Gaze at clouds drifting in the breeze, inhale the scent of wild flowers and let your mind grow calm . . . Before he enters his apartment, Director Ma deletes this text he has just received and instantly forgets who sent it to him.
He stands in the living room, jacket draped over his arm, wondering why everything feels so strange. His wife soon tells him. ‘Been kicked in the head by a mule, have you? This is the first time in years you’ve been home before six-thirty!’ Juan has tied her hair in a bun and is stringing a heap of beans. On the floor beside her are a pair of red slippers, two enamel basins and the portable stereo she will take to this evening’s fan-dance session. After she and Ma Daode returned from settling their daughter into her university digs in England, they dismissed the nanny. They rarely invite guests in case they see the boxes of gifts Ma Daode has received for political favours and report him to the anti-corruption unit. With just the two of them in this large duplex apartment now, the place feels empty, so they tend to confine themselves to the living room that has a four-seater leather sofa and a massive flat-screen television. They have even set up a kettle so they don’t need to go to the kitchen to make tea. On the coffee table in the middle of the room is a sour-smelling bag of bream that Juan has just brought back from the market.
Director Ma sinks into the leather sofa and stares at the red goldfish swimming around the glass tank below the television. Its protruding eyes remind him of when his mother stood on a bench, her eyes bulging with terror as teenage Red Guards yelled abuse at her. Feeling his heart grow heavy, he looks instead at the black goldfish and its tail splaying out behind it like a long mane of hair . . . Little Fang’s hair was as black as that. She had the best calligraphy of all my pupils in Yaobang, and loved to write political slogans on the blackboard. She was arrested a week after her twelfth birthday. When she returned from detention, she didn’t leave her home for three days. On the fourth day, I saw her body floating in the village pond, her long mane of black hair splayed out around her head. The slogan she wrote on the blackboard the day she was arrested is still engraved in my mind: every child must join the revolution and devote their life to the party . . . Last year, Fang’s father, Old Yang, secured a licence to breed goldfish in the village pond. Before the government tried to demolish Yaobang last month, Ma Daode paid him a visit. His wife doesn’t speak. In the land reform campaign waged by the Communists during Mao’s rise to power, she witnessed peasants expropriate her father’s land and beat her mother to death with their bare hands, and she never recovered from the trauma. All she can do is sweep the floor, feed her chickens and make corn grits. Before Fang drowned, she liked to take her mother out for walks along the river.
‘When you are happy, know that happiness is fleeting; and when you are sad, know that sadness too will not last.’ Ma Daode wants to record on his phone this maxim which has entered his mind, then tells himself: No, I didn’t just invent that. Someone forwarded it to me yesterday. He feels beads of sweat collect on the palm of his hand and rubs them off on his sleeves.
‘So, you lost the plot at today’s meeting, I heard,’ his wife says, delighting in his misfortune.
‘Who told you?’ Ma Daode feels his memories shooting up like bamboo, enclosing him on all sides.
‘Everyone’s watching you. What do you expect if you waste your time trying to control people’s dreams instead of getting on with your job? Why are you in that stupid Bureau anyway? The Military Logistics Department is brimming with cash now that it’s turned itself into the Housing Office. Even the Earthquake Prevention Bureau leaders are richer than you. Why not just cut your losses and take early retirement? If you stay in that job any longer, you’ll end up in jail, like all those human rights lawyers.’ When Juan speaks, her mouth always twists to the side.
‘They’d never send me to South Lake Retirement Home! No way!’ Ma Daode’s pot belly creases as he reaches over for the remote control.
On the television, a lawyer tells a local news reporter: ‘The municipal government must put an end to the violent land grabs. It has no right to sell the peasants’ land to greedy developers . . .’
‘Well, if the government doesn’t sell the land, how will it pay the salaries of all the officials and bureaucrats?’ grumbles Ma Daode, turning the volume down.
‘You’ve amassed three properties and are always chasing after women – you deserve to get sent to South Lake,’ his wife says, returning from the sweltering kitchen, steam rising from her hair. Ma Daode stares at the sweet-and-sour deep-fried fish she has placed before him on the table. He thinks of the text he deleted before entering the apartment, and remembers now that it was from Yuyu. He is worried that she is plotting something. She came to his office after work this afternoon and commanded him to write an official document professing his love for her, then made him stamp it with his thumbprint and the China Dream Bureau seal. He understands now why Song Bin wears a Jade Buddha pendant engraved with the words change bad luck into good fortune. He too must have encountered similar problems with disgruntled mistresses, and learned to patiently ride out the storms.
Juan reappears with a bowl of fried beans. ‘When you were courting me, you always took the fish head and left the rest for me,’ she says, sitting down. ‘Now, look! You dive straight in with your chopsticks and grab all the white meat for yourself.’
‘That’s because I’m eating fish now, but back then I was fishing for your affection!’ he says, forcing a smile.
‘Bet you take the head when you eat fish with your young mistress,’ she says, looking down at her plate to avoid his gaze. Since their daughter left, they bicker all the time. Ma Daode usually ends every argument by storming off and staying out all night, which infuriates Juan even more.
‘Don’t listen to those false rumours being spread about me,’ Ma Daode replies, still chomping on his food and trying to sound unruffled. ‘If you care how you look in other people’s eyes, you will be doomed to die in their mouths.’
‘Save your crap aphorisms for your girlfriend,’ his wife snorts, helping herself to more fried beans. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t hire a private detective to catch you red-handed. I wasn’t jealous when I was young, and I’m even less jealous now. Men – they’re all the same. When they’re poor, they want a wife; when they get rich, they want a harem. It’s all such a waste of time.’ Ma Daode suspects that Juan knows about Yuyu, but not the other women.
An allergic rash has broken out on Juan’s neck from the seafood she is eating. She and Ma Daode take turns to pick at the fish until only the skull, spine and tail remain.
‘Our gang of sent-down youths are planning a reunion next Saturday,’ she says. ‘You’ve done the best out of us all, so you should host the dinner.’
‘Fine, I’ll book a table at Fragrance of a Hundred Flowers,’ Ma Daode replies.
‘Not another sordid nightclub!’ says Juan, the light rash now rising to her face. ‘Why do you always have to surround yourself with young women? Do you imagine you’re Ximen Qing from Plum in the Golden Vase, with six wives and ten concubines?’
‘But it’s the top restaurant in the city now. You can sit thirty people in the private rooms, and order whatever you want.’ He looks up at the opening credits of When You Loved Me the Most, and feels his mood lift as he contemplates all the women who are waiting to see him tonight.
‘Oh, yes, I forgot: a box of mooncakes arrived today from the CEO of Ten Thousand Fortunes – I hid it under Ming’s bed,’ Juan says, then goes upstairs to fetch it.
Ma Daode checks his phone and sees a message from the young kindergarten teacher, Changyan: send me a dirty joke – quick! Immediately, he forwards her the one that the estate agent Wendi sent him this morning: a peasant went into town to buy some condoms, but when he got to the pharmacy, he forgot what they were called, so he said, ‘miss, do you have any plastic bags to put penises in?’
Juan brings the box to the table and opens it. The red satin interior casts a rosy glow over her face. ‘Ah, he knows I like mooncakes,’ Ma Daode says, his eyes lighting up. ‘Let me try one.’ He chooses a cake and breaks it in two, and where the filling should be finds instead a small bar of solid gold. ‘Damn!’ he moans. ‘I was just in the mood for a proper mooncake. The ones Wuwei County sent us were revolting – they were filled with tinned meat.’
When Juan opens the lower tier of the box her face is tinted a deeper red by bundles of 100-yuan notes, each printed with the crimson face of Chairman Mao. ‘Must be forty thousand yuan in there,’ she quickly calculates. ‘Looks like he wants a big favour from you.’
‘Yes – he’s asked me to get his brother a job in the Industry and Commerce Department. What a hypocrite. Always bangs on about cultivating a Communist spirit and opposing commercialisation, while behind the scenes he’s doing corrupt deals with shady businesses.’ Ma Daode looks up at the television again and switches channels.
‘Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s promoted to Deputy Mayor next year. He’ll be at the East is Red reunion as well, so be careful what you say in front of him.’ She stares at the heap of gold ingots beside the broken mooncakes, each one looking to her like a small brick of worry. ‘Where shall we hide this? The attic’s full. Hey, did I tell you your sister’s working for a direct-selling company now, flogging fortune-telling kits and good-luck charms? She keeps pestering me to introduce her to new customers. It’s obviously a dodgy pyramid scheme. Why don’t you just give her this cash and tell her to leave me alone.’
‘Is she mad? The government has labelled fortune-telling a “feudal superstition” and is threatening to ban it. Those good-luck charms are a con. The crooks buy cheap leather bags for a hundred yuan, call them “fortune bags”, then sell them for ten times the price. Anyway, good fortune cannot be bought with money or charms: destiny emerges only through struggle.’ Ma Daode is pleased with this latest maxim. He picks a bogey from his nostril and flicks it onto the floor.
The doorbell rings. In silent solidarity, Juan swiftly covers the mooncake box with a newspaper and Ma Daode hides it inside the cupboard. Then Juan presses her eye to the peephole. It’s Song Bin’s wife, Hong.
‘Let’s get moving – it’s seven o’clock already!’ Hong says cheerfully, as she steps inside. She’s wearing a flamenco-style pleated skirt and red lipstick a shade lighter than the one she wore yesterday. She sits on the sofa and admires her long, purple-lacquered nails. Ma Daode taps the vibrating phone in his pocket and watches Juan disappear upstairs again.
‘Is Song Bin home yet?’ he asks Hong.
‘No, he’s always back late, just like you,’ Hong replies, still gazing at her nails. ‘The Civility Office staff seem to get more work than anyone. He keeps having to stay late into the night for emergency meetings.’
‘Turn on the television, if you like – Juan won’t be long,’ Ma Daode says, then rushes to the bathroom to check his texts.
what are you doing, mr dirty dream?
Ma Daode rolls his toad-like eyes and types: preparing for tomorrow’s meeting. and you? He finds the heated Japanese toilet they recently installed very comfortable to sit on.
online shopping. just bought myself a pair of italian sandals. everyone at white heaven was talking about you this afternoon.
it was your fault for distracting me. what were you thinking, texting me during a meeting? no political nous. As he recalls his crazed rant at today’s Party meeting, he feels short of breath, as though someone is stuffing his chest with straw.
hey, you can’t tell me off – you’re not my boss any more. tomorrow we must come clean about our relationship.
don’t be silly. i’ll come to you tomorrow night, and bring a bottle of vintage xijiu.
so you’re busy with another woman tonight, are you? i’m just mistress number three, or number four, aren’t i? well, i tell you, director ma, i’ve had enough! tomorrow i’m going to hand over your signed declaration of love to the discipline inspection commission, then we’ll see what glorious future your china dream has in store for us!
stop this mad talk! you’re upsetting me. Ma Daode is starting to panic.
i want to fly to the netherworld and drink a cup of old lady dream’s broth of amnesia on the bridge of helplessness.
you’re losing your mind! don’t be angry with me, i beg you. The thought that she might be contemplating suicide makes Ma Daode break into a sweat.
since i started my job at white heaven, i haven’t had one day of peace. i want to speak to your wife and tell her everything.
my blood pressure’s rising, darling. i must take my medicine. speak later. A chill runs up his spine as he clutches his warm phone. ‘Mistress’, ‘lover’, ‘concubine’ – these are words often heard during the trials of corrupt officials. If any of his mistresses report him to the authorities, he will lose his job and privileges, and return to square one. He usually handles situations like this with ease, but the disturbing memories that have intruded into his thoughts recently have left him so confused that even this small problem seems insurmountable. As soon as he hears his wife and Hong shut the front door behind them, he creeps out of the bathroom and returns to the sofa.
Another text beeps. what’s going on? why haven’t you called? He stares at the small icon of his oldest mistress, Li Wei, next to this message, and realises he hasn’t seen her for almost a month. Over the last two weeks, he has slept with Wendi and Changyan on alternate nights and, despite his better judgement, has met up with Yuyu twice. He decides that he should summon all of his girlfriends to a meeting and lay down some new ground rules. He wonders which woman he should sleep with tonight. Li Wei is at the bottom of his list. No, Yuyu should be – she is about to report him. Maybe he should take Yuyu with him to Li Wei’s apartment. That really would be a ‘night of blissful debauchery’, as the ancients would say . . .
We didn’t have enough cash to buy my parents a coffin, so my sister pawned a picture frame and a copper wash bowl. She considered pawning my father’s two-toned brogues as well, which he seldom wore but always kept polished, but decided to give them to me. With the 30 yuan she raised, we bought a cheap plywood coffin. Now that I’m rich, I could house my parents’ bones in a stone tomb, if only I could find them. After we buried the coffin in the wild grove near Yaobang Village, so many Red Guards were buried there as well that it was impossible to know which grave belonged to whom. For those who survived, that wild grove has become a place of nightmares.
‘The swan flies away, never to return / I think back to the past, and my heart feels hollow,’ Ma Daode recites to himself as he pulls on his socks. Why am I being haunted by all these flashbacks, all these dreamlike visions of death and violence? The past and the present keep colliding in his mind. Last night, he dreamed of a place he has never seen before. It was a hospital corridor. Both walls were painted green on the lower half and a line of white ants was crawling along the dark crimson floor. At the end of the corridor was a room where the China Dream Bureau documents were stored. He opened the door and saw himself, sitting head bowed in front of a screen, typing the Bureau’s annual report, his body shrouded in furry white mould. He could hear children playing basketball outside, and could smell the stench of rot wafting from his decaying double. Then, suddenly, he saw a boy with a slashed cheek, staring straight at him, blood spewing from his mouth. Wendi pinched his nose, trying to wake him up, and whispered, ‘What did you say? Whose death do you want to avenge?’
Ma Daode glances at the leftover fish bones and charred beans lying on the table, and remembers the canteen of Yaobang Village School. It wasn’t a real canteen – just a small room with a stove in the mud house of a villager who had been killed in the crossfire during a battle on the river front. Two hundred East is Red recruits were sent to that battle, armed with just four hand grenades each. Only thirty returned alive.
Before he steps out of the front door, Ma Daode looks into the hallway mirror, presses an imaginary gun to his head, and says to himself: ‘Hurry up and make the China Dream Device so that all these bloody nightmares can be erased.’
The above is an excerpt from Ma Jian’s China Dream, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.
Photograph © Yannick974