. Let’s play our word game.”
It’s their bedtime ritual. A game Qingxin devised when Ming turned four—months before the Revolution, before their world was flipped upside-down—figuring it was time to teach her how to write. So instead of giving her the routine backrub, she started to write words on her back. Oftentimes, Qingxin picks words that are pictographic, their origins traceable to the Oracle Bone Script, the beginning of Chinese written language’s bloodline. She will start with a word’s original form and let Ming guess what it is, and then trace its evolution to its current simplified version. Which was how she used to teach her students—when they were still students—so that they knew words were not made of random strokes, that each came into being for a reason, with logic behind it, with thoughts and imagination.
Now logic fails. Thoughts and imagination are reserved for cruelty and survival. In this new, upturned world, what used to be the essential components of life, such as books, order, and reason, such as friends, parents, and husband, are being thrashed out of their existence, vanished into the ether. But more so than ever, Ming has been insisting on playing the word game every night.
“Mama is tired. Go to sleep now.”
But she fusses, cries. “Word game, Mama. Let’s play our word game.”
“Not today. Go to sleep.”
Ming cries louder, turning her back against Qingxin, her little shoulders shuddering. Qingxin holds her in her arms and cries with her. A few minutes later, Ming starts again. “Our word game, Mama. Write my name and your name.”
Slowly, Qingxin writes her daughter’s name, 明, an ideogram that hasn’t changed much since its origin, a compound combining the two pictograms 日 and 月, sun and moon, meaning bright. A word Qingxin picked, and since the Revolution, she has wondered if she ’d had the prescience of the dark age falling. More than any time now, her daughter needs a name like this to keep her out of darkness’s way. But how will things be bright for her both in daytime and at night? What a grand and impossible hope it now seems.
Qingxin’s own name is even more impossible: 清心, clear-water heart, or heart like clear water. “When our heart is quiet and clear,” her mother, who practiced Chan, told her, “we don’t feel pain. We want no more no less, just this moment as we breathe.” Both Qingxin’s mother and father were classified “Rightists” and sent away to separate prisons in separate provinces. Qingxin doesn’t know if they’re alive or dead, or if their minds are set free—or if they are able to think of the name they gave her and breathe and feel their hearts purified like clear water. When the dregs stir up again, they won’t sigh, because they know more is coming, which is the nature of life. Conditions form, but they can always go back to their breath as long as that’s not taken from them. And even if it’s taken, they will either restart the cycle, being born again, or they will join the stars.
Qingxin doesn’t know which is more probable or preferable. The ideas of incarnation and karma are two things she hasn’t seen much point of until now. This is how they make sense now: one will believe anything to know she won’t come back to a life like this again; if she doesn’t cause harm in this life she will suffer less in the next, and her tormentors will suffer the worst because of the bad karma they’ve already deposited at such a young age. This is something worth believing in.
In the mornings, Qingxin does janitorial work, cleaning the school compound and toilets. In the afternoons, she’s taken to the town square for the struggle session, made to kneel with a cardboard sign hanging around her neck, with three lines of words: “牛鬼蛇神 / 坏 / 余清心”—ox demon serpent god / bad / Yu Qingxin—and an X across each character of her name. After the session, the Red Guards take her back to the school, into one of the former classrooms, which are now called “牛棚,” cowsheds, to copy the slogan “毛主席万鋸” a thousand times—a way, as they put it, to “atone” for her husband’s suicide. Gripped by the new pains from the new beating, she sits in a former student chair, completes this “assignment” in a student notebook.
One day, about a week into this daily copying, she raises her head from the notebook and sees her blunder: instead of the word “万,” ten thousand, she has been writing “无,” nothing, zero—that is, instead of Chairman Mao lives ten thousand years, she has been writing Chairman Mao lives zero years. Not once or twice, one page or two, but for four pages, several hundred times, she has replaced the word.
She is alone in the “cowshed,” but they are coming. It’s close to the time they come to collect her “homework,” give her a final scolding or beating, and then, if all goes well, let her leave to pick up her daughter. She will need to tear the four pages off and make them disappear, quickly, but the room is locked. She cannot go to the bathroom and flush the pages down the toilet. She cannot shred the pages with her fingers and throw them into the dustbin or hide them in her clothes. The guards will see the tear, will search for the shreds, find them, and patch them up.
She’s shoving the last handful of paper into her mouth when the door unlocks. A Red Guard, a slender girl with darting eyes, steps in—also a former student of hers, a good, respectful one exceling in composition and handwriting, who now keeps her face stoically straight and avoids eye contact.
“What—what are you chewing?” Her expression is a mix of alarm and annoyance, as though she’s convinced that her former teacher—now “ox devil”—is taunting her with a new kind of perversity: chewing paper like an ox chomping down chunks of grass, with gluey pulps forming in the corners of her mouth.
Qingxin cannot answer. All she can do is shake her head and try to swallow the dry, inky, half-chewed paper shreds as quickly as possible.
The girl looks behind to the door, but the other Red Guards are not coming yet; she has to deal with this alone. Her face hardens. She walks over and picks up the notebook. Despite Qingxin’s attempt to remove the torn edges from the seam, the girl notices the tear right away. She narrows her eyes at it, then flips through the remaining pages.
“You didn’t finish today’s assignment,” she says, her eyes still on the pages that are covered with the same five words, like the same insects crawling, gathering, multiplying. “Why are you eating pages from the notebook?”
Qingxin makes a difficult final swallow. “I didn’t like the handwriting on those pages. I only want to write those sacred words in the best handwriting possible”—saying what she prepared to say.
“I don’t believe you. There’s no need to eat bad handwriting. Why don’t you just tell me the truth?”
“That is the truth.” And again she wants to cry. She sees her daughter waiting on the front porch of her preschool, always one of the last to be picked up—small on the top of the darkening stairs, leaning toward the direction where her mother must eventually appear. “Please believe me. I don’t like bad handwriting. You know me—”
“Don’t talk to me like that. I don’t know you. You’re not my teacher anymore. You’re the class enemy. Don’t forget that.”
“I know, I know. Please let me redo them. I’ll finish this in no time.”
The girl is considering, her face turning malleable, and for a moment the room seems to pulsate with the possibility of human decency. But they both hear something: their eyes snap to the door—the three other Red Guards are rushing in, those who ’d dragged Qingxin to the riverbank.
“What’s going on?” they yell.
And instantaneously the girl’s posture changes to alert, a streak of shrewdness crossing her face. “She lied to me,” she says without looking at her. “She must have written something bad on the notebook and she ’d eaten up the pages before I came in. It must be something bad.”
At some point during the beating, Qingxin stops feeling any pain. Even the thought of her daughter, that wrenching heartache, leaves her. Her mind must have risen up quietly as though not to disturb the scene or not to continue witnessing it. Her mind flies away from the room, the school building, alights on a tree, a birdwing. But after circling over the city, maybe for ten minutes or an hour, it eventually flies back to her daughter, who is now sitting on a little stool inside the school, her gaze on the front door. Near her, the hunchback janitor is mopping the floor, muttering loudly about his own share of misery in the harrowing world.
Because of her new “crime,” Qingxin is no longer allowed to live in her apartment. She and her daughter are put in a closet-size storeroom in the school. It’s windowless and smells of stale water and mildew, a third of its space occupied by brooms, mops, and buckets that Qingxin uses for the janitorial work. She folds a blanket to the size of the remaining surface and spreads it on the floor.
Ming doesn’t ask about the new cuts and bruises on her mother’s body. When her eyes involuntarily rove to those places, they quiver back to a spot that’s unmarred—Qingxin’s right eye, part of her right cheek, her throat, her left collarbone. Ming has learned not to ask about those things since Qingxin’s first beating, which came with a barbarous haircut, her long hair chopped and one side shaggily shaved into the Ying-Yang Head. Ming broke into tears when Qingxin picked her up at the preschool, pointing at her grotesque head with terror and bereavement in her eyes. Ever since her birth, Ming had clutched a strand of her hair in her sleep as if it were her new umbilical cord. But Qingxin couldn’t provide any answers to her questions, nor could she concoct any words of comfort, as the child cried and followed her limping steps home.
Since then, Ming has not asked about the bruises, welts, and cuts which appear, fade a little, appear again. That’s one thing she must have learned will inevitably come, just as her mother must drop her off at the preschool every morning and disappear—without Ming knowing for sure if her mother is going to appear again. Qingxin will give her daughter a finger to grasp when the child gropes for her hair in the middle of the night, will say, “I’m here. I’m right here,” when her daughter wakes up in panic, gasping as though she can’t find her next breath.
After Qingxin switches off the one light bulb above their heads, Ming says the words Qingxin knew were coming: “Word game, Mama. Let’s play our word game.”
Despite this knowing, the word word makes her shudder. She can taste again the inky paper: bitter, nauseating, like wiggling bugs jammed into her mouth. What could have gotten into her to replace “万” with “无,” a word that comes from scorpion to a word that meant, once upon a time, dancing for the dead? Did she, deep in her consciousness, need to dance for her dead husband, instead of adding more poisonous scorpions to this plagued land? Or, did she covertly wish Chairman Mao would die instead of living ten thousand years, turning into nothing, zero—a wish so powerful it bled through her fingers that held the pen, through the ink onto the paper of the notebook?
But how could she be so careless with what she wished? How could she wish anything more than staying alive so her daughter could stay alive? How can she guarantee she won’t do anything so careless, so foolish, and so fatal again?
“No more word games. We’re not playing that game again.”
You can’t trust words. They can get you killed, get your daughter orphaned. It’s better Ming doesn’t know words.
“But Mama, we do it every night.”
She cries. Qingxin lets her. But word game or not, she knows there’s no way to guarantee anything—not that another “crime” will not befall on her, nor that she will survive another beating. There’s simply no way. Which is why people end their lives, by whatever means available—drowning in the river; leaping off a building; hanging from a tree, a ceiling, or any other place strong enough to hold a noose; swallowing sleeping pills or insecticide; cutting their throats open with a pair of scissors or stabbing their hearts with a kitchen knife—so they don’t have to guarantee anything again.
Qingxin has a pillow. She can wait till her daughter falls asleep and put it on her small breathing face to make the sleep permanent. Then it will just be herself, which at this point is easy to finish.
She holds her daughter in her arms and moves her hand across her small back, which feels incredibly soft and alive, as though all that is tender and good in the world is condensed in there. Ming’s cries gradually subside to intermittent sobs, and then, when Qingxin thinks she has fallen asleep, Ming suddenly asks in the dark, in a quiet, measured voice that doesn’t quite belong to a four-year-old, “Mama, are you going to die?”
The tears that Qingxin has been holding back slide off. She tries to keep her voice even: “Yes, someday. Everyone dies. But I won’t die until I know you’re safe.”
“How are you not going to die?” Ming asks, turning to lie on her back and gaze at the dark ceiling.
“I will—I will take good care of you and take good care of myself.”
Ming turns her face back to her mother and nestles her head on her chest.
And then, with a little finger, she starts to draw on Qingxin’s skin just below her collarbone her own name, 明, a sun and a moon. With each stroke, each touch, Qingxin feels a trickle of coolness, an easing, flowing. Her pain begins to loosen its fists and knots. Her body feels lighter, as if light is receiving her, and she and her daughter are not here in the windowless room, but outside, under a moon. On a green meadow somewhere. Moonlight hums in the grass.
Then Ming draws Qingxin’s name, 清心, clear-water heart. The two words her parents named her. On the cardboard she wears in front of her chest, the words are crossed out, as though this person no longer exists and in her place is this reduced half-human-half-animal that can no longer own the name. But her daughter is writing it on her bare skin right now, stroke by stroke, with care. And somewhere in her vision, Qingxin sees a body of clear water that is also inside her own body—which is her parents’ wish for her, to be able to return there, to go back to her breath and know that she can be as calm and clean as water that knows no pain, no resistance, nor fear.
All the torments to turn her into something less human will not work, because only humans are given a name by their parents with a good wish in their hearts. And only humans can think of their hearts as calm and clean as water. This is something they cannot take away from her as long as she still breathes. She can still cleanse all the filth and hurt, let them settle, and leave the mind clear.
Each day is a day gained in this life. The moment when she survives another beating becomes expansive. She will not show her amazement after knowing that she is still alive, still able to move her arms and legs, and breathe without too much pain. Still allowed to go see her daughter. To be able to do all that for another day amazes her, as though she doesn’t know the width of her own dimension, or how far her life can be stretched without snapping. She is relearning how to live this life. Already she has learned to better endure the beating—not move, stay still, twist the body in a way to protect the head. And to be only partially there when they humiliate her: those shaming songs they make her sing, she sings without letting the words sink; those self-condemning words they force her to say, she says without letting them cling.
She is able to believe none of those words matter when she lets her finger dance across her daughter’s soft back and draws the real words on her skin—words scripted with love, free from malice. Usually, they’re simple words about the natural elements—star, wind, mountain, river, the seasons, the colors, types of animals, names of plants and flowers. As though she’s re-creating the world, its blue hills, clouds like pagodas, blooming trees, laughing children, pairs of wings.
As Qingxin endures the day, she thinks of a word to give her daughter at night, like a gift, a talisman, to “take care of her” and “take care of herself.” An amulet to save them from harm and keep them alive for another day.
One night, she draws on her daughter’s back the word for fountain, 홋, which comes from —water flowing out of a mountain cave. She describes the mountain, how quiet it is: you can hear each birdcall and their echoes between the rock faces and the sound of water gurgling just out of view. The two of them have climbed along the stony path toward the fountain. “Now we’re here,” she says. “Let’s drink.” She cups her palms into a bowl; her daughter does the same. They reach over, feel the cool water touching their skin, filling them up, and quickly they hold the water to their lips. “Ah,” they say, “how cool, how sweet.” Ming giggles. She does too.
But then she is afraid. She holds her daughter tightly in her arms, doesn’t know if she’s doing the right thing—to make her believe there can be joy in this world that doesn’t tolerate joy, not even from a four-year-old. Those people will not tolerate seeing them smile, seeing the sun on their faces. They will want to crush that, too.
Some nights she cannot lift her finger. “Our word game,” her daughter will say. “Let’s play our word game.” But Qingxin doesn’t want to make the effort, or feel those decent human feelings. They seem too fine, too contradictory to the rest of her existence. Too incoherent, false, fake. She wants to sink in her despair, to end it all. But her daughter will insist, “Draw words, Mama. Draw my name and your name,” and will touch Qingxin’s face with her hand.
“Mama is tired. You draw on me.”
And Ming will start to draw—on Qingxin’s chest, her palm, a piece of skin that’s not cut or bruised—her name: a sun and a moon; her mother’s name: clear-water heart. Qingxin thinks, May the sunlight and moonlight shine on her path so that she will not get lost; may my mind be as clear and calm as water. . .
Then, Qingxin will hold her daughter and cry, and it’s as if she is turning into a lake, no longer hard, edgy, clenched, clenching; her pain begins to liquefy. Then she will start drawing a new word on her daughter’s back.
She’s thinking of words that do not signify the natural elements, the rudimental, everlasting things that will outlive this distorted world. The word 好, for example, the dual opposite of the word 坏 that’s on the cardboard she carries every day. The most common word in Chinese, perhaps, a ubiquitous syllable people utter and hear all the time, which is supposed to mean “good.” But what is hao in this world, where good books are burned, good people condemned, meanness considered a good trait, violence good conduct? People say hao when their eyes are marred with suspicion and dread. They say hao when they’re tattered inside.
But she thinks of the word itself. It comes from , a kneeling person with breasts, a woman, , holding a child, . It suits her, doesn’t it? At night she holds her daughter in her arms, and in the daytime, as she’s made to kneel in front of others, she is still holding her, even though no one sees it.
And she thinks again of the word 坏 that hangs in front of her chest and is yelled into her face every day, which comes from , a person crying by the crumbled city wall for her lost home. It also suits her in that sense: she is the one who has lost her husband, her home, and wants to cry by the crumbled world.
She thinks of each word as a seed, an origin, a center where its meanings radiate. Then, when she draws a word on her daughter’s back, that clean slate, that virgin land, she will be able to imagine she is writing it for the first time. She’s planting a seed and together they will name it, nurture it, give it new meanings, and salvage it from hate and abuse.
So, in the narrow room with no light, she draws a sun and a moon on her daughter’s back. She draws a lake of clear water and a heart. And then, she draws a kneeling person with breasts.
“Why is she kneeling?” Ming asks.
“Why do you think?”
“Because she is tired?”
“Yes, she is tired,” Qingxin says, “but not too tired to hold her child.” She draws a child by the woman.
“That’s us: you holding me.”
“Yes, that’s us.” And she lets her hand rest on her daughter’s soft, un-scarred back.