In the early 1970s, several construction workers uncovered three ancient tombs on the side of a hill in Mawangdui, Changsha while building an air raid shelter for a nearby hospital. The construction halted, archeologists were summoned, and an excavation proceeded that revealed what was to become the crown jewel of our hometown: Xin Zhui. We called her Lady Dai, the wife of Li Chang, the Marquise of Dai, the Ancient Hag. We saw the 2,100-year-old woman in a makeshift museum exhibit later. Her breasts, chalky white and full of craters, reminded us of the moon. Her tiny nose hairs—still intact thanks to the acidic, magnesium-rich preservation liquid that soaked her body—looked like either the legs of the flies that we regularly caught or the hairs that were beginning to sprout from our own armpits. Her face was the shape of a sunflower seed and her mouth, gaping open with the tongue protruding like a tiny white fish, suggested that she was laughing in her moment of death.
The archeologists said Xin Zhui was a noble woman who enjoyed fine musical performances and had a taste for imperial foods. They had found 138 melon seeds in her stomach, from which they deduced that she had eaten a melon two hours before her death, and that she died during the summer when the fruits were ripe. She was buried with over 1,000 pieces of vessels, tapestries, and figurines. Her tomb was adjacent to the tombs of her husband and her son, who had died years before her and whose bodies were fully decomposed.
When the museum opened the makeshift mummy exhibit for locals (the actual exhibit, the one the whole world would come to know, wasn’t completed until we were in our twenties), we went every afternoon. We pressed our noses against the glass case and fogged it up with our breaths. We agreed that the Ancient Hag must have been, once upon a time, very beautiful. How could they have wanted to wrap her dead body with twenty layers of silk cloth otherwise? Her skin must have been luminous and pale, her eyes double-lidded like those of a true Chinese beauty, her cheek charmingly sunken with dimples, or wine nests, as we called them.
In public, we made sure to pair these compliments with derision, for we knew that it was improper to praise pretty things. It was an era in which we scoffed at skirts and cut our hair short like boys, a place in which the ugliest peasants were lauded. We had burnt our silk handkerchiefs and jade jewelry in a great fire that lasted for three days and three nights. Our books, too: translated copies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pride and Prejudice, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Complete Sherlock Holmes wilted in the flames. The fire had kept away mosquitoes as we danced around it, chanting songs praising Our Great Leader. So, even as we admired the mummy’s silk wrapping and richly colored robes, we denounced her as a capitalist. Even as we fantasized about her alabaster skin and soft pink lips, we called her the Ancient Hag.
On the walk back from the museum, we’d stop by a street stall and get popsicles. We licked and sucked on them until the cold sweetness broke into small pieces that we tucked under our tongues. Sometimes we held competitions to see who could insert the greatest length of popsicle into their throats while neither choking on nor breaking it. The trick was to tip our faces toward the sky and pretend that we didn’t have gag reflexes, that our bodies were no different from those of long, brown eels that had a straight tunnel from mouth to anus. In fact, we pretty much were eels. Our limbs were always covered with fine brown dust. We only wore earth-toned clothes. Whatever accumulated under our fingernails was the color of shit. The only bright hue that disrupted our brownness was the red scarf we wore around our necks. Yet despite our eel-ness, whenever we held our popsicle-eating competitions in the humid Changsha afternoons, men smiled at us in the streets and called us tongzhi, comrades.
Because there had not been school in years, because our older siblings had left to work in communes in remote parts of the country, because our parents had been reassigned from their college professorships or editorial jobs to faraway factories where they made matchboxes or envelopes by hand, we did whatever we wanted that summer. One day we walked eight kilometers to the only pond in Changsha that still had wild frogs and speared them with sticks. We were too young to remember starvation in the way our older siblings did, but we craved meat. We roasted their bloody little legs over a fire and ate the charred pieces with our dusty fingers. One day we wrote dazibao denouncing our old English teacher as a Rightist and pelted him with stones until he died. He had once humiliated two of us in front of the whole class for mispronouncing the word sandwich. One day we met up with boys who used to be our classmates and went swimming in the Yangtze River. When we emerged from the brown water, our shirts soaking wet, our hardened nipples pointed at them like fingers.
Every day we went to visit the Ancient Hag in her glass case. Every day she seemed to grow younger, her cratered skin smoother than it had been the day before, her sinewy arms leaner and stronger. At that point the museum had been open long enough that most locals had already seen her, so we had the room to ourselves. What a disgusting member of the bourgeoisie, we’d say, loud enough for the guard to hear. But silently we compared her to the beautiful Chang’e, the goddess of the moon who achieved immortality when her husband did not and lived for an eternity in her chilly palace, accompanied only by her white rabbit. Such must have been the case for the Ancient Hag, too. The plaque by her body explained how she had died years after her husband and remained widowed, never remarrying. She was the emblem of a virtuous woman, a loyal wife. Now her body, touched by no one besides her husband until its unearthing, was alone behind this glass while his had long returned to the soil. On our walk back, sliding the popsicles up and down our hot throats, we concluded that she was buried with such riches not only because she was beautiful, but also because she was chaste. Didn’t our fathers tell us about our great-grandmothers who were honored with tall stone arches for refusing to remarry, keeping their bodies untouched for thirty years? Didn’t they build wide white bridges over rivers in the countryside for the women who had killed themselves to follow their husbands into the afterlife? Surely the Ancient Hag was rewarded, too, for her chastity.
We didn’t think of chastity in terms of sex, of course. Sex was bourgeois, individualistic, dirty. We never thought about sex (we only thought about sex when we saw dogs doing it in the streets, but that was before they were all eaten along with the cats and rats). We believed chastity was like loyalty. Devoting your body to a person and a cause. Our Great Leader told us that a revolutionary should be loyal to the Party and free of vulgar desires, so we strove to be chaste. We purged ourselves of all but the most necessary wants. Aside from the popsicles—the only thing that stood between us and heat strokes—we ate one meal a day. We allowed ourselves to smile only when we discussed revolutionary activities. We never wanted the boys with whom we went to the river; the only man we found handsome was Our Great Leader. Although he was in his seventies by then, most pictures of him showed a man with slick black hair who looked younger than our fathers. Didn’t our mothers tell us that the big yellow star on the Chinese flag represented Our Great Leader, and the four little stars surrounding it represented the flock of women who wanted to marry him? Wouldn’t it be an honor to keep our bodies pure so that one day, we might be worthy to bear for Our Great Leader the foremost spawn of the revolution?
With that logic, we assuaged the guilt we had once felt for admiring the Ancient Hag. After all, she was a role model in her own way: an embodiment of chastity and loyalty, even if she was a capitalist. We began to adore her openly. We admired out loud her snow-white burial robe and the cloud-shaped designs on her red lacquer dinnerware. We argued boisterously about which one of us might one day be as beautiful and chaste as she, our voices shrill and insistent in the empty museum chamber. By August we had ceased to be afraid of the guard, a stooped old man who stood still as a Buddha statue while eyeing our brown limbs.
Inspired by the Ancient Hag, one of us suggested a vow of chastity. It seemed like the logical next step for our aspiration toward complete purification, a process in which our brown bodies would be scrubbed and made precious. It was the year in between years when we had no school, when our parents had stopped speaking to us out of fear, when our siblings had disappeared. We belonged to no one and strove for nothing (we were told that we must lay down our lives like bricks in the building of our Great Socialist Society). But we’d rather be vases, emptied and refilled with crystal-clear water. Or even better, arrows. How lovely it would be to shrink into skinny lines with sharp points, possessed by someone and held tenderly at the bow, something that can never deviate from the path dictated by its owner.
We enthusiastically agreed, but we asked, chastity for whom? There was no boy whom we loved, no one whom we waited for.
For Our Great Leader, of course, she said. You dumb eggs.
Suddenly it became clear what we must do. Yes, we would keep our bodies chaste for Our Great Leader. Wasn’t that what we were all supposed to secretly want? We loved him more than our parents, more than our siblings, and certainly more than the smelly boys we played with. We vowed to save ourselves for Our Great Leader and never to touch another man. Sometimes we saw the years of our lives stretching before us like an eternity, so we imagined ourselves wearing flowing white dresses and living alone in a chilly palace, like the immortal Chang’e. Other times we craved the day of our death, for on that day we would sure to be buried with great fanfare, like the Ancient Hag, or have stone memorials erected in our honor, like our great-grandmothers. The only difference was, we would not want to be buried with anything except our little red books. We would accept nothing other than the simple wooden coffin of a peasant.
We should reiterate, though, that we did not think of any of this chastity stuff in terms of sex. Sex was bourgeois, individualistic, dirty. We believed chastity was like loyalty. We were devoting our bodies to Our Great Leader and the Revolution. So, imagine our horror when we discovered erotic excerpts from one of our comrades’ diary published in an anonymous dazibao, taped to the front door of her home! Someone had stolen her diary (her younger sister, we suspected) and copied the very yellow scenes elaborated over pages and pages in big black characters on white paper: I opened to him like a soft red peony and a drop of blood stained the white sheets… His hands roamed over my body, those small hills and streams… Our Great Leader’s seeds flooded me at last…
After we recovered from our initial shock and shrieks, alternating between feeling scandalized and giggling behind our hands, we realized that we had been surrounded by a group of our former classmates. Some were the boys we saw at the river every week, some were boys and girls we had not seen for years. Like us, their necks were collared with red scarves, but there was not a trace of amusement on their faces. The author of the diary, a mousy girl who wore her hair in pigtails and ate her popsicles so slowly they’d often melt into thin white paths along her fingers, was nowhere to be seen.
“How dare she write about Our Great Leader using such disgusting language!”
“Who does she think she is?”
“That unclean bitch!”
We stayed quiet even though our hearts felt like ants crawling atop a hot stove. What should we say? What should we do? If we agreed with the others, our friend would surely get into trouble. At best she might be dispatched to do hard farm labor in some rural region, permanently losing her city hukou and never able to return. At worst she might die right there. But if we tried to defend her, we might be seen as counter-revolutionary. After all, weren’t her words denigrating to the Party? Wasn’t it akin to smearing a big pile of shit on Our Great Leader’s name? Didn’t he teach us that we should place Party righteousness above even our families? As we caught the faltering in each other’s eyes, the boys in the crowd spat angrily on the ground, each splat landing like a bullet.
Fortunately, we did not have to make a decision. At that moment, the mousy girl pushed her way through the burgeoning crowd and anchored herself next to the dazibao like a dog guarding her bone. Her pigtails were lopsided, and strands of wet black hair matted to her forehead. It was hard to tell whether she had just cleansed herself in the river or whether she was sweating profusely.
“Comrades!” She shouted to the crowd, raising her arm like a general. The dreamy look she usually wore on her pimply face was contorted into an inscrutable mask. “You are all making a mistake. These words are proof of my untainted and unsurpassable love for Our Great Leader. I am willing to devote my whole body and my whole soul to him. I am willing to bear his child and carry the seeds of the revolution—metaphorically or literally! I am willing to not look at a single man for the rest of my life out of my enduring love for him! I am willing to throw myself onto his funeral pyre because my loyalty to him lasts beyond this lifetime! Which one of you can say that? Which one of you can say you love Our Great Leader more than I? Which one?”
We all fell silent. The ants within us crawled at a more frantic speed. Could she be right that she loved Our Great Leader more than any of us? We had never encountered this strange situation before, so we could not fathom how we should react. If we accused her of being counter-revolutionary, we might have to prove that we loved Our Great Leader more than she claimed she did. It was one thing to take a secret chastity vow; it was an entirely different thing to publicly proclaim that we desired to have sex with Our Great Leader. Plus, if she was indeed a loyal revolutionary, it would be a crime to punish her.
The crowd’s collective hesitation gave the mousy girl more strength. With her chin tipped toward the sky, she peeled the dazibao from the door in a single, swift motion and folded it eight times into a small square. Transformed into that compact size, it suddenly seemed precious, like a love letter. “Whoever posted this is clearly a counter-revolutionary,” she yelled, waving the square in her hand. “I will find them and report them to the Party.”
With these words, the mousy girl turned and entered her house, slamming the door behind her so hard one of the hinges dislodged like a broken tooth. We shuffled in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds. Someone said they were thirsty. Someone said it was too hot. We were all relieved to have an excuse to disperse.
While we were glad we did not have to pelt her with stones, we also never spoke to her again. It would have been too dangerous to be associated with such an individual. Who knew what else she had written in her diary that could get her in trouble? And why was she writing, anyway? None of us had written a single word in our diaries for years. Even though we thought only revolutionary thoughts and said only revolutionary words, we were afraid of what might happen if we pried too deep into our consciousness.
She seemed to deliberately avoid us, too. After that day, she never set foot in front of Old Chen’s popsicle stall again. Nor did she show up to look at the Ancient Hag in the afternoons, or catch flies with us in the dried-up reservoir. That fall, rumors circulated: Some said she volunteered to do farm labor up north in the wintery region of Heilongjiang, where the ground froze solid by November. Some said that, after having heard about her supreme loyalty to Our Great Leader, the local Party committee had nominated her as an exemplary youth. Out of curiosity, we changed our route so we could pass by her family’s home every day, hoping to either catch a glimpse of her or confirm her disappearance. From a certain angle, crouching behind the willow tree across the street, we could see through a tiny opening in the newspapers crudely patched over a makeshift window. Only once, during a thunderstorm, did we see a swath of soft white gown flit past the opening. We were shocked—where had she obtained such a gown? Or had we seen a ghost?
We never walked past her home again. It was old-fashioned—perhaps even counter-revolutionary—to be superstitious, so we pushed thoughts of the mousy girl out of our minds. In the middle of that winter, sometime after the first snowfall we had seen in eight years, we heard from an old woman in our neighborhood that she had indeed been approached by high-ranking members of the regional Party Committee. They thought she had demonstrated exemplary devotion to Our Great Leader during the dazibao incident. Because of their nomination, she was now attending the prestigious school for revolutionary thought in Wuhan, training to become a full-fledged cadre. Outwardly, we applauded her meteoric rise; inwardly, we applauded ourselves for having the foresight to not pelt her with stones.
To everyone’s relief, we, too, went back to school the following autumn. By that time, we found ourselves eager to receive homework, for even the Ancient Hag and all the lore she had inspired had ceased to entertain us. We heard that without us, the exhibit sat empty day after day. In fact, it was not until years later—after they had finished excavating the site and added a number of additional artifacts to the original exhibit—that foreigners from all over the world started coming to see it.
When we started classes again, we noticed how the boys we had swam with were taller and darker, how the place where their t-shirt sleeves ended and their upper arms began bulged. We passed them notes folded into tiny squares and sometimes tasted their mouths in the twilight-lit alleyway between the school and the field. Eventually, enough seasons had passed that when the mousy girl did come up in conversation—as she did when we reminisced about that unusually hot summer—we no longer spoke about her in hushed tones. We agreed that in hindsight, what she had done was an ingenious political maneuver. She had escaped from the tiger’s jaws so effortlessly that we could not help but admire her cleverness. In fact, we began to think that she had devised the whole scheme from the beginning, knowing that it would help her accrue revolutionary credentials. A few of us seemed to remember that it was she who had proposed the vow of chastity in the first place.
By the time Our Great Leader passed away, she was the last thing on our minds. With the announcement of his death, we cried until our voices went hoarse, and tear streaks etched our cheeks like claw marks. Every street stall was draped with black strips of cloth. We felt directionless in this world without Our Great Leader, a heap of sand suddenly blown loose, arrows with their heads chopped off. In school, we turned in nothing but eulogies for Our Great Leader and skipped class to take turns reciting them on the field.
The third morning after we learned the horrible news, we saw a woman with gray hair running through the street, beating her chest with her fist and weeping. She wore black cloth slacks that hung to her ankles and a black shirt with only three of the dozen buttons fastened. As she approached, we could see the lumps of her breasts occasionally jump through the shirt like unruly animals. We assumed that like everyone else, she was mourning Our Great Leader, so we paused to admire how sincere her self-beating appeared, how heart-wrenching her shrieks sounded. Suddenly, as she passed by Old Chen’s stall, she began crying, “My daughter! My daughter!”
It was September, but we suddenly felt faint. We ran after the woman, pushing past the walls of black cloth that brushed coldly across our faces like rain. When we reached the one-room house, we saw the mousy girl we had once known dangling from a ceiling beam, wearing a soft white gown. A piece of paper resting on the fallen chair beneath her contained big characters written in black ink that read, “Bury me with Our Great Leader.”
We stared at the words as the wails of her mother and father shook our bones. The woman blubbered about how her daughter had returned home the previous night for the first time in years. Burying his wet face between his wife’s breasts, the man emitted a howl-like sound, one that echoed throughout a room that was empty except for two small beds in the corner, a coal stove, and three metal pans hanging by the newspaper-covered window we had once peeked through. Something about the acoustics of the room—perhaps an attribute of its emptiness— amplified each noise they made as if we were in a museum. At last we brought ourselves to look at her face. Even though her cheeks were the color of eggplant and her tongue stuck out from her swollen jaws, we couldn’t help but notice that the white dress made her look beautiful and timeless—just like Chang’e, just like the Ancient Hag.
We tried our best to honor our friend, we really did. We wrote letter after letter to the Party about her devotion to Our Great Leader. We beseeched them to bury her next him, or even near him—anywhere within a three-kilometer radius will do, please, it was her dying wish. We recounted her untainted revolutionary spirit, her bravery, her unflinching loyalty to the Cause. Even as the leaves began to fall, we continued writing with a passion that we hoped was fiery enough to burn away the vines of our own guilt. But sending off those letters was like dropping paper into a deep well; there was not even an echo to be heard. By then her body had begun to rot in the makeshift coffin. We told her parents that maybe we didn’t have the right address.
In the spring, a few months after the mousy girl had finally been buried, one of us returned from a trip to our nation’s capital bearing incredible news. She had seen the body of Our Great Leader in a glass case, perfectly preserved for the next thousand years as if in a deep sleep. The line of visitors who wanted to grieve him was so long it wrapped three circles around the mausoleum. He looked so serene that he must have been smiling in his moment of death, she said, and his skin was smooth, like he had died a young man. We shook our heads at this news, remembering the mousy girl and how beautiful she had looked in her white dress. This time, rather than imagining her in a simple wooden coffin next to Our Great Leader, we imagined that it was she, not he, who lay in the glass case.