Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ye Chun, “Hao” from Georgia Review, Fall 2018

“好/hǎo/: good” by Han_characters on Dribbble

“好/hǎo/: good” by Han_characters on Dribbble

Qingxin remembers that the character 万comes from ** in the Oracle Bone Script—a scorpion with large pincers and a poisonous sting at the end of its jointed tail. How does a bug come to mean ten thousand, as in “毛主席万鋸” — Chairman Mao lives ten thousand years, a slogan she’s made to write a thousand times a day? She wants to look it up in her Shuowen Jiezi, but all her books were confiscated and burned. If she remembers correctly, it’s speculated that scorpions once plagued the central plain, so when people saw the sign, they saw not just one scorpion but tens of thousands of them. Now, three millennia later, on the same central plain, she is labeled “毒蝎,” poisonous scorpion, and ordered to write a word that comes from the same insect a thousand times a day. Is she, then, a “poisonous scorpion,” releasing tens of thousands of scorpions back to the central plain each time she writes down the word? It’s confusing.

Complete story available online at Georgia Review
Note: While the Chinese characters display, The Oracle Bone characters are graphics and so do not display; ** is substituted. See the online story to view the characters as intended.

I could sum up this story in one sentence: it’s about the ability of language to hurt or heal, set in 1966 during China’s Cultural Revolution. But when have I ever let one sentence suffice. It’s a lot more interesting to look at it from three different points of view: the linguistic information, the historical setting, and the very personal, yet very universal story of a mother and her child. These three elements blend together to form a story that’s satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level.

Because I have an interest in language, and took a mooc (yes, I know, I’m always taking those darn moocs) about the earliest history of China and thus have some basic exposure to oracle bones and the evolution of the written language over the past two thousand years, I was fascinated by the stories of the words chosen as examples in the story: ten thousand, zero, bad, and most importantly, good, which in Mandarin is hao.

One of the primary tenets of linguistics is that words are arbitrary symbols for their meanings. That’s true to a large extent; there’s no connection between the sound we make for “cat” and the furry purrer curled up by the window. But within a language, there is often a history to words, and this story does a wonderful job of showing how the ideas of scorpions turned into the word for ten thousand. But a story needs emotional resonance, and for this, Qingxin’s thoughts as she writes her punitive assignment, her memories as a teacher, and her tender moments teaching her child her own love of language, provides that.

But language is also shown as punishment.

The character 无 is simplified from 無, which comes from ** —a person dancing, waving bouquets of flowers, for the dead. Now, the word means zero, nothing. There’s no more dancing for the dead, no rituals, just a dead body dumped somewhere, turned into zero, nothing. His body was dragged onto the shore. Three Red Guards took her there: “We got something to show you.” They looked mischievous. There was no dignity in that waxen face either, with garbage caught in his collar, riverweed in his hair.
They asked her to slap his face. She looked at them.
“Slap his face—he is bad,” one said. “He knew he was bad, that’s why he killed himself, which makes him even worse.”
“There’s no need to explain to her,” another said. “You do what we ask you to do. You are all bad!”
Both had been in her Chinese class and her husband’s history class—that was two months ago, in the pre-revolutionary era, when they were merely adolescent bullies with military fathers. Now they are judges and executioners.

As I read this, I wondered why it is that numerous American books and movies reflect on the experiences of Holocaust survivors, but relatively few on those who suffered through the Cultural Revolution. A different situation, to be sure, but does that explain it? Am I just underexposed? Is it more about American Eurocentrism (for white America, at least)? In any case, we are not spared the horror in this story.

And through it all is Qingxin, whose main concern is her daughter. Whatever horrors she has undergone during the day – beaten, humiliated, scorned – she pours tenderness and love onto her daughter. When the girl sees her mother’s bruises and wounds, and shows fear, Qingxin assures her, “I won’t die until I know you’re safe.” Part of that safety is passing on the language that comforts her, the history of words that are now being twisted into something else, making sure her child has a foundation of self-respect she can draw on no matter what, just as Qingxin does. The contrast between the words for good and bad is a direct reflection of her reality:

But she thinks of the word itself. It comes from **, a kneeling person with breasts, a woman, ** , holding a child, ** . It suits her, doesn’t it? At night she holds her daughter in her arms, and in the daytime, as she’s made to kneel in front of others, she is still holding her, even though no one sees it.
And she thinks again of the word 坏 that hangs in front of her chest and is yelled into her face every day, which comes from **, a person crying by the crumbled city wall for her lost home. It also suits her in that sense: she is the one who has lost her husband, her home, and wants to cry by the crumbled world.

I often marvel at the coincidences that accompany my readings. Just as I’m reading a story about, say, butterflies, an article appears in one of my feeds about butterflies. It’s probably more about being especially primed for certain topics. In this case it was words, so when my favorite medievalist retweeted a quoted poem, it leapt out at me in a way it might not have a few days ago:

Words have loyalties
to so much
we don’t control.
Each word we write
rights itself
according to poles
we cant see; think of
magnetic compulsion
or an equal stringency.
It’s hard for us
to imagine how small
a part we play in
holding up the tall
spires we believe
our minds erect.
Then north shifts,
buildings shear,
and we suspect.

Ryan’s poem was written more about the shifting norms of poetry itself, but it fits so well with this story it reveals the universality of language itself, how it is both a blessing and a curse, can be used for good or evil. This is something to remember as words have again become weapons; it is we who make them so.

Pushcart XLII: Ye Chun, “Milk” from Threepenny Review, Fall 2016

Nata Romeo: “Nurture”

Nata Romeo: “Nurture”

She’s kept her milk flow for a time like this. She always knew there would be a time like this….
She wants to curse those people sparing no pity for her son, but she’s tired. She needs to save the rest of her energy for her body to continue to produce milk. She doesn’t have much milk left and their fortune will not turn until three years from now. She wishes she had a place to go, a private place where she could lie down with her son, close her eyes, enjoy this little pleasure of giving and taking, this little numbing sensation that’s slowly spreading over her body. Any time now she’s going to close her eyes. The shoes, legs, and wheels around them will disappear. She and her son will turn into some gossamer matter, hide somewhere in the air, until things get better for them.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

In 2015, Ye was researching mothers for a planned book. I can’t find a book that fits that description – she’s primarily a poet, her work appearing in last year’s Pushcart, in fact – but this story fits it exactly: the nurturing of motherhood, made tangible by breast milk.

Yet the story links many disparate lives, near and far, in a chain-effect: a passerby who refuses to buy a flower from the starving child, a blogger who posts a picture of this desperate mother breast feeding her six-year-old because she can’t afford food for him, a blog reader. All of them feel memories, impulses, desires of nurturing and/or being nurtured, and all spread it a little farther as they react.

Mother’s milk is the ultimate source of nurturance. And so often, we glorify mothers with one hand, and dismiss them with the other. Here, the power of nurturing becomes disgust becomes the longing to be nurtured, which becomes the anxiety of nurturing, as we skip from one person to the next. There are no absolutes; context is everything.

Pushcart XLI: Ye Chun, “The Luoyang Poem” (poem) from Lantern Puzzle

Gray streets and dim staircases.
We slid down the banister:
often one of us,
in dream or in memory, fell.

I couldn’t find much about this poem, or the collection whence it comes, so I was worried. Turns out, I found a great deal in it, not in a “this is what the poem means” sort of way (and I wonder if any poem that can be summed up as such is a poem at all) but in a “oh, I see what happened here (I think)” way.

One of the approaches I use when I’m not sure what to do is comparison of the beginning and ending of a poem. That doesn’t always help, but here it was marvelous. Whereas the first stanza above gives a glimpse into a hazily remembered childhood and is painted in gray and dim, the last stanza shows a new direction:

That winter, a boy
came riding beside me,
my big coat a dark corner.
We rode past the sweet potato vendor and his stove;
they stood in every winter
like a small lighthouse.
We rode past Chairman Mao
in front of the Mining Machine Factory
his marble arm waving at us.
Black flags of smoke blew above our heads.
We rode toward the huge
suddenly blooming setting sun.

The dimness is still there, but there is also the promise of blooming, a setting sun ending one phase of life, the speaker beginning another, of adolescence and youth in spite of what hangs over them. And I’m charmed by the imagery of the sweet potato vendor’s stove as a small lighthouse: a light so that the ship won’t founder on an unexpected shore.

Throughout the poem, I particularly noticed the transitions between the numbered sections. Section 1 above ends with an isolated “fell”, and section 2 starts with “I fell ill”, a completely different sense of the word. That double use prompted me to check for similar transitions, and I found them. Section 2 ends with smoke from the factories, and section 3 begins with the history of burning in this town, from the tragic to the trivial:

New dynasty burned houses of the old.
Red Guards burned 55,884 rolls of sutras at the White Horse Temple.
Twenty factories burned the sky blind.
Families of the dead burned paper horses.
Crematoria burned the dead.
My father burned another fall’s leaves.
I burned my diary.

There’s such a layering of history in this stanza in particular, from the speaker’s lifetime back to old Dynasties. I found a few references to the practice of making a paper horse and carriage for a funeral, then burning them in an echo of ancient custom of burying items with the dead. I can’t find a historical reference to burning of Buddhist scripture at the White Horse Temple; 55,884 is such a specific number, I’d love to have more information.

Section 3 ends with a reference to burning ourselves, and the next one observes Luoyang’s cross made by a factory smokestack, a somewhat attenuated transition on the notion of sacrifice. Four ends with distance, and five begins with parents being sent to the city “to build a new nation”, presumably in the era of the Red Guards. Sacrifice underpins every parent’s life, some more than others. Section 5 ends with spit and 6 begins with a dry river. The transition from 6 to 7 is possibly all self-constructed: from peach flowers to a new friendship, a new adolescence, and the literal riding off into the sunset.

So I ended up with a memoir of a place since left, with time whistling around my ears throughout the poem. Quite lovely. I’m almost glad I couldn’t find any other analysis, because it gave me the freedom to create my own.