Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

 

In China one cannot say that the son occupied the Emperor’s throne.

In China, sons can never sit in a father’s chair or throne.

So, it would be accurate to say: The Fifth Emperor’s son – the New Sixth Emperor occupied the throne of his grandfather, the Fourth Qing Emperor.

How can one convert the Chinese to the faith if they only get on their knees before their parents? thinks Castiglione.

 

The Fifth Qing dynasty Emperor was much more careful than his father.

It is said that he had written down his successor’s name in advance.

Immediately, on two paper scrolls.

One he put into a box and hid the box behind a gravestone slab in the Qianqing Palace.

In the Forbidden City.

And the other paper scroll he always had with him.

 

After the Emperor’s death the ministers compared the documents and the fifth son of the Fifth Qing Emperor became the Sixth Emperor.

And so the Sixth Qing dynasty Emperor came to occupy his grandfather’s throne.

In accordance with the wish of both the father and Heaven.

 

But, nevertheless, the Fifth Qing dynasty Emperor was murdered.

This was what was being said in the Forbidden City.

He was killed by a woman.

A concubine.

He was poisoned with his own medicine.

 

She was exactly like her father.

Of rebellious blood.

Fought against the Qing dynasty.

Looked back to the Ming dynasty with fondness.

Wrote poems.

Had a tendency to literary transgressions.

 

 *

 

Castiglione had waited for the Fifth Qing Dynasty Emperor for thirteen years.

While painting his horses, and after that.

But he never came.

As the Chinese say: a dragon is only real when it hides in the clouds.

 

The new Sixth Emperor came unexpectedly.

Almost at once.

Only four years after occupying his grandfather’s throne.

Castiglione achieved his purpose using Chinese ways.

Not immediately.

And while waiting.

The Sixth Qing dynasty Emperor came.

And commissioned a European palace and Italian pavilions from Castiglione.

Like those and better than those he had seen in albums of engravings, brought by ship from the West.

 

The Sixth Qing dynasty Emperor was not asking for pictures of those buildings.

He wanted real ones.

A real French palace.

A Versailles.

Castiglione tried to explain to the Sixth Emperor that he was not an architect.

That he was a person who could paint palaces in a landscape but not build them.

That he created things to deceive the eye but not real things.

But the Emperor either did not hear that or did not understand.

And Castiglione was forced to comply.

 

For months on end he drew Italian and French palaces, fountains, belvederes and pavilions on Korean paper.

He tried not to draw anything too complicated.

He knew that he would later have to build them.

In the summer residence of the Qing Dynasty Emperors.

In the Garden of Eternal Spring.

 

Giuseppe Castiglione had never studied architecture.

And that is why he borrowed from the architect Brunelleschi.

Because of his mission the day came that he was forced to become an architect – and a thief.

 

*

 

A labyrinth is not a Chinese thing.

Castiglione had to explain to the Sixth Qing dynasty Emperor its functions.

And what it should be like.

Castiglione tried to convince the Emperor that labyrinths are living green walls with thujas, cypresses, all sorts of myrtle or dense trees of other kinds.

But the Sixth Qing Emperor does not like walls made of trees.

The Sixth Qing Emperor likes walls made of brick.

 

The Chinese built them five feet tall according to Castiglione’s drawings.

Those walls were hollow.

But not empty.

Before finishing the bricking, young pines were planted inside.

Now their tops were sticking out of the spaces of the interior walls of the labyrinth, making the hard, upper contour in the darkness look like an eiderdown.

It was from these pines the cicadas were now sucking the sap.

And chirping.

 

One cannot see in the dark.

Castiglione designed a flower garden to face the labyrinth.

And not a small one.

In the front of the garden there is a Peacocks’ Cage.

A pair of peacocks and two pairs of pheasants are imprisoned in the cage.

But only the peacocks are screaming.

They probably do not like being there.

The end wall of the cage has ships and pheasants painted on it.

The Emperor is very fond of that wall.

Especially when a live pheasant walks past one painted on the wall.

The Chinese like to see what has been portrayed next to the portrait.

The real thing next to the image.

The not real one.

 

The merchant ships in the Peacocks’ Cage are a Western fabrication.

So says the Art Experts’ Commission.

But like his father the New Sixth Qing dynasty Emperor easily succumbs to all kinds of exotica.

And allows everything to remain.

As it is.

 

*

 

Which general’s daughter’s group of women-fireflies is closest with their lanterns to the Emperor?

It was hard to make out.

In the labyrinth, it often seems that you are next to your goal when it becomes clear that you are standing in the closest cul-de-sac.

Castiglione tried to imagine how it would be possible to stop and turn two-thousand-five-hundred women around in a narrow brick corridor.

With bound feet but unbound desires.

Those who have come up to the cul-de-sac and are still moving forward.

 

Castiglione still remembers almost all the turns of the angular labyrinth and, if he could, he would show the way.

But he is sitting here – in the secluded pavilion.

As the creator of the labyrinth and as the observer of its ‘function’.

But not as its master.

 

Perhaps, if he were to close his eyes and see the exact layout of the walls.

He might even guess the winner.

But he does not want to guess.

He wants Ulanara to be the first.

Even though she would be coming not to him, not to Castiglione, but to the Emperor.

 

Suddenly the mechanical birds opened their throats and the round moon came out from behind a cloud.

The mechanical birds could be heard from far outside the boundaries of the labyrinth, even though they were singing inside the labyrinth, in the special marble pavilion.

Castiglione built it a little to the north of the central Imperial one.

So that the artificial birds not interfere with the Emperor’s gaze but only gladden his ears.

 

The Emperor rose from his throne to greet the first to reach his pavilion.

He laughed loudly and treated the winner and her girls.

Castiglione could not see but knew.

To what.

To fruit and sweets.

 

Seven-thousand-five-hundred women who had not reached their goal, slowly, with the lanterns going out, were still wandering along the dark corridors of the labyrinth.

The cicadas were jeering at them.

The Emperor was laughing loudly.

Castiglione could not see the winner but the first lanterns to be lifted to the sky were those of Ulanara and her maids.

Castiglione recognised them.

They were redder than those of the others.

How can one convert the Chinese to the faith if the beauty of an idea was more important to them than morals? thought Castiglione.

 

The Moon Festival came to an end.

The fifteenth day of the eighth month came to an end.

And Father Castiglione’s thoughts suddenly left the evening’s magical event and entered his stomach like arrows.

Like they had the holy martyr.

 

The above is an excerpt from Undinė Radzevičiūtė’s novel Fishes and Dragons, translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka.

Painting by Wang Hui, The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Three: Ji’nan to Mount Tai

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