February 2003, right before the SARS pandemic. I was loafing on the playground when the sky turned a shade of urine. At first there weren’t any ripples in the air. Everything was still. Then the winds whistled and screeched, marauding in circles. The yellow color stiffened – a curtain of dust was descending – and we cowered against it. We clung, we tumbled. It loosened our hold. Teachers screamed for us to shelter inside, and from there memory drops away.
The sandstorm was an anomaly, the first of my nightmares. It hinted at a crisis waiting to stage itself. There was a time when winter was my favorite season – the sky used to be so highly vaulted and blue that the city appeared flat and simple. But in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the air of Beijing changed in tone: it started to resemble a dead pond, unperturbed by winds and beset with a gray condensation of particles. The winds toughened – they arrived from the northwestern hills and rubbed against my nostrils. My skin dried out like fruit. I compulsively drew chimneys on houses, blaming them for belching out smoke, though I don’t recall seeing one in real life.
Unlike fog, which lifts to reveal a vibrant, dew-dropped world, the air I was breathing would age anything it touched. The effect was comparable to the ‘plague-winds’ of the nineteenth century, which John Ruskin described as a concentration of dead men’s souls, fleeting hither and thither. To him, the worst thing about pollution was that it blanches the sun, instead of reddening it. By my time, I thought primary colors were long since gone from Beijing. I imagined that the smog was shaped like a dome, cast between us and the stars. Any dead souls would have been trapped on this overworked earth.
In kindergarten the teachers were convinced that color instills happiness – they tinted our tables a chipper pink and the chairs the brutal orange of undercooked egg yolk. All sharp edges were bound in yellow sponges; forty children shared one gigantic womb.
Behind a fragile wooden door was a great hall filled with beds, all painted deep blue to induce peace. Every day, a boney woman, whose last name was Zhao, herded us there immediately after lunch to sleep for an hour. The head of my bed was attached to the feet of another, so that fistfights at the back of the room sent tremors across every surface. The room smelled putrid after years of housing immature bodies. Eventually, Zhao would chant an authoritarian version of Red Light, Green Light: ‘One you can’t move, two you can’t talk, three you can’t open your eyes.’ I stared at the bare light bulb above me, at the vast, stark gray of the concrete.
I crawled on top of my bedpost one noon. The room was congested with light snores; yet, seen from above, the young bodies heaved in meticulous order. The wood was thin and greasy – I tried to balance on the point of my feet. I had started taking ballet lessons, so the movement was at least within the scope of my imagination. I shifted my weight from one foot to another, occasionally slamming down onto the mattress. I remember leveling my vision toward the towering residence blocks out the window. It was then that I noticed Ray: a malnourished, bookish girl whose lips were always cracked. Lying just two beds to my right, she had been watching me, her eyes narrow enough to fool the teachers, yet just slightly twinkling. I stared until she raised herself by the elbows and proceeded to perch onto the post. Her feathery limbs and weak joints shook; the wood barely creaked. Just then, the doorknob turned: reverberating across the room, the sound of my weight thrown against the headboard. Ray had already slipped away. I was hauled off by the back of my dress and forbidden from napping ever again.
On the first day of elementary school I found, etched onto the top corner of my desk, a strikingly sharp-edged ‘31’, no larger than an eraser. Instinctively, I cupped a hand over it. Forty children were sorted into one class, and eight classes made up a grade. There was already a rumor that the higher the number of our class, the more extraordinary we were – I was in class seven, where the rumor started. We’d ascend through the years as a unit, sitting in the same seats every day as the teachers came and went.
The mornings were interrupted by a session outdoors, which quickly became the most hated time of day. At a quarter to ten, we filed in line to the playground and practiced military-style exercises: march, stomp and salute. And then we’d follow gymnastic sequences, which were scored to Soviet symphonies. The most memorable one was called ‘First Flight of the Eagle:’ it began with a crouching stance and the innocent flapping of our arms. The music was solemn; the arms increasingly fanatic in movement. At the climax we were to spin clockwise – a motion designed to resemble take-off.
The weather rarely affected our routines; the exercises were mild, never enough to raise my heartbeat. Our feet barely left the ground, and we spent most of the time in stillness. The purpose of all this became clear when, for the Republic’s sixtieth anniversary, around twenty students were drafted from every elementary school in the city. They would become the backdrop for a parade of festooned and armored vehicles. We stood for forty-five minutes one morning, during which our gym teacher searched not for the most graceful students but for the most impassive and disciplined. The chosen ones were whisked into months of rehearsal, where they practiced lifting up sheets of bright acetate that spelled out ‘happy birthday motherland!’ to faraway figures on the dais.
In those brutal intervals of standing I could only look up. All around us were red brick buildings – their roofline resembled a picture frame, except that instead of a sky rolling beyond there was only an abyss. I found it embarrassing when a chorus of crows came to watch. They were occasionally very loud, those hated birds, and they loved to caw over the silence below them. Most of the time they simply perched on gigantic satellite dishes, shameless and bored.
I knew early on that holding oneself upright takes great effort – the urge to shuffle and itch seems to trickle from muscle to hair. In due time five hundred children would move as one. The gratification of absolute command, neurological fetish of an almost religious order. But it was always possible to feign stupidity and, with one false move, become instantly visible. My chosen mistake was to turn to the left as everyone spun clockwise, so that they swept toward me in a single, swift gesture. These were moments of Kafka’s aphorism coming into life – the cage went in search of a bird.
In the mornings my mother drove me down Chang’an street, Beijing’s main artery. We passed a street sign in the shape of a rainbow, and turned at the corner of a state-owned hotel – the first in the city to decorate its beams with marbled angels. My school was conceived as a seminary for children of the political elite, a decade after the founding of the Republic. A fragment of its original stone plaque was now preserved behind a sheet of emerald-colored glass and raised high atop an archway, which acted as the school’s southern gate.
Ray and I were of a similar height, which meant I was assigned to sit behind her. We only exchanged cautious words in the first few months. She was just as thin and breakable as I remembered. Her face was longer and leaner, but her features were dense in their severity – eyebrows untidy and bewildered, almost converging.
I also stood beside her at the weekly flag-raising ceremony, another wonder of our new life. Every Monday morning, a podium was set up at the northern end of the schoolyard, and there stood our Party Secretary, a slender, hunchbacked woman rumored to be the daughter of the school principal. Too many phalanxes blocked my view, and so I recognized her only by the tilt in her posture and the hands folded behind her back. From the register of her speech I imagined that her lips were thin and that her eyes bulged. She’d wait for mournful music to thud from the speakers overhead; her priggish phrases at the mercy of an enveloping rhythm. In every first week of September, she spoke on the virtue of beginnings; in the second week, on the virtue of gratitude, in honor of Teacher’s Day; after that she would dwell at length on what it means to harvest the fruit of one’s labor (every season carried a distinct type of duty). March and April swelled with holidays: we eulogized women for Women’s Day and memorized the myth of Lei Feng, a Communist martyr who dedicated himself to living selflessly. The Gregorian calendar spun like a wheel of analogs in her mind. Her language seemed to glaze over and repeat – every occasion was a reminder that we were ‘sons and daughters of the Yellow Emperor’, ‘successors of the dragon’, and, always, ‘descendants of the last remaining civilization’.
When the speech neared its climax, we turned to the east, where the sun should be. An escort squad appeared from behind the podium. The leader – always a boy – carried the flag on his right shoulder, and then hooked it onto the pulley. Here came the crest of this fine routine: when done right, it was a moment of catharsis, a purging of fear and pity: he balled up one corner of the flag so that upon the first note of the national anthem – a cry, ‘Rise Up!’ – he was ready to fling the red silk into still air.
We watched the flag rise as we sang, the voices of five hundred children melding into a single, off-tune voice. I was often irritated: by the wind, which caused the flag to wrap around itself, helpless and holy; by the boy, who lost his sense of measure and hoisted away in great haste; the pole, which rasped. I remember peering at Ray, the corner of her mouth naturally curving downward. Others held their necks rigid and expressions solemn, but I saw her looking up toward the colossal sky – her gaze careless, unrestrained and, miraculously, lacking in deep feeling.
As we learned to write, Ray and I started passing notes in class. We disassembled our pens and hid scrolls in the empty cartridges. But the content never lived up to the form: we spent most of our notes debating what sort of exchange would be worthy of the risk. To me it was apparent. Let us write a novel, I said, because we need a full record of our heroic adventures. I promise I’ll consider it, Ray responded eventually, but for now: did you know that Zhang – our first math teacher, a broad-chested woman – has left the school to conduct a subway car? Do you believe the rumor that our Party Secretary – that bumble bee of a creature – is terminally ill? Haven’t you noticed the bulge in her neck?
My handwriting started out compact and tame, piling up like an anthill, but over the course of the day it would spill over, lavish and mercurial. Ray’s slanted wildly, every pen stroke a splayed limb. One particularly unkind math teacher often made her rewrite her homework. I always wondered whether illegibility was Ray’s way of protecting herself – I couldn’t decipher her secrets unless she willed me to. It was a commonly held truth that calligraphy laid bare our temperament. I envied her for having one.
Here’s how Marguerite Duras introduces Lol Stein, one of her heroines: ‘in school there was already something lacking in Lol, something which kept her from being “there”.’ There was something of this in Ray. She denied our teachers the pleasure of total surrender. Whether she was being praised or abused, she assumed the same look of mourning. She was a good student, but never exemplary. Her brilliance was sporadic: she performed better when the problems depended on logic and skill, and tended to fall into foolish traps. She had little patience for monotony, and made a habit of handing in her tests early.
What annoyed the teachers, I think, was that Ray and I pitted our learning against an education in humility. Our teachers boasted that they could always catch the drift of our attention, that they always knew when our interest flitted to some other realm. Ray and I were incensed by this. They waited all day trying to catch the free minds, we fumed.
Slowly, a certain asymmetry emerged in our relationship. I could hide my head behind her ponytail, giggle, and get away with it with ease, but whenever she looked over her shoulder – to amend a note or share a quip – she was instantly caught. ‘You have a fundamental disregard for discipline,’ she was told often by Ma, our homeroom teacher. Ma’s favorite punishment was to force us to repent in front of the whole class.
On a day of particularly disastrous air – a dim, beaten beige from morning till night – we were forbidden from exercising outside. Ray had been sent to stand in the front corner early that morning. She bit her lip, bent her scabbed knees inward and hung her head. For hours, she was as stiff as the broomsticks beside her, though her eyes continued to dart around the room. A part of me found her theatricality satisfying. When she eventually returned to her seat, her steps were unsteady.
I bent forward, apologetic. ‘Are you okay?’
‘It’s not fair,’ she said, and I vehemently joined in, calling Ma a horse-faced, ill-tempered woman. Normally Ray would have chuckled, but this time she glanced at me and sat upright.
‘You shouldn’t be so mean,’ she said.
I understood – she meant it was unfair that only one of us was being punished.
There was a television, compact, brick-like, suspended next to the window, and the class waited impatiently as Ma fumbled with the cords. I thought Ray might still be upset, so I tapped her shoulder. She swatted my hand away. Agitated, I knocked once more on her back. She slid her chair forward. A vacuum opened between us, the length of three tiles, which were strewn with frizzled hair. The gym teacher – usually a stout, dissolving form I’d only see far away – appeared up close on screen. ‘Attention – stand!’ He ordered, screaming over the echo of his own voice. Chairs scraped against the floor and ceiling. I saw a flicker of pink disappear into Ray’s desk.
‘Is that for me?’ I whispered.
‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s my novel.’
In history class we were taught that the sky stood because of Nüwa, a gentle, laborious goddess. At the origin of time she reached through the void, and spent seven days carving a space between Heaven and Earth. When she felt profoundly alone she sat by a soft, clear lake and sculpted human beings in imitation of her own shape. They sprang into life one after another. But soon, Nüwa tired, so she dipped a rope into the mire and swung it; every droplet grew into someone’s ancestor. Those were rougher, more turbulent beings, inferior in quality to the ones touched by her hand. Together, they made up a stratified society.
In the spring of our second year, a third of the class was inducted into the Young Pioneers, the Communist league for children. Ray and I were included only because of our grades. We were given red scarves – each triangular strip of silk was said to be a fragment of the national flag, dyed red by the blood of martyrs. The one I received was soft and wrinkled, so I learned to use an iron. The scarf granted the right to salute during the singing of the national anthem; the gesture symbolized my service to the people.
I lost my red scarf within a week. I was sure I stuffed it into the drawer of my desk, pressed between my Chinese and history books, but over the weekend it had disappeared. ‘Someone must have stolen it,’ Ray told me, unperturbed. I didn’t dare tell Ma: it seemed more like sacrilege than a crime.
The Young Pioneers was meant to be our first introduction to political life. A head commissioner and vice commissioner had to be chosen in every class, someone to attend school-wide representative meetings and relay the dictums of the Party. There were five other positions: a commissioner of academic affairs, of athletics and of physical labor (to oversee after-school cleaning and tree-planting); there was an arts commissioner and a propaganda commissioner, in charge of designing the mural painting in the back of the classroom. All seven would be branded with a plastic badge: two red bars drawn on a white square. When pinned onto a left sleeve, the geometry was austere. The sign refracted just enough light to demand respect, like a third eye.
The finance district lay a block to the east: a maze of super-imposed shopping malls, linked to one another by skyways. It was an area that prided itself on being monumental, where capitalism had fought valiantly during China’s last economic boom. All around were promises of grandeur, now aging by our side. The malls soon to be demolished bore illustrious names, such as ‘Great World of the Chinese’ and ‘The Bright Pearl’. Next to the steel and glass of the twenty-first century, their outer walls were too solid – stubby, colorless, and unable to twinkle at night. Yet more people passed through the narrow alleyways between the older malls, skirting over exposed wells in pursuit of the boldest discounts.
One Friday afternoon, Ray and I went searching for a new red scarf. We hesitated at the foot of a skyway, which ran from west to east, across the main road of the district. I had to squeeze my eyes shut whenever I walked through one – less out of vertigo than from the deafening noise. I was afraid of diving into that river of headlights, so Ray led me through with her chapped hands.
We lingered at the entrance to a new building with a foreign name, but through the windows everything appeared dull and distant. We returned to several food stalls in a narrow back lane, just behind where we had started, and nibbled on sticks of fermented tofu. Men were unloading bags filled with clothing, bundled like cabbages, and more emerged from a hidden, browning façade. Fabric was thrown into black plastic bags, and cartons tumbled out of another. We didn’t notice until then, but the sun was setting somewhere behind the building’s broken neon lights.
The first floor, like any of the other shopping malls, showcased jewelry. But instead of counters there were only stalls, divided from one another by screens lined with plastic ornaments. Everything seemed to multiply, yet abundance, I was learning, dampened desire. Two counters by the door sold the same kind of charm bracelet woven in black string. When one stall didn’t carry the turquoise shade of headband Ray had set her eyes on, the owner simply borrowed from his neighbor. Aisle after aisle, we found objects we’d seen on the other girls in school, tireless, worn symbols – butterflies, ribbons and crowns. We didn’t see anyone our age. Men and women pitched helter-skelter down the hallway, tethered to their carts.
We ascended through the floors of the wholesale market, where the debris of production were laid out for the perusal of the poor and curious. Tables seemed to have been overtaken by chaos: there were pens of every contour and weight, notebooks brilliantly bedecked and carelessly strewn into mounds. The same icons of heroes and fairies awaited eager, small hands like our own. Ray and I braced ourselves for the usual overt zeal from the sellers, but they didn’t seem to notice us, and continued scuffling about, lifting and burying their trinkets. Perhaps it was the fluorescent light bouncing off of the plastic wrappings that disguised us, or perhaps the cloak of dust.
And at last, I saw it: a massive bundle of red fabric fastened to a bare pipe. The scarves sold here were a thick, red hue, bolder than the one Ray was wearing beneath her collar. The fabric felt stiff as sandpaper. The woman untangled the knot and reached absently into the stack.
There was another loose pile of items by the elevator – the leadership badges that would signify a higher tier of being. Ray cradled a badge as if it was a limp body. I saw that the plastic was thin – a metal pin would wear it down in weeks. Purchasing those awful bits of plastic seemed like a rebellion more dreadful than anything we’d done before. Cries of punishment raced through my mind: how deplorable, this disproportionate belief in our immensity! But Ray moved quickly – the badge was already stuck to her sleeve. I had a vision of her standing behind the podium, finally close enough to see whether the Party Secretary’s eyes were malicious or benign. Ray addressing the school all by herself, her words lapping in currents, eyes darting and free.
‘Would it be cheaper if I bought two?’ I asked.
The merchant shrugged. I gestured wordlessly, and reached out to pay.
In fourth grade our Chinese teacher, a lanky, soft-spoken man named Liu Bei, decided that we should begin each day, at half past seven, by collectively reciting poetry. The earliest forms of Chinese poetry are better described as songs, he told us. Court musicians performed hymns and lyrics to tintinnabulation and strumming. In the Song dynasty, lyric poetry was intended as a sensuous experience, performed amid the clinking of goblets. We shall make do, he said.
I loathed the idea on principle. ‘How can one still the thought that aesthetic experiences arise out of something organic,’ writes Czesław Miłosz, ‘and that the union of color and harmony with fear is as difficult to imagine as brilliant plumage on birds living in the northern tundras?’ Like our singing of the national anthem, the voice of forty children drawled on, exaggerating their intonations in a caricature of emotion. Sometimes I only mouthed the words, though I made sure to swallow loudly, to mimic the appearance of strenuous exertion. No one noticed. After two rounds of reading, the class was expected to recite while staring straight ahead. Those were the moments we all nervously anticipated – it became easy to identify the lesser among us. But it wasn’t hard to feign knowledge in a crowd. The voices of my peers guided me toward the rhythm of the poems more readily than the poems themselves did. I could anticipate a turn in the rhyme or an exhaustion in the patterning from a collective intake of breath.
There was a time when poetry had been a private, aesthetic experience. I recalled climbing onto the top bunk of my bed and waiting for my mother to play the tape recorder. I rotated through a full audiocassette collection of the Chinese canon, beginning with classical texts like the Analects of Confucius and the Three Character Classic. The latter, as the title suggests, are composed of clusters of three characters, each cluster functioning like a phrase: two phrases make a line, and two lines a couplet, which is a full thought. Most of the text is arranged in rhyming stanzas, so that children need only memorize the rhyming syllable to move from line to line. The rapid rhythm drills into the mind, so natural to commit to memory, even when recited without great care.
In a video recorded on the New Year’s Eve long ago, I recited the text in a jacket sewn with plum blossoms. I chanted three phrases at a time, and yelped out every fourth. My entire body shook and I knocked my head back, drawing a circle with my upper body. I looked exhausted; the words rang out like a curse. By the very end, I had abandoned all attempt at enunciating the individual characters, and simply sang out the tones and inflection of the phrases in one strange melody. I showed my three-year-old self to Ray. I was trying to tell her that she was not the only one capable of turning words into life.
An unexpected craze began around this time. One of the high bureaus declared that sleeping midday correlated with cognitive maturity. Some parents found the notion irresistible. They filed a demand, and the school complied.
At half past noon, the entire building resounded with a noise like deranged warhorses as we shoved desks and chairs out into the hallway. The classroom floor cleared, we rushed to claim space for the comforters and bamboo mats we had brought from home. We raced, a competition of who would first obtain cognitive maturity. There were no barriers between our bodies, and my feet occasionally poked someone’s head. We’d never enjoyed such freedom: I could so easily roll into my warm neighbors, or they into me.
I appreciated those intervals of quietness. The school elections were coming, and as gentle snores rose and fell, I tried to anticipate the questions that might be posed to the candidates. Imagining the worst in the voice of the Party Secretary: ‘What causes your joy?’ ‘To what are you owed?’ ‘How did you come to recognize growth?’ That was probably the trick she would use: instead of asking us to define ideas of loyalty, the purpose of the election would be to discover those that were already loyal.
Astonishingly, I found I was able to sleep as soon as it was dark. The curtains were drawn and our room dulled into a single tone of yellow. Perhaps it was a sign of prepubescence, or perhaps it was from years of training that we were so committed to our invisible borders: I lay flat, grumpily yet firmly on my mat. Elias Canetti writes about crowds formed like crystals – constant, never changing in size. ‘Its members are trained in both action and faith.’ The analogy implies clarity and constancy. But also isolation.
I had a recurring dream during those hours: instead of our daily gymnastic routines I saw all the children of Beijing lined up on the playground, every nose pressed against the back of the child in front of it, filing eastward, ranked by our exam scores. We were in uniform – tracksuits of varying degrees of drab airiness. The most obedient students zipped our jackets up over the collarbone, a body part considered scandalous. But even so we pushed and shoved, trampling one another. Was it a sign of belonging, that I was unable to imagine a way out?
Classes ended early on the day of the election, but Ma decided to launch into one of her whirlwind speeches – her usual act of arbitrary terror. Illuminated by the dim light, I watched spit fly from the corners of her mouth. Some boys in the back row were trying to complete a few homework sheets. Foolish! I muttered, for Ma fed on opportunities like this to chastise us.
‘Do you think this is how you save time?’ she’d screech. ‘In saving your own, you’ve wasted ours!’
It was already five when Ma remembered the task at hand. I could hear the parents waiting outside, powerless and loud. We’re going to do this quickly, Ma said. Instead of listening to extravagant speeches, you will rely on the judgments you’ve formed day by day. Judgment cannot be amended by performance, she said. And you’ve seen each other grow into what you are today, you know each other’s virtues like you know your own vices.
Ma would read out every candidate that had submitted their name, and we raised our hands to indicate our support. Votes from more than half the class guaranteed election. Most of the positions were uncontested: for the role of sports commissioner, we were used to being led by a lean, wiry boy whose head was too small for his body. Luna became arts commissioner. She wore pigtails, and doodled mindlessly in every class. The commissioner of physical labor, the most horrendous appointment, was a thin-haired, plump girl who liked to give orders in her gentle, soprano voice. Each position was filled so rapidly that the election felt almost irreverent.
Perhaps out of modesty, or it might have been strategy, I was vying for the vice commissioner post – as second in command it was a role that most had overlooked. I was elected in a single breath. My badge lay waiting in my drawer.
Finally, Ray’s name was called. She was running against Cindy, a girl who excelled at caution, for head commissioner. Cindy’s handwriting was famously tiny, characters piled onto each other like blocks. She sharpened her pencils by hand. Ma didn’t ask us to close our eyes when the voting began, because the result was obvious – Ray’s days being punished in front of the class lingered in our memories. When Cindy’s name was called, almost everyone raised their hands. Even their desks rattled in enthusiasm. They knew that ingenuity was an enormous undertaking, and they knew that it was a quality Ray lacked.
When Ray’s name was called, my wrist remained cradled under my chin. ‘Are you voting for her or not?’ Ma asked me, irked, surprised. Ray shifted in her seat uncomfortably, tilting sideways.
‘A myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such,’ wrote Claude Levi-Strauss. I folded my hands back onto my lap.
A few days later, the whole school was jogging around the playground, snaking in two lines. The pace was devastatingly slow, because the tip of the line almost reached the tail. It was a cold morning, and to conserve warmth I shuffled my feet. The hairs in my nostrils were about to fall off – breathing felt like a violent act. At some point, my skin was so pricked and overwrought that it stung.
Ray was supposed to run beside me, but without a glance she had passed me by. My memories trail off again here – but somehow, I see her turn and ask me about my betrayal. I must have been breathing incorrectly – my mouth left gaping out of pride or sorrow – because later that night my throat started to swell. I had a fever, which developed into pneumonia.
In Zhuangzi, wind is described as ‘breath’: the air blown from the mouth of the earth. The direction of the wind determines the part of the body it affects, from muscles and organs to sets of meridians. Winds that blow from the right direction at the right time are good and proper, but there are also ‘nefarious winds’, which penetrate the pores, causing imbalances in their opening and closing, opening the way for chaos and disease.
Wind also means ‘song’. The first chapter of the Book of Songs, the earliest existing Chinese poetry collection, is titled ‘wind of states’, and gathers folk ballads from the provincial lands. ‘Wind men’ is a term for poets.
The last time I remember sleeping in a group was while I was recovering at the hospital. I shared an open ward with seven other girls. I never learned their names – in conversation, we referred to one another by the number of our beds (a red, blistering seven was carved into my metal frame). There was an old-fashioned chimney out the window – a tower that stood all by itself, overlooking the Soviet-style apartment buildings squeezing into one another. The brick was a blighted shade of red ochre; without the plumes of smoke I always imagined while drawing, it seemed as bare as the trees. Another artefact awaiting destruction, a reminder of life as ordinary.
I slept all day, coughing and reading. When I returned to school later that year, I was assigned a new seat.
Image © Wade Tregaskis