5510 words, short story
The Ancestral Temple in a Box
“Mr. Huang has a few words to say . . . ”
Everyone in the room stood up at once. The intelligent care robot, however, slowly turned its face in my direction. Emojis flashed on the blue screen. I wasn’t sure whether I understood what those emojis meant.
“ . . . to you, in private,” the robot continued.
I took a deep breath. All the pairs of eyes landed on me at once. It was as if my body was soft mud and the gazes of my family members were loaches, about to rip apart my skin, penetrate my flesh, and bury into my body. I knew what they were thinking; but now, I have lost all the strength to fight back.
The man who used to carry himself with such pride and charisma lay before my eyes, shriveling, crumbling, and wasting away, leaving behind an empty shell made out of thin paper. I was scared that even a heavy sigh would blow him away. A rotting scent permeated the air. Every fifteen seconds, the automatic mist spray system would purr lightly, as if a cat sneezed. The flow of time in this room, thick and sticky, indefinitely slow, felt like resin gradually hardening into amber.
Fear rose up in my stomach and gushed up my throat. Yet I quietly waited for Father’s last words. For all my life, every conversation I have had with my father usually ended with his scolding and my utter silence. I was afraid that this time it was finally Father’s turn to be the silent one.
“Sonny, you’re here . . . ” Father’s trembling voice tore through the silence. His accent, laden with the scent of soil from Southern lands, sounded distant and strange. Our family has left our Teochew homeland long ago. More so, ever since I chose to become a wanderer in the virtual world, busy occupying myself with technology, I have long been estranged from my kin. “My time is up. There’s one last thing I want to ask from you. Only you can do it for me . . . ”
“Don’t say that, Dad! No matter what you want to do, once you recover—I’m sure you will—we can do it together . . . ”
“There’s no need to comfort me. Isn’t it strange? The older you get, the more things from your childhood you are able to recall. Remember that story I told you? When I was seven, my father—your grandpa—took me to our ancestral temple . . . ”
I had no idea what he was about to tell me. A few years ago, when machines revolutionized the traditional craft industry, the impact also extended to our family business: handmade gold-lacquered wood carving. I, an advocate for using new technology to aid traditional arts, was completely at odds with Father who insisted upon doing things the old way. Back then, our conversations were nothing but explosive arguments, often ending in cold wars that lasted for days. At some point, he even considered kicking me out of the succession line. What’s the point of telling me this story again?
“The wobbly car ride went on for hours. I couldn’t even feel my own butt anymore. Finally, we arrived at the Huang clan’s ancestral temple. What an enormous space! The pond in front of the gate was symbolic for ‘collecting a pool of wealth.’ A pair of proud stone lions, male on the left and female on the right, guarded the gate. The top of the roof was decorated with figures from mythology: birds and animals, long and feng, rows and rows of deities . . . ”
The image of a Disney carnival parade flashed through my mind as Father carried on, describing every detail of that mysterious building. I shook my head to get rid of the ridiculous thought.
“The memorial tablets of all our ancestors lined the large altar in the main hall. Dad ordered me to kneel and kowtow, to pay respect to our ancestors. I refused. But I don’t even know them, why should I kneel to them? I argued. So Dad scolded me for being disrespectful and spanked me. I cried and cried . . . ”
Father’s voice grew weaker. He was like a balloon, hanging limply in midair, about to let out its last breath. I could almost see him sinking deeper and deeper. I leaned forward and pressed an ear close to his lips. The rotten smell was so heavy that I almost couldn’t breathe.
“That happened eighty years ago. Back then I didn’t understand why honoring our ancestors was important, but now I do. Every falling leaf must return to its root. After I am gone, sonny . . . visit me at our ancestral temple often. Please. By then, you’ll be leading the Huang clan . . . ”
Clearly, Father’s consciousness was slipping away. His words did not make much sense. Halfheartedly agreeing to his request, I fumbled for the emergency button next to the hospital bed. The last time Father even went home to visit was a few decades ago. I was pretty sure that his memorial tablet did not make it into the ancestral temple. Even if it did, how on earth would I be able to visit the place often, given that it was thousands of miles away? As for leading the Huang clan . . . that sounded more like a joke to me than anything else. The families in our clan were at each other’s necks fighting over inheritance. Yet gazing at Father’s dying face, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about his will.
“Promise me you’ll go there . . . ”
“Yes, Dad. I promise you.”
As if some mysterious force squeezed the last air out from the humanoid balloon on the sickbed, the rotten odor disappeared at once. The automatic mist spray system sneezed again. Doctors and nurses rushed into the room with more machines. Stiffly, I stood by the bedside in silence and waited for a death sentence that had, in fact, already arrived.
The third day after Father’s funeral, I discovered a red envelope he left me. In the envelope was a small card printed with an IPv6 address and a strange logo.
It took me a while to locate an adequate access device for the address. Tech geeks call the adapter “the white box,” a kind of advanced virtual reality system that could scan your neural patterns and mix them in with an algorithm to produce a quantifiable, controllable neural signal input. The white box was much more effective than all the other virtual reality devices, and yet more feared: no doubt, it would change your fundamental cognition in some way that you could not predict.
I had no idea how Father came across such hip, quirky technology. My impression of him was still frozen in the moment when he bellowed at me for my ignorance and disrespect toward my ancestors and forgetting my roots, because I had dared suggest that we replace traditional craftsmen with machines. Heavily panting, eyes wide and cheeks beet red, he resembled a dragon about to spit fire.
That dragon now lay six feet beneath the ground, in a small wooden box, accompanied by nothing but darkness and dirt.
Without further hesitation, I connected myself to the white box, entered the IPv6 address that Father left for me and pulled the soft eye mask over my eyes. Not only that I wanted to honor my promise to Father, I was also curious about what he was up to. The system logged me in immediately after scanning my iris. Seemed like someone had already registered an account for me.
At first, I was surrounded by thick, pale fog. My eyes couldn’t discern anything. A few moments later, I heard a feminine voice echoing faintly in my ear, “Mr. Huang, we have detected that the default travel speed does not match your neurological composition. Would you like to switch over to fast mode? Please confirm.”
The walking figure of Father, limp and slow, flashed through my mind. I understood what she meant. Father was the first to access this IPv6 address, after all.
“Confirm,” I responded.
All of a sudden, the center of gravity shifted. Terrified, I crouched to the ground and pressed my palms hard on the floor to keep steady. The fog gradually dissipated. I looked down and found myself hovering ten thousand meters above earth. A village surrounded by mountains and rivers, spread out like the pattern on a turtle’s back, lay beneath my feet. The next second, the landscape gushed toward me like a ferocious tide, rapidly enlarging in my sight. I could even see the gray ridgeline of the village house roofs. I was falling. I shut my eyes tightly and swallowed a scream.
After what seemed like forever, the fall came to an end. I slowly opened my eyes and found myself standing on a vast plaza. The brightness of various objects shot up as my eyes landed on them, highlighting them from the background, as if my gaze was some kind of a spotlight. The voice in my ears explained each object to me as I peered around—now I understood it was a beginner’s tutorial.
No doubt, this was the place of Father’s last dream. The placid pond, glistening in the light; the horse-hitching post, erect by the gate; the magnificent screen wall, inlaid with colored porcelain that depicted the shapes of sika deer, qilin, and wing-spreading cranes; the roofed porch and the gate frame, made of gray-white marble; the black-lacquered wooden plaque, engraved with four characters in calligraphy that shimmered with gold, “Huang Clan Ancestral Temple”; porcelain statues of mythical creatures and deities on the roof ridgelines and eave corners . . . I stood, stunned, my mouth hanging open in awe.
Father was not exaggerating. The ancestral temple he described to me really existed.
The glorious sight did not reduce my confusion, though. Someone out there, for some unknown reason, went through all the trouble to reproduce the Huang clan’s ancestral temple in a virtual space. It was a most unlikely combination. Wasn’t it the ancestral temple, a standing embodiment of ossified traditions, that restrained Father from embracing the bold technological inventions of the new world? Now, it appeared to me that the older generation was preserving such tradition by betraying it. Why did Father lead me here? To become a replica of him, abiding by our ancestor’s values, following every single rule that was ever written, and watching with hopeless eyes as our entire clan declines?
Trotting along the path, I entered the gate and walked through the front courtyard. The sun shone from behind the hollow-carved grill door, casting strands of light onto the floor of the middle hall that reminded me of the shape of a barcode. I glided through the back courtyard. Everything before my eyes unfolded with symmetry, structure, and routine, characteristic of the era that Father lived in. An era long gone.
My revolutionary vision was to introduce embodied robots to the traditional craft of gold-lacquered wood carving. A robot like that could connect to and synchronize with every muscle and nerve signal of a human gold-lacquered wood carving craftsman. In a way that magically resembles traditional one-on-one master-student learning, the robot would observe and learn every intricate detail of the craftsman’s hand movement, then reproduce the choreography on digitalized raw materials in a virtual space. The simulated mechanics of materials are as precise as four decimal places. Coupled with generative adversarial networks, relying only on a small set of data, we could train highly efficient robot craftsmen. What’s more, a robot craftsman would never experience fatigue and illness or need any breaks at all; its spatial perception and accuracy of motion are literally two orders of magnitude higher than that of humans. Honestly, I couldn’t think of any valid reason to reject this proposal.
It was Father who buried his head in the sand, refusing to confront the machine-dominated reality.
I finally arrived at the heart of the ancestral temple: the main hall. Otherwise known as the slumber chamber, it was the place where spirits of the dead rested in peace in their eternal sleep. Colossal red-painted wooden structures extended upward like Aztec pyramids, as if about to disappear into the vast sky beyond, yet once I fixed my eyes on them, they appeared to be confined by the enormous hall. An impossible optical illusion. Memorial tablets of my ancestors, carved from camphor wood, lined the wooden structures like books on the shelves of a library. They were organized by the order of relatedness to me: from the most distant relatives to the closest blood kin. I searched for Father’s name in the forest of memorial tablets. Whichever tablet my gaze landed on, the name carved into the tablet would glow with a golden light. Amongst all of the Huang-surnamed ancestors were all kinds of people, government officials and wealthy merchants, peasants and commoners, yet at this moment, they were all equals to me. Every single one of them was a cog or gear on the giant machine of the Huang clan’s collective memory.
Father’s memorial tablet was there, too. I gazed fixedly at Father’s name as I murmured to myself, “Dad, I’m here to visit you.”
The guide spoke. “Mr. Huang, would you like to activate the system?”
“Please kneel on the mat, put your palms together, and kowtow three times.”
“What the hell?” My eyes widened as I saw Father, looking about ten years younger, emerge from his memorial tablet. Just like witnessing the genie squeeze out from Aladdin’s lamp, I thought to myself. Father, shifting around and stretching his arms and legs, seemed to be having some mild difficulties with his new body. He was only an AI-generated virtual avatar, after all.
“Sonny, you’re here,” he greeted me. Even his accent and the slow, sluggish way he spoke were perfectly reproduced. How much money was spent on this thing?
“Uh . . . yeah. It’s me. I’m here. ” I didn’t know what to say. It felt way too awkward to call this avatar “Dad.”
“I knew you’d come. You’re different from the rest of them. You’re smart and curious, a real fast learner . . . ”
How ironic. Those were the exact words that Father used to scold me with. I assumed that he had sent the same invitation to my older brothers, too—my competitors. Although our ages were not so far apart, their views on technology and art very much aligned with that of Father’s. Abandoning our traditional handicraft is the same as betraying the art, betraying our ancestors, and generations of wisdom they passed down. The same old words. I secretly speculated that if given the chance, they would probably tattoo the word “traitor” on my forehead and kick me out of the family.
“I’m sure right now you are wondering what this is all about,” continued Father. Seemed like he was programmed to finish this conversation no matter whether I responded or not. “Thirty years ago, Mr. Ma launched his new project on the digitalization of Teochew ancestral temples all around the world. That’s right—the Mr. Ma who single-handedly founded the biggest technology company in Asia. What a sight, that ancestral temple of the Ma clan! Mr. Ma believed that ancestral temples serve the same purpose as instant message software: it brings together people of the same clan, regardless of their generation or geographic location. Many young people, however, have long forgotten about ancestral temples. Mr. Ma’s vision is to revitalize ancestral temples with the help of technology.”
I cut him off. “Aren’t you against the idea of using technology to change traditional culture?”
“Sonny, you must understand that there are certain things I cannot say out loud. I need to be careful with my words in front of the clan, but you’re different. You belong to the new generation, and you don’t have to watch your mouth when you speak . . . ”
“Isn’t it too late, though? Look, if the line of succession for our business is determined by age and seniority, then I am neither the oldest nor the most experienced. As of you, you’re already . . . ” My voice cracked and trailed off.
I must admit that this AI avatar of Father was extremely well made, in particular its speech communication, to the point that I couldn’t help but feel like I was speaking to Father in person once again. The word dead choked in my throat.
“I am already dead, you’re right,” the younger version of Father before my eyes grinned at me, a painful resemblance of his living self, “But the rest of you are alive. You are the future. Tell me, why do you want to replace humans with machines?”
“Everyone is using machines. They are faster, more stable, and cost-efficient. If we don’t jump on the trend, the entire market will be taken over by machine-created wood carving. By then, there will be nothing left for us to profit from.”
“Well, nowadays, humans are colonizing space; 3-D printing is everywhere. Why do people still care for gold-lacquered wood carving? Because they are cheap? Easy to carry? Sturdy? Or beautiful?”
I was stunned by this question. I was born into a family that practiced gold-lacquered wood carving for generations and took fierce pride in their skill; yet with my head buried in digital art and cutting-edge technology all the time, I had never put my thought to it. I knew nothing, I realized, about the symbolic or realistic implications, the aesthetics or the history behind this specific form of craft. How did it survive thousands of years?
“Perhaps people were just nostalgic,” hesitating, I answered, my voice timid.
“Heh! You’re too smart for your own good. You think with your brain all the time, yet you never feel with your body. Look . . . ”
He pointed at the marble columns shaped like elongated winter melons. Above the columns was the major summer beam, hovering over the secondary beam that signified fruitfulness and prosperity. The column caps, beams, dougongs, girders, and lintels glistened with a gold spark. I recognized immediately that they were gold-lacquered wood carvings.
Legend had it that this craft originated in the Tang dynasty. Equipped already with unparalleled wood carving skills, those Tang craftsmen drew inspiration from the cavalier perspective seen in Chinese ink wash paintings and attempted to recreate the same effect on wood: merging scenes from different time-spaces together into one grand visual narrative. The scenes were depicted by intricate openwork carving on wood, layered one next to another, so that they could be represented in the same space altogether. Finally, the craftsmen painted the wood carving in rich, thick gold. The finished artwork thus became a limbo where the real and the imaginary, the prologue and the denouement, the cause and the effect collide and melt into each other.
What did Father want me to see? I swallowed my question when, all of a sudden, all the wood carving came alive.
The crabs crawled along the wires of their cage like fruits on a vine. Magpies, startled by the crabs’ snapping claws, spread their wings and scattered across the sky. The eight immortals crossing the sea made a zigzag instead and ran smack into the outlaws about to take refuge in the Liangshan Marsh. The heroes of the Three Kingdoms swore their oath to become brothers in the Peach Garden, and their witnesses were Mencius’ mother, who raised the sage alone, and the ancient giant Kuafu who chased the sun. This small, confined carved sculpture became a hodgepodge of endless time and boundless space.
I stared at the scene before my eyes, utterly spellbound. The legends that Father have told me back in my childhood all came to life at once. “You mean the gold-lacquered wood carving is also a kind of historical synchronic narrative?”
“Well, I think wood carving is the best way to talk and learn about history. When you were a baby, you used to spend ages lying on our bed, caressing the wood carving while muttering syllables to yourself. Remember?”
Of course I remembered. The hard and cold texture of wood and the hills and pits of the complex carvings were my first introduction to the world beyond my own body. My fingertip, brushing past the arcs, curves, and undulations, was like a time traveler who embraced lives and stories from a thousand different worlds. Fictional or real, those stories, shimmering with gold, were ingrained in my memory through touch.
I was beginning to understand why Father wanted me to come here.
“Speaking of the robot you’ve been meaning to use, the art it creates is completely soulless if there isn’t a real craftsman to guide its hands. People nowadays are so obsessed with the virtual world that they keep on forgetting that physical bodies are a thing!”
Coming from you, a virtual avatar! I muttered to myself. “So you’re not against technology, after all?”
“Using technology right is like adding wings to a tiger, you can only make things more powerful. Using technology the wrong way, though, will only bring harm and ruin our ancestors’ efforts. You know why I never agreed upon your plan in the past? I was worried that you were dreaming a little too big . . . ” Father paused for a second, “Or, not big enough.”
“Not big enough?”
“Sure, technology will enhance production efficiency, but what more? Your proposed innovation is superficial; it changes the flesh, but not the soul. I think technology has a lot more to offer us. Technology can lead to the rebirth of the gold-lacquered wood carving by reconceiving it, instilling in it new aesthetics, and adjusting it to fit into our future.”
Father was right, I realized. Originally, I thought about having robots learn the craft of wood carving and gradually replace human craftsmen in the next three years, so we could mass-produce gold-lacquered wood carving like never before. Yet, if we took the memory and the sentiment away—the human essence of handicraft—would anyone truly care for those assembly-line produced, soulless things? Mass production at its best would only help us win a low-price competition, nothing more. This future I envisioned for the Huang clan was a dead end. In Father’s words, we needed to take the best of both worlds and produce something new: gold-lacquered wood carving that combined the advantages of both machines and humans, fit for our contemporary time. No matter how much its form and shape shifted, it would always preserve the essence of artisanship.
“I think I know what you mean now. But my brothers . . . ”
“Look back at the way you came,” responded Father.
“What?” I turned around. My gaze passed through the back courtyard, middle hall, front courtyard, and landed on the glistening pond outside the memorial archway. My brain reminded me that something was not right.
“So what did you see?” asked Father.
“Well, if the entire ancestral temple was built on the same horizontal plane, it would be impossible for me to see all of its structures at once. Which means . . . ”
“The ancestral hall is designed with a three-part structure. The front courtyard to the middle hall is the first part, the back courtyard to the main hall is the second part. Every part is about three feet higher than the previous part. Thus, walking into the ancestral temple is like climbing up the ladder of success: with every step you take, you get a little higher.”
“You mean . . . ”
“I mean that you need to see past the land beneath your feet. Only when you are standing up taller can you expand your horizons and see what’s out there in the wider world. Your brothers have already agreed that you’re the best person to take the Huang clan’s wood carving art to a new level—to make it into something that truly fits the needs of this era. Don’t worry. No matter what you choose to do, you will have our support.”
I swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the lump in my throat. I gazed into Father’s eyes, utterly wordless. He had planned everything out long ago; and yet for almost his whole life, I had accused him of bigotry and conservativeness.
“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” I stuttered, my voice trembling.
“You didn’t really give me a chance, did you? You haven’t contacted me in so long, let alone visited home. Was I really going to go looking for you in the virtual world?” Father’s words sounded like a familiar scolding, yet his voice was gentle, even melancholic. A slight smile emerged on his face, “I didn’t expect that my time would be up so soon, though. Sonny, I wish I could have talked to you more . . . ”
“Dad . . . ”
Tears rushed out of my eyes. Instinctively, I turned my head toward the pond to avoid Father’s gaze—yet I forgot: registering my real tears was evidently not programmed into the now-virtual Father’s algorithm.
I took a deep breath and turned back again. Father had already vanished into the forest of memorial tablets.
His mission was complete, but my mission has just begun.
In the virtual main hall of the Huang clan’s ancestral temple, my brothers and I knelt together and kowtowed for three times. Then we waited.
Everything was the same as the first time. The rather ridiculous looking old man, clumsy and plump, wiggled out from his memorial tablet. “Sonny, you’re here,” he exclaimed.
My brothers were clearly not expecting to see this. Stunned, they stared blankly at Father. Gods know how much effort it took me to convince them to celebrate Chinese New Year with me in this absurd way.
Trying to alleviate the awkwardness, I waved my hand at Father. “Dad, it’s New Year! We’re here to visit you. We brought a present, too!”
My gesture summoned a wooden box. The box hovered above the pond at the gate of the ancestral temple, glowing as the sunlight reflected off of its reddish-black surface. Its reflection on the water surface vibrated, just like how my body was trembling from the nervous energy.
To create the desired visual effect, I changed the object ratio of the box to 1:1000. Gazing out from the main hall, I could see that the box was virtually the size of half a soccer court. Dazzling gold light seeped through the few arc-shaped cracks on the box, as if hinting at the magnificence confined inside.
“I knew you’d come. You’re different from the rest of them . . . ”
“Dad, don’t you want to look at our gift first?” I cut him off. The intelligence level and social awareness of this simulacrum were the same as the weather in June—you can never predict its highs and lows.
“Yes, yes . . . ”
The three of us stood together and piled our right palms on top of one another, our faces completely solemn. A gold light rose from our hands and ripped through the air, aiming for the wooden box. As the light passed by the back courtyard, the middle hall, and the front courtyard, all the porcelain statues also came to life: the cranes flapped their wings, the qilin dashed off into the distance, deities and demons alike played instruments and danced, forming an orchestra of harmony . . . I made a mental note to myself to praise the advertisement team that I hired to do the job. Today was the big day. Better put on the best performance we could manage—for the dead, for the living, and for the three hundred thousand viewers out there watching our livecast.
The gold light struck the box. Ripples of light dissipated in every direction. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss and Howie Lee’s remix of Teochew Yingge folk dance music vibrated through the sky and rang in everyone’s ears. The sublimity of mysticism, underlain by the rowdy rhythm of mundane everyday life, was disassembled in a way not unlike drawn thread work, and then rewoven into a vast Dolby holographic sound field. In turn, the sound was delivered to the bone conduction headphones of each viewer watching this virtual livecast via the white box. The auditory sense was integral to this ceremony; hearing would help the viewers empathize better.
Slowly, the wooden box opened.
The scene before everyone’s eyes was the exemplar of a new era of enlightenment: a piece of art co-created by machines and humans, a hybrid of the Rube Goldberg machine and the Luban burr puzzle.Magnificent, delicate blocks of gold-lacquered wood carving were assembled together in mortise-tenon style. The space frame, transcending even the wildest imagination, was something completely impossible for mortals to create. If you restore the order and perspective angle of those arbitrarily positioned blocks, though, they would at once transform into a stage play about time-space and human history. Thanks to the mechanics, all of this was able to take place without any external power source. This tiny wooden box was the nutshell that encapsulated infinite space, the oyster that held a thousand worlds.
What’s better, I was able to incorporate Father’s idea in my design. Every box told a story: from eons ago to the modern age, from the oldest myths to the latest technology, from abstract ideas to concrete artworks . . . machines couldn’t draw inferences between seemingly unrelated elements, conceptually or visually, but the human brain could. The box in front of us right now told the long story that began with goddess Chang’e abandoning her mortal life through drinking an elixir that gave her the ability to fly to the moon and ended with the establishment of the Moon Base. It was a narrative complete on its own, concise, powerful, vivid, and rich with symbols.
The live viewer count grew steadily.
By solving the puzzle of a wooden box, you could understand a history, apprehend a concept, immerse in a story, or even experience an entirely unfamiliar culture. In this process, however, you are required to interact with this heavy box with your physical body: caressing it with your fingers, smelling it with your nose, interpreting—deciphering—feeling its intricacy and glory from every possible perspective. It will become a part of your body memory, just like once Father has told me. This unique experience, grounded in physicality, is exclusive to humankind, irreplaceable by robots or algorithms.
You could even customize a box that contained the story of your family. By handing the box to the people you love and care about, the memory gets passed on—to Teochew, to California, to Mars, to the end of the universe. These boxes are ancestral temples that you can hold in your hands.
And today, through livecasting a carnival in a boxed-up ancestral temple, I was able to demonstrate the concept of our ultimate product to eight hundred thousand—no, one million—people in this world. I knew that those people would in turn spread the word and idea around like nuclear fission.
Father glided toward my brothers and I and patted us on the shoulders, though I couldn’t feel his touch at all. He nodded in his ordinary matter-of-fact way, “Not bad. Looks like you didn’t disgrace the Huang clan after all. Have you thought of a name for it yet?”
I glanced at my brothers. “We’re still talking about it. I insisted that the character chao must be a part of the name.”
Father was silent, as if lost in thought. I didn’t know whether there was a glitch in the algorithm or if he was simply pausing for effect.
“Chao as in Chaoshan, the Mandarin name for us Teochews, means tide. Wherever there is gravity, there is tide; wherever there is tide, there is life. It’s the ebbs and flows that make up a long and prosperous life. Chao is good, chao is good . . . ”
Father’s words were interrupted by firecrackers that crackled and spluttered noisily. The box finished unfolding itself. The entire history of humankind conquering space now lay before our eyes, shimmering with glorious gold. Magically, I realized this was how I remembered New Year to be as a child: a fresh start to nearly four hundred new days of hope and positivity. Now so many years have passed, and the only way I could re-experience the New Year of my childhood was in a virtual ancestral temple.
All of a sudden, I yearned to return to a different reality, to give my family a hug—even though they may not be the most amiable or understanding people you can find. At least I still have a physical body that could embrace, experience, and feel all the imperfections of this world.
Maybe it was time to leave the box behind.
Originally published in Chinese in Non-exist Daily, Sci-fi Spring Festival, January 24th, 2019.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Translator’s note on Teochew culture:
The Teochew (Chaozhou) people are native to Guangdong province, China, and are spread across various Southern regions and Southeast Asian countries. The Teochew prefecture in Guangdong, known as Chaoshan in Mandarin, traditionally included Shantou, Chaozhou, Jieyang, and Shanwei. Teochew people speak their own dialect, the Teochew dialect, which is a derivative of the Minnan dialect of Southern China. The gold-lacquered wood carving (jinqi mudiao) mentioned in this story is a traditional art of the Teochew people.
Chen Qiufan was born in 1981, in Shantou, China. (In accordance with Chinese custom, Mr. Chen's surname is written first. He sometimes uses the English name Stanley Chan.) He is a graduate of Peking University and published his first short story in 1997 in Science Fiction World, China's largest science fiction magazine. Since 2004, he has published over thirty stories in Science Fiction World, Esquire, Chutzpah, and other magazines. His first novel, The Abyss of Vision, came out in 2006. He won Taiwan's Dragon Fantasy Award in 2006 with "A Record of the Cave of Ning Mountain," a work written in Classical Chinese. In English, his short stories have been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, MIT Technology Review, Slate, Pathlight and other venues. His novel, Waste Tide was published by Tor in 2019.
Emily Xueni Jin (she/her) is a science fiction and fantasy translator, translating both from Chinese to English and the other way around. She graduated from Wellesley College in 2017, and she is currently pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literature at Yale University. As one of the core members of the Clarkesworld-Storycom collaborative project on publishing English translations of Chinese science fiction, she has worked with various prominent Chinese SFF writers. Her most recent Chinese to English translations can be found in AI2041: Ten Visions For Our Future, a collection of science fiction and essays co-written by Dr. Kaifu Lee and Chen Qiufan (scheduled to publish September 2021) and The Way Spring Arrives co-published by Tor and Storycom, the first translated female and non-binary Chinese speculative fiction anthology (scheduled to publish April 2022). Her essays can be found in publications such as Vector and Field Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature.