Pushcart 2021 XLV: Siqi Liu, “Chastity” (nonfiction) from The Harvard Advocate, Fall 2019

Funeral banner of Lady Dai (Xin Zhui), 2nd century B.C.E., silk
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.

I characterized the prior story of this volume, “In a Good Way,” as a “raunchy, humorous good time of a story” full of “characters who think about sex all the time.” How interesting that it’s followed up by a piece describing an era and place in which a younger group of characters, real-life people this time in a non-fiction setting, also think about sex all the time. But it’s a more general expression of sex – pleasure, beauty, joy – and it’s strictly subjugated to appreciation of the Party and the Great Leader.

The place is China, the time, the 1970s, the end of the Mao era. The story for our pre-teen point-of-view character – and forgive me if I react to the story as if it’s fiction, for it’s written very much in fictive style even though it’s clearly labeled nonfiction – begins with the discovery of the 2100-year-old mummy Xin Zhui, popularly called Lady Dai. She’s also called The Ancient Hag, pairing admiration of her imagined beauty with the culturally-necessary disdain for her embrace of capitalism, wealth, and comfort.

Here’s the description of the mummy, the way she was seen by the neighborhood girls who crowded to view the mummy every day for months:

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.

If you google Xin Zhui, you’ll find pictures of the mummy that don’t look anything like this awe-ridden description. The preservation is highly praised, but beauty is not the word that springs to mind on my first glimpse of the corpse. This shows us how powerful one’s belief about reality can be, whether it’s a belief in tales of a woman who lived long ago, or belief in a current political system that demands loyalty or else.

Siqi uses this moment to describe the final years of the Mao era. She admits “We were too young to remember starvation in the way our older siblings did” but she and her comrades write up complaints about those who aren’t acting in the appropriate revolutionary spirit. It’s written in first person plural voice, again emphasizing the community aspect and unity of the children. And it shows the delicate tightrope they walked on, torn between admiring Lady Dai, and deriding the Ancient Hag.

Although the first few paragraph have a somewhat book-report feel, the piece soon smooths out into a gripping story. Part of that is the first person plural POV, but I think beyond that, what makes it really read like a story, rather than an essay, is a plot twist: the exposure of a diary entry by a “mousy girl” who has blended her latent sexuality with political orthodoxy in the most blatant sense:

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…

If this feels creepy, remember that, following the example in Song of Solomon where highly sexualized imagery supposedly reflects the love of God for His creation, Christianity often  envisions Christ as the Bridegroom marrying his Church, a metaphor echoed by priests and nuns wearing wedding rings as they take vows of celibacy and join their orders. The combination of sex and obedience to an organization is not new.

The fallout from the exposure confuses the young girls, who try to figure out if they must now stone their former friend. However, she turns out to be a spectacular advocate for herself, and becomes almost legendary – until the death of Mao, when she surpasses that “almost’ and passes into local lore.

This is a great example of creative nonfiction. It’s far more effective than a factually based exposition might be, and to me, more interesting than even an emotionally-drenched memoir. The discovery of the mummy anchors the piece to a very specific image, and it’s that image that allows Siqi to go beyond that point and bring in the theme of chastity in the name of the Party to illuminate how it felt to be a young girl growing up in that time. The storification of the events, particularly the use of first person plural, draws the reader in; instead of using our analytical powers to understand an explanation, we’re caught in the emotional flow of events. This is the power of story we keep hearing about from the Old School: in this case, that power is used to take a tour of a time and place and mindset.

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Complete story available online at The Harvard Advocate.