18500 words, novella
The Serpentine Band
“My little girl once had a serpentine band that had scenes of red cliffs and white water carved onto it. Whenever she held it as she slept, she would dream of entering that world.”
—Excerpt from “Notes about Yushan,” written in the early seventeenth century
The water is not all that cold.
It has completely engulfed his cloud-weave shoes and crept over the fringe of his blue-colored robe. The surface of the pond rises, and his garment’s edge floats upon it. In the darkness, it resembles a pliable lotus leaf.
He knows that in another two hours his mouth and nose will be submerged. He had built the Shattered Jade Gate to link the pond to the stream outside of the garden. During the rainy season, he has it shut to prevent flooding. Yet the two sides remain connected, so that when the Callery pear trees blossom inside the garden, their jade-white petals are invariably carried to the stream outside.
Shattered Jade! When he named the different parts of this garden, he had chosen this name simply because he appreciated the sight of delicate petals drifting in running water. How could he have known that it portended such ill? When Chen broke her serpentine band, it was perhaps foretelling the same omen.
And yet, suppose he had foreseen exactly all of this, what would he have done? Could he have stopped himself from expending everything he had into the construction of this serpentine garden? No, perhaps not. Having witnessed the flow of time, he has recognized the nature of both past and future; despite the myriad possibilities, the path he chose, and that path alone, is the concrete reality.
But what is reality, and what are dreams? Is this physical world, along with all of its people, truly real? What about the dazzling space that transformed itself before his eyes? Was that merely a part of the painted scroll? And the stranger who appeared and vanished with equal abruptness at Shanyin’s temple fair . . . could he have been human? One may try to grab the moon’s reflection in the water, but that is an exercise in futility. This world’s riddles are silent as the night, and he is absolutely powerless before them.
With thoughts like these, dying is easy. It’s going on living that is hard. He can see their faces now—Meisheng’s gentle smile, Li’s stubborn gaze, and Chen’s eyes full of curiosity. He knows how deep their grief will be. “Nothing is higher than the duty of a minister to his sovereign,” Meisheng’s poem will read, “yet the sorrow of his family is no less universal.” How fortunate he is to have her for a wife, and how wonderful their children are.
This last act of his, however, is more than fulfilling a minister’s duty to his sovereign. Perhaps it would take them a long while to understand that. The ideals of rule and duty have long been decaying, and he no longer has it in him to agonize over the peasants’ fate. Instead, he is pinning his hopes on another vast world, one which he has only been allowed a fleeting glimpse.
The water has reached his waist. He has another forty-five minutes, enough for him to roll back time and tell the story from the beginning.
Back to 1640 then. The thirteenth year in the reign of the Chongzhen Emperor.
Chen received the serpentine band during the Lantern Festival.
That night, her father had taken her to see the lanterns at Dragon Mountain. The lights, like a river of stars flowing downward, lined the paths and filled the hollows. They reminded Chen of the blinking fireflies Papa had caught for her, except they had no wings. Up the mountain there were endless rows of canopies, all of them illuminated by horn-lanterns at each corner. A colloquial “dumb lamp”—an oversized gossamer lantern with painted pictures—hung at each canopy’s center. Some depicted scenes from The Four Books and Collected Poems, some had riddles, and still others paid homage to the Buddha. Admiring crowds swelled beneath each canopy; snack peddlers squeezed their way to and fro. The sound of music and theater could be heard from afar, and Chen found herself nearly overwhelmed by her senses.
She gently let go of Papa’s hand and dived into one canopy after another, trying to press her face close to the lanterns’ paintings. Papa had taught her a little about painting, but she had trouble understanding the terminology. What was “cold and desolate,” and what was “flat and far”? Papa only painted with different shades of black, but the colors on this lantern were so brilliant under the candlelight that they almost flowed right off the gauze: a general on a hunt, his chestnut horse leaving a string of shallow hoofprints behind in the snow. Chen hadn’t seen real snow yet; she had only heard about it through Papa’s tales about the capital. The lantern kept on spinning, and for a moment it seemed like both horse and man had leaped into the air, but she blinked, hard, and they were back on the lantern again.
“Do you like this lantern, little miss?”
She looked up. The man was dressed in a faded brown jacket, and she couldn’t make out his face in the flickering lights. With a start, she realized that she was all alone. Somehow she had wandered off far from the crowd, and Papa was nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t know how,” she bit down on her lower lip and forced herself to appear calm, even as her heart is beating madly, “but this painting, it looks like it’s alive.”
The man smiled a little and pulled out something wrapped in a jade-colored silk handkerchief. As he presented it to Chen, she noticed that the man had fingers that looked like her father’s. They were long and fair, with a hint of callus at the tips. He didn’t look like a common laborer. The silk felt warm and smooth, and there was something underneath it at the center. It almost floated off the man’s palm, like a small pond swelling after spring rain.
She didn’t dare to take it, but she was dying to steal a peek. With a pair of hands like that, he couldn’t be a bad man, surely.
“Please don’t mind me, then. I saw you staring at this spinning lantern, little miss, and thought of my own little girl. If she were still alive, she would be around your age. I think she might even look like you. I made this for her, but . . . ” the man smiled sadly and was about to take the object back, “It will never reach her, now.”
“No, wait—” in a fit of panic, Chen latched onto the man in the same way she would hold onto Papa, but the man’s hem was ice-cold, and she immediately let go. She felt a blush coming on and bowed down in a hurry, but she couldn’t form a single word.
“Thank you, little miss.”
Did she hear the man whispering those words? By the time she looked up, he was gone. All that was left was the small silk-wrapped package lying on the slab of stone. She reached down and picked it up with care.
Papa’s anxious voice drew closer and closer. She turned back and found him staggering toward her, a lantern in each hand. Before she realized it, the fair’s lights had already dimmed. She could hear the mountain temple’s bell tolling in the distance.
Chen cannot fathom how it was made. That night, she lifted the silk handkerchief to find a translucent, serpentine-shaped band made of jade. Upon its paper-thin walls, the craftsman had somehow painted vast vistas of mountains and forests. Its shape, however, is stranger still. It is neither a bracelet, nor a pendant, nor a disc, but rather a thin belt made of jade that has been twisted in the middle and conjoined at the ends. Yet despite Chen’s best efforts, she can’t pinpoint where one end finishes and the other begins. The band is solid and smooth, without any hint of human artifice.
“Papa, how was this made?”
He only smiles at her constant probing. When she presses, he tells her that the artisans of the regionwould boil water chestnut, mutong, and raw jade together in a cauldron. The jade then turns malleable as clay, lending itself to any number of shapes. This, he says, is called the “soft jade” method.
Chen can’t quite bring herself to believe it. Chestnut soup with rock sugar is a staple winter dish; she purloins all sorts of herbs from Mum’s medicine cabinet, adding them to a stew of chestnut and pebbles in an earthen pot. The pebbles, however, remain perfectly stubborn.
“Papa’s a big liar.”
She takes to pouting during her morning class, fidgeting on her stool by the painting table. She refuses to grind ink or lay out the rice paper.
Her father is forced to put down the brush and put away the fine paper.
On the night when she received the serpentine band, he spent hours examining it after she had gone to bed. It bore no trace of craftsmanship, but from what she told him, it was indeed made by human hands. It wasn’t until he strained his eyes and saw a name hidden inside the nook of the band’s inner wall that everything became clear. The name belonged to a jade master known throughout the land. He possessed a crimson blade that was forged from the metals of Mount Kunwu, and he wielded it with such elegance and precision that he could create intricate worlds in the smallest of places. His first masterpiece was a daffodil hairpin that was fine as hair itself. For twenty years the master had manipulated jade into every conceivable form, but his techniques remained a secret hidden from all.
About ten years ago, when Chen’s father was serving in Susong, he heard that the master craftsman had committed the ultimate crime: the man had a compulsion to sign every creation of his and had left his name on an object made for the emperor. It had been nine years since he was duly executed on the charge of lèse-majesté. As for how the serpentine band was made, or why it surfaced at a lantern festival in Sanyin, those parts of the story remained a mystery.
He knows his daughter had a brush with the supernatural that night, but he does not want to burden her with such knowledge.
“Very well, we won’t paint today. How about I teach you the way to look at paintings?”
He turns to pick out a scroll from the bamboo cabinet: “Next spring, I’ll take you to see the garden that’s being built outside the city. This is its design.”
He unrolls the scroll and reveals an ink-wash landscape replete with ponds, trees, bamboo pavilions, and thatch-roofed huts. None of it, however, is done with more elaboration than a few bare-bone brushes. Save for some shadows of mountains done in pale ink, blankness dominates the surface. The hazy fogginess of it all bores Chen. If the garden is really built like this, there isn’t much to look forward to.
Her father, ever perceptive, knocks on a plum-green glazed rinsing pot.
“Take a look at this pot, my girl. If it was completely solid, would it still be able to hold water? What about the spokes on a wheel? If no space separated one spoke from the other, could the wheel remain so light and convenient? And look at this room we are in. It’s precisely because of the empty space that the doors and walls can function. Without emptiness, there is no solidity. That’s what they mean when they say that forms are made for the formless. It’s the same with a painting. People see the brushes and ink on the scroll, but they don’t realize that the blank spaces are parts of the painting as well. In fact, the empty parts are often the most vital. If you wish to recreate nature on a scroll, how and where to leave things blank can be more important than the actual shape of woods and stones. The best paintings are made not by ink but by blank space.”
“But there are so many things in the mountain! Don’t you remember, Papa? Last summer, we visited Mount Cao to release captive turtles so Mum would get better. There were so many tiny fish and shrimp in those rock caves. You said it yourself, ‘even the great Mount Meru can fit into a single mustard seed.’” Chen remains doubtful. One can touch all things on the mountain; if she closes her eyes, she can recall how they look with perfect detail. But what is this space that she cannot see nor touch? Could Papa be making things up again?
He smiles and pats her on the head.
“You’ve grown taller again. This is good, very good,” he pauses, “all arts—be they jade-craft, painting, or garden design—attempt to recreate infinite nature within a finite amount of space. It is precisely because nature is boundless that we leave blank space, so that it may be filled with imagination. That reminds me. During the reign of the last emperor, there was a master jade craftsman who was tasked with carving a hundred horses onto a thumb ring. Do you know how he did it?”
She frowns. Could Papa be talking about the maker of the serpentine band?
“He did not, in fact, carve out a hundred horses,” says her father, “what he did carve were steep, craggy mountains and tall, forbidding city walls. As for horses, there were only three: one was sprinting inside the walls, another galloping toward the city’s gate, and a third emerging from the valley. That was all. Yet through these three, he was able to create the impression that there were hundreds of horses about to dash out at any moment. It’s the same with this painting. Through its empty parts, it presents to us the rivers in their mighty vastness and the bluffs in their rugged glory.”
Chen hmms in slight disappointment and stares at the scroll. She feels like she’s gaining some sort of understanding . . . but perhaps not. At nap time, she takes out the serpentine band again. The most peculiar feature about the band is its shape. The carved images, exquisite as they are, are no more than a dozen. She’s still clutching onto it when she falls fast asleep.
Her father’s gaze lingers upon the child’s open face before turning to the letter in his hand. A letter from the north, thousands of miles away: the massive border walls, like the imperial court itself, are crumbling into ruin. But these words, like the shadowy ink on the painting scroll, bleed into each other, and lose all concrete forms. He puts the letter down and continues with the garden design’s annotations. Most of its names are references to classic literature, though the garden itself is simply named after the mountain it’s nestled in: Yu Shan, the Allegory Mountain.
Chen has woken up.
“I had a dream. I saw mountains and rivers, so pretty they could have been from a painting. But it was all real, not a painting. There was nobody else there. I was walking so fast that I could have been flying. The cliffs, so thick, were colored reddish-brown with green tea trees growing on them. The stream ran deep and fast, its jade-green waters swirling with marble-white sprays. And there was a pavilion with glazed roof tiles, wind chimes ringing from each corner. Beyond the pavilion there was another range of reddish-brown rocks, but this time the tea tree was growing underneath the cliffs. It looked as if the world was alive and turned itself over.”
“You were traveling on the wind, my child,” he smiles, “you saw the world-above-all and attained immortality.”
“No, the pavilion was built by human hands,” Chen shakes her head. “His name was inscribed right on its front panel. He was called Zigang.”
His smile suddenly becomes frozen. The name that sent ripples of shock throughout the province and the empire itself. The name that sent the greatest jade master in history to a bloody death. He had never told Chen that name.
Something strikes him, and he grabs the serpentine band: “Chen, tell me more about the world in your dream.”
“There were thick rocks, short tea trees, a stream with white sprays, and a pavilion with wind chimes hanging in the corners . . . oh that’s right, Papa, the world in my dream wasn’t from the painting. It was from the serpentine band!”
She widens her eyes as her father selects a fine calligraphy brush, usually used for copying the Spiritual Flight Sutra. Stroke by painstaking stroke, he copies the scenes from the band onto soft rice paper. Then he cuts them out in a long strip and twists it once. When he finally connects the two ends with mounting glue, the shape rises to life from the paper’s flat surface. He had only drawn the scenes on one side of the paper, but now the rocks and the pavilion can be seen on both sides of the strip. Some of the images are in reverse; the ones in front appearing in tandem with those in the back, two sides joining together to form an object that only has one side.
“But there was no blank stretch in my dream,” muses Chen, “did he draw on both sides?”
Her father shakes his head. He takes up another brush, this one dipped in cinnabar paint, and applies a single stroke to the conjoined edges of the two ends. Bright vermillion starts to seep onto both sides.
“It must be seen to be believed,” he sighs. “Zigang must have somehow twisted the jade into a band and carved onto it. This band has a special form that allows it to show the image from a single surface on both sides. If you were inside the image, you would think it was the living world itself. That was what you dreamed of.”
Chen is silent for a long time.
“Then . . . then it wasn’t made by the way of the soft jade?” she whispers at last.
“I wish I knew. You’re all grown, my girl. Papa doesn’t have the answers to all your questions anymore.”
For some reason, she thinks, Papa suddenly looks a little sad.
Spring has come, and Chen’s father takes her to see the garden.
The garden is a big, sprawling place. They walk alongside the embankment, stopping to observe animal life near the water. As they follow the meandering river into the hills, Chen soon loses track of the path behind her. All the trees and rocks look so interchangeable! But her father knows every nook and cranny like the back of his hand: the waterway turns here, so they should plant some bamboos; the soil is thin over there, ideal for growing some tea. To Chen, it looks like he is painting with the trees and waters and rocks of this garden, and he has envisioned every detail before even starting.
They pass the thatched cottage halfway up the hill to find three lounges standing amidst flowers and trees. The one in the middle dwarfs the other two in its width, and together they form a shape like a two-handled bottle.
“This place is called the Hermitage,” says her father, smiling. “In the old days, there was an unusual man named Shentu Youya who wandered the land. He carried a bottle with him; whenever he grew sleepy or tired, he would jump into the bottle. People called him the Bottle Hermit. Now that I have built these three lounges in the shape of a bottle, this place shall be named the Hermitage. What do you think, Chen?”
“But a bottle is so small, how can it hold a whole human?” Chen thinks out aloud to herself, “I know! He was just like Zigang, but instead of jade, he knew how to make human bones soft. That’s not enough, though. He would have to shrink his bones as well. That’s a lot of work.”
They follow the footpath uphill and reach a five-story wooden pavilion. Its narrow staircases are so steep that Chen, holding tightly onto the rail, has to stop and pant at every step. At the top of the building, everything unfolds before her eyes like an ink-wash painting. In the faint drizzle, the mountains and rivers are reminiscent of those hazy shapes on the painting scroll. Villages and fishing boats dot the landscape with flickering lights, and she can make out ocean waves lurking far off in the distance. She remembers visiting all those places through long journeys made inside a horse-drawn carriage, but now they are unfolding right before her eyes.
“This is the Faraway Pavilion. Our forebears erected wonderous monuments that far outlasted their builders, leaving us to lament the impermanence of time. Still, thanks to its impressive height, this pavilion allows one to capture all living things and inanimate objects in the world before us into view. Standing here inside my garden, you have the vast space at your very fingertips. Is the art of garden design not interesting?”
Standing inside the pavilion’s narrow dome, her father folds his hands behind his back and gazes off into the distance, until his admiration for the view is interrupted by Chen’s intermittent cries. He turns and panics when he realizes that the girl is no longer there.
“Chen!” he rushes down the stairs and finds her lying at the bottom of the staircase, sobbing. “What happened?”
“I wanted to relieve myself,” she whimpers, “so I came downstairs, but then, then I fell.”
“Where does it hurt? Here?” There are open wounds on her tiny hands. He quickly presses her joints to check for broken bones. “How about here?”
“No, no, but . . . ” she can’t stop her tears, “but . . . look.”
With a trembling hand, Chen produces the serpentine band from her sachet. It has been broken off in a place the size of her little finger’s tip, revealing its paper-thin wall and hollow inside.
“You’re not injured. That’s all that matters. It’s a shame that the jade is damaged, but that’s nothing compared to you.”
He lets out a long sigh of relief. Given the jade master’s extraordinary craftsmanship and towering fame, many collectors have frittered away their fortunes to possess one single creation of Zigang’s. Right now, however, all that is a mere afterthought.
“Can you walk? Come, Papa will carry you on his back.”
Chen wipes her nose with the back of her hand and tries to stand up. Tears are still streaming down her face. She pulls out a long, thin blade of grass, wanting to wipe the jade clean with it. However, she lets out a small sound of exclamation and stops in mid-motion.
The tip of the grass, now inside the gap, bends itself to the twists and turns inside the band. She watches, gape-mouthed, before trying the same experiment with a strand of her own hair. The hair, as if led by a needle, conforms itself to the jade’s serpentine shape. It looks exactly the same as the strip of paper Papa had shown her the other day. It’s as if the band has never been broken in the first place.
Her father watches on in equal shock. He reaches out, the jade is still solid and cool to his touch, but now he knows that its inside contains something he has never imagined. Realization strikes him like a bolt of lightning.
Yes. Yes. This is why Zigang was the supreme master. This is why his work defied and surpassed human imagination. I take pride in the thought that I’m building a garden through the act of painting, but never have I thought of anything like this.
The father stands up and paces in strides. His pine-colored robe billows in the wind like a great green bird flapping its wings.
Yes. Yes. That must be how he achieved it. Must be. All that ingenuity spent simply to bring a smile to his daughter’s face. To someone like that, greatness was a natural, everyday thing . . .
Chen has finally calmed down, but now her father looks like he’s drunk on winter wine, alternating between ecstasy and madness.
“Papa? What happened to you?”
“The other day, Chen, I told you that the best landscape paintings were not painted with ink but with space.”
“Yes,” she nods. Something lurks at the edge of her mind, like the first hints of spring thunder.
“Never had there been a jade master like Zigang, and never will there be another. He did not carve the serpentine band out of jade. There was no water chestnut involved, no herbal stew. No, what he did was carve out a measure of space itself. With his dazzling knife, he molded the space to his desire, then applied sheets of jade to its surface. That’s how the serpentine band was created. A strand of a hair, a blade of grass—when they enter the space inside the band, they conform to the shape of its space. We cannot see nor touch space, but Zigang realized that it could be bent and twisted to his will. He was a carver of space.”
“Then, the Bottle Hermit—”
“Yes,” he nods. “He must have used the same method to enlarge the space inside the bottle. Either that, or he shrunk the space he was in. Master Su Dongpo was right when he wrote that ‘the infinite is hidden inside nothingness; in there you will find another world.’ Of course, to achieve that, one must attain the Way in both their skills and understanding.”
The night rises. With a pale moon lighting the path, father and daughter slowly make their way down the hill in silence. Both of them are lost in thought: Chen tries to think where she can find an exact piece of white jade to repair the band while her father is pondering something less corporeal.
More than a decade ago, when Qi Youwen arrived in Xinghua, he was barely twenty years old. From his superiors to the lowest-ranked clerks, everyone sniggered at the young bureaucrat who was appointed to oversee the entire prefecture’s justice system.
But he couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Seeing that he was dumb and deaf in the local dialect, his subordinates grew impertinent. Not only did they take to mocking him right in his face, but they also began to neglect their duties. One day his case files would go missing, and the next someone would desecrate the court’s floor. When he demanded an answer, the clerks simply shook their heads and protested ignorance in Mandarin, all the while snickering uncontrollably.
What was he to do? He was born into a family of government officials and had learned all of the classics by heart as a small boy, before passing the imperial examination at the tender age of nineteen. From the very start, he had resolved to acquire mastery in all of the empire’s laws; like the esteemed Hai Rui, he would protect the people by dispensing the emperor’s justice. How could he allow these conniving clerks to make a fool of him? But the lonely magistrate found himself surrounded by a strange tongue and stranger people. His only comfort these days was a small lake made by enlarging the moat north to the city. Like its model, West Lake in Hangzhou, one dyke was built in its north and one in the south. Makeshift as these dykes were, when framed by green willows and clear waves, they did remind him of the two causeways on West Lake. But it was such a pale imitation of the real thing! There was no telling where his fledgling political career would take him. The days of Meisheng and him boating together on the lake, when they watched twilight descend before returning home content under the moonlight—would those days ever come again?
They had married only two years ago, very much a young couple in love. When they first met, she was wearing a moon-colored pleated skirt that rippled in the breeze. He could never forget how she looked that night—nothing like the ordinary bashful maiden, but cool and distant in her grace.
Lost in his memories, he came to his senses at the children’s voices outside the window. They were singing some rhyme in the incomprehensible dialect.
An idea came to him. Even though he couldn’t understand what the clerks were saying, his educational training had given him the ability to remember everything he heard. He made a record of their words’ pronunciations, then quietly secured the services of two local maids. Neither of them could read nor write, but they could speak the dialect.
Ten days later, Qi Youwen opened his court up again. He translated every single insult that had been said to his face, then cited Statute Laws of the Ming Dynasty and meted out the proper punishment for disrespecting one’s superior. The offenders were duly caned; the clerks were shocked into submission.
The local populace soon heard about the new magistrate who was clever beyond his years. One after another, they came to him to press their suits. During the six years he sat on the prefectural court in Xinghua, Qi presided over more than two hundred cases each year. From common thievery to gruesome murder, he solved many a puzzling case. There was one of them, however, that eluded him to the end.
It was supposed to be a simple case of property dispute. Given Xinghua’s mountainous and uneven terrain, its arable land was often divided up into miniscule parcels. The disparity in each parcel’s yield meant that they exchanged hands frequently, resulting in a maze of fields with bizarrely shaped borders. A farmer called Agan had five acres of inferior land that bordered the Fang clan’s fields. It wasn’t easy for Agan to provide for his family of seven to begin with, and given his habit of offering aid to the wandering monks and priests, they barely etched out a living.
More than once, the well-off Fangs approached Agan to purchase his land, though always without success. But several years later, when Agan’s aged mother fell off a cliff to her death, he could only pay for her funeral by mortgaging his land, for twenty taels of silver, to the Fangs. When his rich neighbors came to erect new border markers on the land, however, Agan stopped them with a wood-chopping axe in hand. He claimed that the land was never sold and challenged the intruders to produce the deed. The Fang family returned home to find the precious document missing. Yet the transaction had taken place, and the silver certainly changed hands.
The Fangs’ hired hooligans forced their way into Agan’s family cottage that night. They dragged everyone out into the open and turned the place upside down before finding the deed buried inside the pickle vat, securely wrapped in oil paper. They dragged Agan in front of the county’s officials, but the crux of their claim—the deed—vanished right in front of everyone’s eyes once again. The magistrate, at his wit’s end, sent the case to the prefecture court.
Qi himself was intrigued by this case and carefully inspected the Fang’s residence. The deed was stored inside a locked warehouse hidden from outside view, and the cabinet itself was also under lock and key. After calculating the time required to enter the residence and unlock the cabinet, Qi concluded that it was impossible for Agan to take the deed without being detected by the servants. After all, Agan was only a regular farmer with no criminal history. Surely he did not possess some supernatural power that allowed him to come and go as he pleased.
He stared at the farmer prostrating on the floor. The swarthy man’s eyes were dull, but his quivering facial muscles told the magistrate of his great distress. Qi suddenly felt a palpable shock. The Confucians had long observed that “ritual has not been extended down to the common people,” they were never taught to know any better. Even in the writings of Hai Rui, that paragon of the virtuous Mandarin, the villagers under his charge were more animal than human. They were vicious but ignorant, cunning but impulsive. During his first few years in government service, Qi found it hard to fathom why people readily fought over the inanest matters, even willing to commit suicide in order to frame a hated enemy. Why did they embrace death so easily?
Eventually he realized that not everyone had been brought up the way he was. Their lives were devoid of literature and moral teaching, of poetry and art. They did not have parents who nurtured and schooled them, nor lovers who offered them support and understanding. Honor and self-respect, concepts that the literati took for granted, were in fact something that required nourishment. For those whose very act of living was a daily struggle, who had been trampled on as a matter of course, the act of survival itself required monumental courage. Qi could not say that he felt these people’s pain, but he did not want to see them as only backward and ignorant.
“What are you keeping from me? It was a voluntary sale. After giving the deed to the Fangs, why did you break the contract repeatedly?” he dismissed the attendants, “tell me everything and I will give you justice.”
“My lord!” Agan burst into tears. “My lord, my poor mother, she was—she was murdered by the Fangs! She was old, yes, but she was always healthy. She had walked the same trail for so many years, how was it possible for her to have an accident like that?”
“Oh? And you have evidence of this? If you knew she was murdered, why did you sign over the deed?”
“I . . . I cannot say . . . ” Agan’s face was full of fear. “I only found out recently. But I saw how they pushed my poor mother off the cliff. I saw it with my own eyes . . . ”
“Which was it? Did you see it or did you not?”
“I didn’t see it when it happened . . . but . . . but then I did . . . ”
Faced with Agan’s utter incoherence, he moved on to the next question: “What happened to the deed? You hid it inside the pickle vat. Surely you know how it disappeared from the Fang’s residence?”
“I . . . ” Discretion was a concept completely foreign to Agan, but again the man faltered.
Qi frowned at the man kneeling before him. He never put any stock in spells and incantations, but Agan swore it was this sallow-faced esoterist who helped him stealing the deed. The haggard-looking man with a persistent cough didn’t look anything like a nimble thief. Qi had his share of cases involving esoterists and their spells. These charlatans swindled money by either invoking the supernatural or simply telling people what they wanted to hear. Once he asked the right questions, it would invariably become clear that there was no sorcery nor otherworldly power involved.
“How did you obtain the deed? Confess!”
“One must not . . . must not divulge divine designs . . . ” The esoterist trembled in terror, yet he would not yield.
“Impudent villain! Our sovereign’s rule is founded on morality and the law. Something as vulgar as sorcery cannot be allowed to exist. According to Statute Laws of the Ming Dynasty, those who practice lowly sorcery and black magic must pay with their lives!”
“My lord . . . do you truly believe that men’s moral laws are enough to rule the land?” The esoterist raised his head, still shaking like a leaf. “During the ancient days, Fu Xi created Bagua, the King of Wen wrote the Book of Changes, then great harmony was achieved in the land. Now we have imperial astronomers who delineate seasons and interpret celestial omens. Should it portend ill, even the emperor himself must abandon the trappings of luxury and ask his ministers to correct his ways. It has been thus for thousands of years. Can we truly say that imperial authority and a dynasty’s fate rests on our moral laws? The real principle of this world is invisible and unpronounceable, but all things proceed in accordance. I made use of that principle for a small moment, that was all.”
The esoterist produced the deed out of thin air and presented it to him with elevated hands: “People say that sorcery is vulgar, but the spells themselves are not to blame. It’s how one uses them that matters. Consider the case of money. It is universally desired, but how many murders have been committed because of that desire? You surely have seen your share, my lord.”
The act itself defied belief, but Qi was even more struck by the esoterist’s ravings because there was a kernel of truth in them. As a longtime magistrate, he had been thoroughly schooled in the cruelty and helplessness in human nature. Who better than a local bureaucrat to witness firsthand the sufferings of this world? He often pondered why must the common people endure such hardship. The laws themselves were strict enough, but with ever-increasing taxation and never-ending floods of refugees, what was the source of all this suffering? The more injustice he saw, the less faith he had in the sacredness of codes and classics.
“What is this principle that you speak of? What principle can rise above humanity’s moral laws, yet command all that is in creation?”
“It is the principle of space, which is everywhere and holds everything. My lord, even though it may appear that the deed was under lock and key, when observed from another direction, those rooms were wide open and interconnected. As such, it took no effort . . . ”
He dimly understood, for the first time, that space could expand or contract by will. Once he realized this, many strange ancient tales suddenly began to make sense. Be it the Abyss of Return that took in waters from every ocean, or the Living Earth that would continuously grow, all of them started with drilling a tiny hole into omnipresent space. Once the hole was created, it would be continuously enlarged so that water, earth—indeed, everything—could freely pass to the other side. The ancestors have left many records of space being transformed, but in this age, no one could understand the true meaning behind these tales except itinerant esoterists.
When he realized Chen’s serpentine band was made from the carving of space, Qi Youwen knew that there were still individuals like Zigang who cared not for the worldly things but matter and space. Not only did Zigang arrive at the heart of the mystery, he went a step further: using the wonderous serpentine shape, he brought the world within the painting to life.
There was one question that eluded him to this day: how did Agan witness his mother’s murder?
When Qi pressed the matter, the esoterist refused to say anything further. He only kowtowed again and again, so much that his forehead was bleeding. Qi sent him away and, after much deliberation, fed the deed to the flames.
April brings even more rain. In this usually wet season, clothes hanging in the yard often need to be retrieved before they finish drying, leaving a damp smell throughout the house. Chen leans over the window and stares at the well-watered banana tree in the corner of the yard. Its verdant leaves, no sooner than they unfurl, are beaten down again by the rain. It has been a long time since she has been to the garden. All this rain must have made the plants there grow.
Her father hasn’t been home much lately. In the morning, he either goes to the town of Kuaiji in a palanquin or takes a small boat to Wuxing. On some days, he returns with different men and talks with them in the study late into the night. Her morning and evening lessons have all come to a stop. Her mother, still unwell, sometimes manages to instruct her a little in literature. But Chen’s thoughts are occupied by the garden.
“Mum, why is Papa so busy? Why hasn’t he come home yet?”
“We have too much rain this year. The river flooded, so many farmers’ fields and houses are ruined. Papa is organizing the relief effort to get some food to them. Do you remember how we took you to the Kuaiji Mountains to see the Monument to Yu the Great? Yu spent thirteen years fighting to control the flood, during which he passed by his home three times without going in even once. Papa is busy for a good cause, Chen. Be patient with him.”
Chen reaches into the sachet and touches the gap on the serpentine band. She hasn’t been able to find the right material to repair it, and her father is too busy to do it for her. Ever since the band broke, its once-vivid sceneries in her dreams have grown increasingly muddled. She’s almost too scared to fall asleep with the band in her hand because she fears that she might never see that world again. With the unceasing torrents, the river is overflowing. Is Papa’s garden still safe?
One night, she stares out of the window from her bed, but the stars are all hidden inside thick layers of clouds. Papa should be back by now. She gets up quietly and, groping her way by the walls, tiptoes toward the main house. Once there, she presses her ear against the door.
Papa and Mum are talking. At first, it’s about relief efforts like setting up soup kitchens and pharmacies, but then they start using terms that she can’t understand, like grain reserve and disaster governance. Eventually the topic turns to something comprehensible again—government troops fighting rebels somewhere.
As the conversation ends, Chen hides in a hurry before the door creaks open. Seeing that her father is heading for the study, she waits for Mum to leave before crawling toward the room. Under the candlelight, Papa is reading a letter with a strange grin on his face. He reads it carefully for a while before putting it down, then he blows the candle out and leaves.
The door is left unlocked. Chen creeps into the study and takes the letter to the window. In the dim natural light, she makes out that it’s from a certain Master Wang. Between the faint lighting and unfamiliar characters, she can only gather the gist of the letter:
“Having visited your garden, I find it to be the embodiment of four failures. Three of them are obligations unfulfilled by you, while the last is by me. Above all else, you owe a great duty to our country. Even in retirement, you should be teaching and deliberating about how to improve the common people’s welfare and livelihood. Yet for the past two years, you have done nothing to help the people; instead you frittered your time and energy away on the stones and trees of this garden. By focusing on your inward cleverness, you have neglected your duty to be of use to this world. If everyone acts thus, what will become of our country? By neglecting this duty, you have failed your sovereign. Your revered father had led a blameless life, his study was filled with countless volumes . . . You are nearly forty now, yet despite your respectable office, you have contravened all convention without accomplishing anything of note or value. By abandoning your family’s legacy, you have failed your father. You are blessed with great intellect and upright morals, yet you refuse to apply them to public service . . . much like scattering pearls into piles of trash or leaving fertile fields untended. By living such an unexamined life, you have failed yourself. Lastly, even though I have always been permitted to speak frankly in front of you, I did not rescue you from such egregious mistakes before you committed them. It is only now, when the damage has already been done, that I hope to make you see the truth through my harsh words . . . By doing so, I have failed you as a friend.”
As the letter goes on, the scribbling becomes even difficult to make out, but Chen has no desire to read the rest. She doesn’t understand everything that is being said, but it reads like this man is scolding her father for building a garden instead of being in public service. But Papa has been working so hard to get food to the farmers! He has already neglected the garden for so long, but this Master Wang is still telling him off. It stings. She has never felt this wronged, not even when Papa admonished her during painting classes. Alone in the gloomy study, she begins to bawl.
“Chen? Why are you here, Chen? And why are you crying?”
Papa has returned to the study and lighted the lamp again. Seeing her in tears, he takes her into his arms and wipes her face.
“Papa . . . ” she sobs, “Master Wang is mean. He . . . he’s so mean to you . . . ”
He coaxes the letter away from her tightly closed fingers. Her tiny face is wet with tears. There are a thousand things he wants to say, but he cannot form a single syllable. After a long silence, he reaches into a pile of documents that’s barely holding up and takes out a piece of paper with designs of a garden pavilion on it.
“Don’t cry, Chen. Master Wang is right, and Papa will do as he says.”
“I don’t want Papa to work for the government,” Chen only wails harder.
“Fine, fine. Papa won’t work for the government then. Failures it will have to be. Look, Papa’s going to build a new lounge in the garden. It will be right behind the House of the Faraway Mountain, and I will call it the Hall of Four Failures. There we can plant mulberry trees and keep baby silkworms. What do you say?”
“Papa, why is there so much flooding in this world?” she finally stops crying, but her voice is already raw. “Why are there so many natural disasters and so many poor, suffering people?”
“Even though it’s a big world, there aren’t that many places for people to live in peace and safety,” he says softly at the end of a long pause.
“Then . . . then what can we do?” Chen looks up at her father. The candlelight has tinged his shadow with gold.
“Papa doesn’t have the answers, either,” as he stands up, his body immerses into the darkness. “All Papa can do is build a small garden to keep you safe there. Let’s go. It’s time for bed.”
Amidst the sound of crows and rain dripping off the eaves, she falls asleep with the serpentine band in her hand. In her dreams, mountains and waters melt into each other and turn indistinguishable.
At the age of twenty-nine, Qi Youwen was promoted to Assistant Imperial Inspector-General of the Right, the same office that Hai Rui once held. His wife, Meisheng, was expecting Chen at the time, but she accompanied him to the north. On their way, they stopped in Hangzhou to boat on West Lake. While on the water, Meisheng fell asleep in the warm summer breeze. When she finally woke up to the sound of the oars, she mused that it might be many years before they would be able to return. That was when the idea first came to him: he would build a garden by the mountains to recreate nature’s wonders.
But times only grew harder. He read the Ministry of Revenue’s reports. Northern provinces like Shaanxi and Henan suffered natural disasters nearly every year. From draughts to floods, from locusts to pestilence, calamities followed on each other’s heels. The ravenous poor stripped the mountains of grass and bark; when that wasn’t enough, they turned to eating clay, the path to a slow, bloated death. Roads were choked with corpses and crying infants; those lucky enough to escape took to begging along the way, not knowing when they would fall dead by the roadside themselves. The area Qi was stationed in, the cities of Suzhou and Songjiang, were supposed to be enclaves of wealth and prosperity; but even the towns there had their share of destitute refugees.
And what of Jiangnan, the fabled land of plenty south of Yangtze? Here, one family out of ten should be lucky enough to hold onto their ancestral farm! Even in the bustling city of Suzhou, day laborers line up near the gate, anxiously waiting for anyone to offer them a job. Will they share their northern brethren’s terrible fate? How many of them will end up as beggars, how many others hooligans and hoodlums? He submitted a long report to the capital outlining the sufferings of peasants, but no reply ever came. What could he hope for? Between the bandits and the Tartar invaders, the life of a peasant had no more worth than a handful of grass.
It was the callousness, however, that frightened him the most. Sometimes he even wondered if it was him who was the aberration. During all these years in office, he had been careful to keep his sensitivity and sympathy in check. When he gave orders for notorious scoundrels to be beaten to death in public, he could sense the fear in others’ eyes. But he could never harden his heart enough to become a true sword of justice in the mode of Hai Rui. He derived too much pleasure from the beauty of nature and the love of family. The chaos and disarray in government filled him with too much indignation, and the sight of the people’s misery gave him too much sorrow. Yet the high officials chose to turn a blind eye to everything. Perhaps they were the root of all this suffering.
He continued with his magisterial duties in Yixing until a case forced him to resign.
Yixing was the hometown of Zhou Yanru, Qi’s one-time idol who became the empire’s top graduate at the age of twenty. To celebrate such extraordinary success, the town built him a splendid stone arch, three stories high, right in front of the local Confucius temple. However, emboldened and protected by Zhou’s lofty position, his clansmen were notorious town bullies who held themselves above the law. No one dared to stand up to them. That is, until that day.
It was yet another land dispute. But this time, the Zhous wanted not only Farmer Bao’s fertile fields but also the family’s burial ground. When Bao refused, the Zhou servants tied up a couple of bitches by his fields to attract mating males. In their eager rumble, the dogs trampled all over Bao’s seedlings and ancestral graves. An enraged Bao killed all the dogs and dumped their carcasses in the Zhous’ land.
The next day, a ruckus started outside Bao’s cottage first thing in the morning. Something was blocking the door. When Bao finally managed to shove it open, clang! There was a coffin right outside the cottage, complete with fresh dirt.
In his rage, Bao took up a chopping cleaver and dashed for Zhou’s house. The Zhous’ servants, lying in wait, dragged him to the county’s magistrate office and slapped a charge of armed assault on him. When Bao’s family and neighbors made their way to the county jail, they were greeted with a charred corpse tossed to the ground. A jail cell fire, according to the clerk. The suspect had died before a trial could be held.
This was the final straw. A band of several hundred, armed with hoes and sickles, burned down the Zhou family’s residence and destroyed its ancestral graves. By the time Qi Youwen arrived in Yixing, the provincial magistrate’s militia guards had just arrived and arrested all the rioters.
In the deep twilight, Qi surveyed the crowd kneeling inside the magistrate’s yard. They were men of all ages, though some were more boys than men. None of them looked up at him even once, but he saw the raw despair and bitter resentment etched onto their faces. What was he to them? Another corrupt official determined to cover up the powerful family’s crimes, no doubt.
“Who are your leaders?”
“You might not trust me, but I’ll say this to you: The arsonists will be caned for a hundred strokes, but more importantly, those who committed murder and desecrated graves shall be sentenced to death! I don’t care who they are—the law is written in Statute Laws of the Ming Dynasty! Do you really believe that all of us, officials of this realm, know only how to neglect our duties, abuse our powers, and exploit the people? Do you really believe that we are all sycophants and hypocrites who would stand by idly, leaving our people to suffer and our country to fall into ruin!?”
The townspeople raised their heads fearfully. Under the torchlight, they saw the face of the assistant inspector-general. He was not as young as he once was, but there were tears in his eyes.
After he was forced into retirement, Qi Youwen would often think back on that fateful night, when he was touched by the spirit of Hai Rui. One might fancy that he has followed the latter’s path in life, but that isn’t quite true. Hai Rui was exiled to the desolate, pestilent southern coast, and there he contemplated the future of his country and the welfare of its people. But even in his time of disgrace, Qi finds himself consoled by the stunning beauty in nature at every turn. His loving family, too, is a fountain of solace and succor. How fortunate he is, compared to his predecessor! Yet the respite itself is the cause of his grief. After all, if a bird’s nest is toppled, can any of the eggs hope to remain unbroken? In these precarious times, all the lovely things in his world will, bit by bit, fall into ruin—this realization leaves him in the cold grip of overwhelming anxiety. He recalls the penniless refugees he had seen; some of them were wearing once-fine clothes made of premium silk and brocade. Qi can’t bring himself to imagine how his wife and children would look in their shoes.
Land. Land! For more than a decade now, most of the cases he had judged, and most of the sufferings he had outlined in his erstwhile report, could all be summed up in that one word. During the relief efforts, seven dan of rice was handed out every day, but each migrant receives no more than two ladles of watery congee for each meal. An acre of fertile land yields no more than five dan a year during the best of times, while an average acre gives three. Qi has seen farmers laboring in waist-deep mud for their daily meal, thin as it may be. He has overseen burials for corpses with swollen bellies and discolored skins. Even those raging bandits and invading Tartars, in the end, what do they want but more land to live on?
He knows the crux of the matter all too well. The rich’s lands extend far beyond the horizon while the poor don’t even own the roof over their head. Is the same not true when one thinks of the state of this country? He remembers seeing hundreds of boats, all heavy with rice bound for the capital, quietly waiting for the river gate to open. The high tide will carry them to the wide, open waters of the Yangtze, then in the foggy night, they will set sail for the north, to the emperor’s palace. A gigantic, invisible net has been cast over every corner of the land.
And what can he do? Aside from acting like a benevolent gentry and providing relief to the displaced and the dying, what is there for him to do? Did his dear friend have it right? Is he simply going to end everything here, bury them inside this little southern garden of his? But then he remembers the case of the disappearing deed, the techniques of art, and the serpentine band that allows one to walk into a dream. If one could find the truth of matter and space in ink and jade, then why not in the stones and trees of a garden as well?
By the time tart bayberries ripen, the weather has let up, and Papa no longer has to spend so much time away from home. Sometimes Chen thinks he looks a little more aged than before. When did the hair at his temples turn white? But he appears to be in good spirits, and there is an eagerness flashing in his eyes that makes him look young again. On the whole, he doesn’t look changed at all.
Now he draws designs late into the night and oversees the garden’s construction during the daylight hours. Every day, at the bare break of dawn, he has a young servant take him to the garden in a small boat. It’s little more than a mile by water, and the ride lasts no more than fifteen minutes, but he’s always in a hurry, rain or shine. Chen tags along at first, but she soon grows bored watching her father fastidiously at work—every stone, every grove, must be placed by his hands just so. Perhaps he wants to make up for all the time lost during the flood season? But the cicadas are still silent, and cool bamboo bed mats have just been rolled out, and the long summer is just beginning. Why, then, is Papa in such a hurry?
He always takes a thick stack of paintings with him to the garden. Some of them are detailed drawings of the pavilions, done in the meticulous gongbi style. Some are landscape handscrolls with faraway mountains. The biggest scroll, however, contains only small circles and squares connected by winding lines. At first Chen has no idea what this drawing is about, but her father explains that it’s a bird’s-eye view of the garden. The place will only be built correctly if this design is followed down to the last detail.
But it’s not like Papa can fly, Chen wonders, so how can he know what the garden looks like from above?
It was not difficult, according to him. He made many tiny paper models of trees and buildings, then stacked a little hill out of rocks inside the yard; lotus pots served as ponds while brush pipes, split into halves, were used to imitate streams. Once he placed the trees and buildings in their correct place, he had a miniature model of the garden that he used for the drawing. He’s also folding many pieces of paper into all sorts of shapes—circles, squares, and shapes she cannot even name. Some of them are arcs with a sharp corner, some are the same size on all sides, like a paper bag carved out from a ball. All of the pieces are twisted in strange ways, and the most common shape is a ring of paper twisted in the middle, the shape of the serpentine band itself. Chen becomes even more perplexed. Does Papa intend to put them into the garden as well? She asks him but instead of answering her, he only smiles.
The sycamore trees in the yard rustle in the first autumn wind. Her father’s paper shapes, too, turn and shudder. Father and daughter make their way to the garden again. As the small boat passes through the white, feather-like reeds, she stares at its disappearing wake. The first lights are trickling through the fine reed flowers. Though the cicadas and frogs have ceased to sing, water birds flap their wings from hidden places. A trace of chill creeps upon her.
The boat bypasses a green grove and arrives at the garden. Chen touches her eyebrows and finds them moist with dew. Her sleeves, too, feel a little damp. She hasn’t even entered the garden yet, and she’s already in the Lapis Kingdom. After coming ashore, she sees the Gull-Dwelling Pond on the other side of the gallery. Reflected in its clear waters, the faraway mountains look like something from a fairy tale. It’s almost impossible to tell where the clouds end and where the water begins.
“Look at the man-made structures by this lake, Chen. What’s special about them?”
Chen looks around. There is a long embankment in the western part of the pond that extends into a field of dense lotus leaves. She can faintly make out a stone platform floating amidst all that green and, behind it, bamboo groves and a rocky hill. By the eastern side of the lake, there are several waterside pavilions with white walls, black-tiled roofs, and waterfront windows with half-rolled curtains. In fact, all these buildings have windows that overlook the lake. Looking closer, she realizes that each and every building’s orientation is unique; although they all point to the center of the water, each of them is set at a different angle.
“Papa, these buildings remind me of a crowd gathered inside a hall.”
“Quite so. You’re paying attention. This is called the principle of Inner Movement. Here I have applied it to not only the buildings but also everything else as well. The location of every tree and every stone are all strictly calculated according to this principle.”
“Inner Movement?” The term itself is not difficult to understand, but it’s quite a departure from their usual art lessons. “Why are you making your garden in this way, Papa?”
“Patience, my child,” he smiles at her. “Aside from the Inner Movement, I’m also trying to apply two other principles in the design of this garden. If I succeed, you will be able to see sights even more incredible than what’s contained in the serpentine band.”
The two of them follow the gallery to the eastern pavilions. A short bridge, facing the north, connects the gallery to a three-story high library built with black bamboo. Freshly coated in foxglove oil, the bamboo panels glitter under the sunlight like the water’s ripples.
Chen walks up to the library. The huge windows on all four sides are open, letting the lake’s breeze into its spacious inside, teasing the books’ pages. Sunlight bounces off the water’s surface; on the fine, white bamboo mats, spots of light dazzle like shattered jade. The adjacent flower house, however, is extremely low and narrow. She leans over into its shade and finds herself surrounded by a gloomy coolness.
“Papa, this flower house is right next to the library, but why does it feel so different? Big and small, high and low, bright and dark . . . everything is the exact opposite.”
“There’s more. Look at their roofs. Can you imagine how they would appear, if you looked down at them from the sky?”
Chen looks at the two buildings with their uneven heights. Copying after him, she picks up a stick and begins to draw small squares on the ground. The library’s waterfront wall is long while its side walls are short, but the flower house is just the opposite.
“Papa, these two buildings are locked together; as one advances, the other retreats. Their orientations are also completely in reverse.”
“That’s right. This is called the principle of Reverse Contrast, also used in garden design. Every element in this garden—tall versus low, advancement versus retreat, big versus small, bright versus dim—even mountain versus water—are laid out according to this principle. Many common techniques such as ‘revealing the big inside the small’ and ‘suppress it before letting it flourish’ follow the same idea. The flower house’s narrow dimness and tranquility stands in stark contrast to the library’s airy spaciousness, when in reality they occupy almost the same acreage.”
“Really?” says Chen with surprise. “But the flower house had such a confined feel to it, nothing like the openness of the library.”
There is a light in her father’s eyes as he smiles at her. “Do you remember how Zigang carved the serpentine band out of space? But when you think about it, when one creates a small garden that contains the entire world, is one not manipulating space as well?”
“Papa . . . do you mean that—”
Words fail her. Perhaps Papa is not building this garden simply because he’s tired of government service? Perhaps, like Zigang, he is trying to focus everything he has on achieving something no one else has dared to dream of.
Her heart is beating so fast. A thousand thoughts are racing inside her head, but she doesn’t dare to think a single one through. The serpentine band, barely the size of her hand, is already extraordinary enough; but this garden sprawls over many acres of land. If it’s designed through the same principle, what will become of it?
“Then . . . ” she asks after a long silence, “what is the third principle of this garden’s design?”
Instead of answering her with words, her father takes her in hand and leads her to the other side of the pond. Passing through a small bridge, they find themselves inside the hill with bamboo groves once more. Its gnarly trees and jagged stones are worlds apart from the misty waters of the lake, but there is a spring nestled between the rocks. Shaped like the full moon, its surface glitters underneath the lush leaves. Papa scoops up a handful of water, and Chen takes a sip from his hand. It tastes like the scent of the pines.
“Papa, here you have water within the mountain, but the spring itself carries the fragrance of the trees. I don’t think this can be wholly explained by the principle of Reverse Contrast.”
“Quite so. Here the elements of water and mountain are contained within each other. Such is the embodiment of Infinite Containment, the last of the three principles.” He nods at her. “Liezi told us that ‘Therefore everything contains something smaller, and is contained in something larger, without bound or limit. Heaven and earth contain myriad things and are contained in the same way by something else.’ When we say that ‘even the great Mount Meru can fit into a single mustard seed,’ we are unwittingly voicing the literal truth—that all worlds are contained within each other.”
“But . . . but we only see one world before us.”
“Think about the paintings, Chen, then you’ll understand. Suppose that the paper has no thickness at all, then how many figures and things can be held within a single room?
She grows dizzy. In her mind, she can see those figures floating right off the scrolls, their inks and lines gliding through air. A drawing may contain swelling crowds or vast vistas on paper, but from the point of the viewer holding the painting, they are nothing but an infinitesimally thin shadow. All the worlds drawn on paper is not enough to fill a mustard seed outside it.
“Do you mean to say, Papa, that our world is contained within another world? And that they see us just as we see a drawing on paper?”
He is silent for a while but eventually says: “Do you remember the story about the Peach Blossom Shangri-La?”
“The story where the fisherman entered a mysterious grotto and found people living there? It was a flat land that had neat rows of houses, fertile fields, lovely ponds, and thriving mulberry trees. Its residents lived in harmony with their chickens and dogs. Papa, did the fisherman . . . did he enter a world like that?”
“People say that the Peach Blossom Shangri-La can only exist in paintings,” sighs her father, “but what they don’t realize is that our own world is but another painting. How did the denizens of that blessed place find such an infinite supply of quality land? They jumped out from the painting that our world is confined in. Space is malleable and countless worlds are contained within one another. Once you understand that, you will understand the true nature of the Peach Blossom Shangri-La. The ancients speak of sacred grotto-heavens that are hidden within mountains and how only the immortals can find them, but in truth those sites are simply what links our world to the world above. These so-called immortals are only common beings from that higher world.”
“A link . . . You mean like how the paper links the world in the painting to our own?”
“Yes. But even with the paper as their window into our world, the painted figures, as a rule, cannot come alive in this world. It’s even more difficult for us to enter the world beyond this one. The fisherman, try as he might, cannot find the Peach Blossom Spring for a second time. That world is full of natural beauty and happy peace, but in this world of ours, people must endure natural disasters and the ravages of war. Chen, you have been treasured and pampered all your life, so you might think of the world as an immense place that you can spend a lifetime roaming. But for so many, there is nowhere for them to hide and simply live.”
“Papa,” Chen calls out softly. The wonders of creation and the misery of the masses are mere concepts to her, but she remembers how her father looked when he was trying to organize the relief efforts, and she will never forget the awful words in that letter. “This Earth’s burden is not for you to bear alone. Now that you have given yourself to this garden and learned the great secret, perhaps you can forget about all those terrible things.”
“The scholars of old want people like me to influence the destiny of the common people and shape the heart of heaven itself. Seeing how I am living my life, perhaps such hopes are wasted on me. Yet I still harbor a certain delusion, something impossible that I wish to see done.”
Her father is speaking in a low voice, but to Chen’s ears, his soft words sound like the morning and evening bells of a temple, echoing loudly inside the lonely mountain hollows.
“That’s why you are building the garden . . . because . . . ”
“Do you remember how Zigang carved space to make the serpentine band? The twisted shape of the band makes it possible for you to enter the world carved onto the jade. I have the same idea, but my painting is not made by ink or brush but everything inside this garden. I am applying the same method not to flat paper but to the space that surrounds everything in our world. If I succeed, we might gain a glimpse into that higher world of endless abundance. All I want is to build my garden, but this little garden might well turn the whole world on its head.”
“Inner Movement, Reverse Contrast, and Infinite Containment . . . what do these three principles really mean?” Chen’s voice quavers. She reaches for the serpentine band inside her sachet and runs her finger along the band, over and over.
Her father draws a circle on the ground. The circle is half-light and half-dark, with the two contrasting halves bending around each other. There is a spot of dark inside the light and a spot of light inside the dark, like a black-eyed white fish and a white-eyed black fish chasing after each other for all eternity.
“This . . . so this is the Yin-Yang Taiji.”
“It’s more than that. If you link two serpentine bands together at their edges and look down on the conjoined whole, it would look exactly like this. How many surfaces does the band have, Chen?”
“The band’s two sides alternate in an infinite loop, therefore it has no surface . . . ”
“That’s right. The band has no outer nor inner side to speak of, thus the concept of surface cannot apply to it, yet it is capable of connecting the world inside its picture to the one that we live in. When you link two bands together at their edges, the resulting shape has no side at all. I call it the serpentine bottle, and I believe that it might serve as a link between our world and the one above us. The shape of Yin-Yang Taiji is a key to that world left in the consciousness of our ancestors.”
“Then, Papa, you are trying to build this garden into a serpentine bottle by applying those three principles?”
“And what a task it is,” her father closes his eyes and shakes his head. He looks weary. “The world in the painting is shaped by the very space that we are in. All this time, even after experimenting with a mountain of shapes made out of paper, I am still unable to perfectly conjoin the sides of two serpentine bands. I can see the garden’s shape clearly in my mind, but I cannot put it down on the panorama, thus the garden cannot be built correctly. This will be my project’s undoing. But what a pity! The world above has so much land for everyone to live in, happiness and peace, but the poor of our world will never gain entrance to it.”
“Perhaps if you give it some time, Papa . . . ”
“Chen,” his voice drops an entire octave, like the sound itself has fallen into a deep well. She has never heard him speak in this way, with each word drawn out so slowly, and with such excruciating purpose. “Before I started working on it, this garden was nothing but a desolate plot of land; and despite my best efforts, who knows what will happen to its myriad buildings in the days to come? The world we live in is on the verge of collapse. Our days together, I am afraid, are quite numbered.”
She doesn’t remember what else happened on that day except for the shrill cries of a blue whistling thrush echoing through the mountains. They marked the abrupt end of her girlhood.
By the next spring, her father had left home for Nanking. It was an abnormally dry season. When they received news from the north that the capital had fallen and the emperor had been martyred, the father and daughter were weeding together in the garden. He wanted to stand up, but his legs failed him halfway through, leaving him kneeling on the ground. When Chen rushed to help him up, she saw tears dripping down into the dried-up spring.
At the time, the Prince of Fu had already reached Nanking. Her father spent the night locked up inside the study and, when he emerged at daybreak, he had already picked out several books and the still-unfinished panorama for the garden. Chen knew that he was going into government service again, but this time she couldn’t bring herself to try to get him to stay with her tears. She saw him off: the north-bound wagon wobbling at the start of its journey, leaving behind a trail of dust that looked like the red cloud of dawn. When it finally disappeared in the blur that she knew as the north, she was overtaken by an overwhelming sense of emptiness. In that moment, she learned the meaning of the word loneliness.
Her father rarely writes. When he does, it’s always inquiries after their domestic life and the state of the garden. The news they hear on the streets, however, are nothing so benign. The rebel army has been laying siege to the city of Yangzhou and, unable to capture the city, its soldiers are carrying off women from the surrounding countryside. The country is in chaos, and many are trying to make their way to Jiangnan. Yet in his latest letter to Chen, her father only mentions that he has acquired a western map that can perhaps be used to build the garden. At first she is irritated—even their kitchen maids and servants are constantly talking about the state of the country, but Papa is still treating her like she’s a little girl. But his words seem full of sincerity; it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to pull the wool over her eyes.
The first two times her father had resigned from the government, it was because he had earned the wrath of powerful figures at the imperial court. That old court is now gone, and the new capital in Nanking heralds a new beginning for everything. Yet here he is again, resigned from the government for the third time.
On a night of drizzling rain, her father returns home. He’s still wearing that old pine-colored robe, and he still has the same gentle smile, but Chen senses something has changed, like there are tiny fissures hidden within. She tries to read his face, but there is no answer there.
“Look here, Chen. This is Kunyu Wanguo Quantu. It was first printed by a Western scholar in Zhaoqing and then reprinted in Nanking. On this map, the land and the seas are circular . . . ”
“How is the situation in the capital, Papa?”
“I’m afraid your papa is quite useless there,” he shakes his head. It seems like he wants to say something but thinks the better of it. “In times like these, one needs to live far away from worldly temptation. I have already told your brother that he should strive to be morally upstanding, and he must never try to gain any office nor rank. All that’s left for him to do is read the classics and live off the land, be a gentleman and conduct himself according to the principles. Even though you are a girl, given our family’s erudite tradition, the same rules apply to you.”
Seeing that she can say nothing to change his mind, Chen takes a look at the map under the candlelight. It’s a gigantic thing that drapes over all four corners of the desk. There is a circle in the upper left corner of the map and another in the lower left one, each of them with a small drawing of land enclosed within. The bulk of the map, however, is contained within an enormous oval-shaped frame with many rows of vertical and horizontal ink grids. Starting from the middle, the space between one grid to the next grows ever greater. Many different lands and seas can be seen scattered all over the map, though there are two particularly big masses, one to the east and one to the west. All the places’ names are labeled in different colors, though Chen can only recognize a handful of them: starting with China in the middle, then nearby Goryeo, Nippon, Jiaozhi, and Siam, but nothing beyond those. There is yet another land, massive and white, that occupies the lower portion of the map. It is unnamed.
“Papa, this land in the extreme south . . . despite its vastness, why does it not have a sovereign? Suppose our people can move there, might we not be able to find the Peach Blossom Shangri-La again?”
“The southern wind blows in time to bring our people fortune,” says he softly, “alas, according to that Western scholar, the Earth is a sphere that floats within the celestial sphere itself, with a north and a south. Not only is the land to its southern end separated from us by the great ocean, it is also much like the land in the far north—it is bitterly cold year-around, and nothing grows there.”
“This land in the South looks as big as the East and West lands put together, but it’s useless to us,” sighs Chen. “The map is lovely enough, but we can’t do much with it other than admiring it for a while.”
“No, no, this map is quite useful in its uselessness. Do you remember, Chen, what I did to draw the garden’s panorama? I made models of mountains and trees in order to have a bird’s-eye view of the garden.”
“Yes. Didn’t you take that panorama with you to Nanking, Papa?”
“Have you considered this, then? Since the Earth is a sphere, then how did this map transfer all of its things onto a rectangle piece of paper?”
“Well . . . ” In her head, she tries to lay out the surface of a paper ball, but it wouldn’t fit into a rectangle.
“The Westerners have advanced their sciences. Rather than looking downward, they imagine the Earth as a sphere suspended in a hollow cylinder, and there is a lamp inside the very heart of the Earth. If we look out from this lamp at the center, the sphere’s images are projected onto the cylinder; and if we unroll the cylinder’s surface, we would have a map. This map is a faithful reproduction of the locations and angles on the sphere. If one sails in a straight line from one point on the map to another, as long as they don’t change course, they will reach their destination. With maps such as this, is it any wonder that the Westerners are excellent sailors?”
“But the horizontal and vertical grids keep growing bigger,” as Chen tries to follow her father’s description, something jumps out at her. “Could it be that the sizes on this map . . . ?”
“Yes. This kind of cartography values the precision of angles at the expense of size accuracy. The further you move away from the middle of the sphere, the more deformed is the shape. The land of the south may appear enormous here, but in reality, its size is no more than one-eighth of what you see on the map.”
“I see. The world appears so drastically different when one looks at it in a different way. I hadn’t realized . . . ”
“The truth is, the same ideas could be found in our forefathers’ discourses on art. A Song painter once said that there are three different ways to perceive a mountain’s distance. When you stand at the feet of the mountain and look up to its peak, it appears far away because it’s tall. When you stand before a mountain and try to see what’s behind it, you experience the distance of depth. When you stand on a mountain and gaze at one further away, you’ll be looking down at it from afar. The same mountain, seen from different angles and perspectives, leaves drastically different impressions. Even though Chinese sciences appear nothing like the Western sciences, both are operating in accordance with the laws of nature.
“Here I am, trying to make a garden according to the principles of painting, but I have been blinded by the incompleteness of my knowledge. How can I expect to build the serpentine bottle if I approach the panorama from only one angle? How very silly of me, indeed.”
He falls silent and starts to pace back and forth inside the study. Chen closes her eyes and grows drowsy as she ponders how to transplant the serpentine band’s world onto the panorama. In her sleepy daze, she fancies herself seeing him pacing faster and faster; under the flickering candlelight, a hundred shadows join and part from each other on the wall. Before she knows it, she is already falling asleep.
On that day in Jiangyin, the rain came down hard as anything.
Qi Youwen stood on a boat and faced the large crowd that had gathered on the pier. The torrent drenched everyone’s plain robes, but none of them showed any sign of retreat.
He surveyed their young faces. Pale and stubborn, they didn’t look much older than his own children. Under normal circumstances, it would be impossible to picture them as arsonists and vandals. They were not a rabble of hooligans but young scholars who had taken the classics to heart. Some of them even reminded him of himself as a younger man.
And he could understand their anger, even now. When the capital fell to the rebels, on the eve of China’s national calamity, many leading scholars of the country chose to bend their knees to the usurpers. The coffin that contained the late emperor’s body was placed in a small temple near the capital’s eastern gate, but out of thousands of officials, fewer than thirty went to pay their respects. Even some esteemed doyens of learning, natives from Jiangnan and the leading lights to the young generation, were among the turncoats. Faced with the court’s demise, these respected scholars wasted no time in betraying everything that they ever stood for. Their students, in agonized disappointment, launched organized attacks on their residences and destroyed their ancestral shrines. In some cases, unrest turned into riots. As soon as the Prince of Fu came to power in Nanking, the new regent summoned Qi Youwen to court once more and tasked him with placating these young men’s fury.
“Gentry scholars of Jiangyin!” he shouted as loudly as he could amidst the downpour. “How can we sully our names with the black mark of betrayal, and how can one commit crimes in the name of righteousness? In this great crisis, more than ever, you must maintain your calm and act as one! I beg of you, follow the rites and voice your grievances in writing! I shall personally see to it that your petitions reach the court, and I will stay here for as long as it takes for you to see the truth in my words!”
When the tears came down, they were washed away by the rain. Little by little, the respected envoy mollified these young men’s rage, but he himself was filled with uncertainty and doubt.
Would submitting their petitions to the court truly change anything? Every month, on both banks of the Yangtze River, the imperial troops’ commanders clamored for more money to pay the soldiers. Add this to the officials’ salaries and other government spending, and the Ministry of Revenue had arrived at a deficit of two and a quarter million taels of silver. The national treasury, meanwhile, had only a measly one thousand taels in reserve. The Ministry took to raising taxes under all sorts of absurd pretexts to make up for this shortfall. On the streets of the new capital, the popular cry was that “we sell our children to pay the crooked clerks, but it’s not even enough to pay for their dinner.”
And what did the court do? After the Prince of Fu was enthroned in Nanking, scarcely a day passed before he issued an edict for the selection of virgins, and the city’s bureaucrats saw a prime opportunity for extortion. Families with unmarried girls, whatever their age may be, had to pay a steep bribe if they didn’t want their daughters forcibly dragged away like cattle. Fear spread through every neighborhood. Some families married their daughters off in frenzied haste; weddings went on during all hours, day and night. But where was their envoy who could promise them recourse and justice? While this farce was going on in the streets, the court only grew ever more divided. Factionalism was the word of the day, but not a single faction seemed to care about the Manchu forces gathering to the Yangtze’s north!
The time had come for him to leave; but unlike his previous spells of exile, this time he harbored no illusion about the future. The ship was sinking, the house was on fire, but the court’s music carried on without skipping a beat, and all his hopes had died in the raucous celebrations. What faith he had left was contained in the two documents stored away in his luggage: a copy of Kunyu Wanguo Quantu that he had recently acquired and, by his own hand, A Panorama of Yushan.
The world was teetering on the verge of collapse, yet he still harbored a secret wish. Could he manipulate the principle of twisting space to steer its course away from seemingly inevitable ruin? He could not say.
But he must try.
Her father had resumed his daily visits to the garden and eventually set up living quarters there by himself. As the weather grew colder, the laborers took their yearly leave and left for home. The townspeople’s enthusiasm for political gossip also waned considerably.
Meanwhile, her family is preparing to make New Year’s cake. They already have the necessary flour mixture, made from grinding regular rice and sticky rice, and Chen is eagerly waiting for the hired pastry chef’s house visit. How she loves watching them at work! They use huge steamers that measure two feet in diameter and are several inches deep. The cakes come out in the same size and fill the rooms with a delicate, clean aroma.
As the end of year draws near, Chen accompanies her mother to Mount Cao on their annual pilgrimage to pray and release captive turtles. The rock caves, however, no longer hold any sign of life. Fish, shrimp, water snails, crabs . . . aside from a handful of dark snail shells, nothing is left of the small animals that once lived there. According to monks at the temple, they were all snatched and eaten by hungry migrants from the north.
She returns home to the sight and smell of fresh cake, white as jade and still steaming, but something is stuck in her throat, and her appetite has vanished.
Her father doesn’t return until New Year’s Eve. The skin on his ash-gray hands is peeling off like a snake shedding, but he would not have his wife sending for a doctor. As the whole family quietly gathers around the table, Chen asks him about the garden’s progress. He only answers that despite years of living in frugality, he has sinned by spending extravagantly on the garden. After the New Year passes, he would donate the entire tract of land to a temple nearby. The family should keep to their ancestral residence and refrain from living in luxury.
What has happened to her father? By this time, she already understands that some questions are better left unasked. That knowledge, however, doesn’t stop her from turning the thought over and over in her mind. Papa has already grasped the truth about space, why is he giving up his precious garden? The sound of fireworks outside grows sparse, but she begins to hear people’s voices—at first distant and muffled, but drawing nearer and nearer, every time louder, in this lonely night.
Chen rushes out from the door and looks up. For the first time in her life, she lays her eyes on snow. Countless snowflakes, big as goose feathers, are slowly drifting down from the dark depths of sky. She can’t suppress her shout of joy.
Snow. Ice-cold, crystalline snow. Even as it melts into a single waterdrop inside her palm, Chen still can’t bring herself to let it go. Against all the white, the yard lanterns’ red looks more brilliant than ever. The motley colors of the ground become muted underneath layers upon layers of endless white.
“Auspicious snow heralds a bountiful new year,” says her mother with a smile. She has put on a thick cloak and ventured outside as well.
“I wish I could see snow every year,” Chen blinks to cast the snowflakes stuck to her eyelashes down onto her cheeks. Her face is already beginning to hurt from the cold, but she has no intention of going back inside. “Papa! Come see the snow! Come see it before it stops snowing!”
“No need to rush, Chen. In the years to come, you will see snow over and over again.” Her father sauntered out. There is a strange light glistening in his eyes.
“Papa! What happened, Papa?”
“Don’t worry. It’s only a reflection of the light on the snow,” he gently pats Chen on her shoulders. “If you have a heart full of snow, the world you see will always be pure. Do you understand the meaning of ‘cold and desolate’ now, my girl?”
The memory from that day is so vivid that the following months all pass in a blur. All she can remember is that Papa stopped going to the gardens and contented himself with poetry and painting. It was May when the southern capital fell; by June, the city of Hangzhou was also lost. From the north came whispers about a horrific massacre taking place in Yangzhou, and the people in Sanyin began to panic. Following the age-old wisdom, city-folk who had come to town to steer clear of the pirates began packing and soon fled for rural areas even further south. Chen grew afraid herself when, one after another, the family’s servants began to disappear; but her father’s demeanor remained the same and gave no indication that they would leave. Perhaps there was nothing to fear, after all.
The next month, they received an official letter of appointment from the new Manchu rulers in Peking. Her father ignored it and chatted with his family during dinner as he had always done. The shells in the clear clam soup half-floated alongside young scallions. They looked like white stones underneath a mountain stream, attended by verdant leaves. Father picked a shell up and looked out of the window. As he surveyed the southern mountain draped in twilight, a smile came to his face. “Both mountains and human beings were phantasmal constructs,” he said. Even though the mountain remains unchanged, an entire lifetime has already passed for the human.
For the rest of her life, Chen will always wonder why she didn’t grasp the true meaning behind those words. The next day, when the rest of the family hurried to the garden and saw the familiar white headkerchief floating in water, she thought she had wandered into a dream that she might never wake up from. The pond was not deep. People said that her father had drowned himself by sitting upright on the back of his heels, but those words rang hollow to her ears. Then they received an official edict from the court in exile that bestowed impressive posthumous titles upon her father. Yet none of it seemed real, and she could only reach out to touch the gap on the serpentine band.
People could only understand how much effort Zigang put into making this serpentine band after it was broken.
The thought popped up in her mind as she jammed the thin, broken sliver of jade underneath her nail. She didn’t feel any pain.
The water has risen to his chest.
He looks up at the heavily overcast sky. His family must be fast asleep by now. The last of the stars are about to be devoured by the dark cloud, and he, too, will soon reach the end of his life. Tomorrow morning will find his family by the water, inconsolable in grief.
He knows that despite his repeated warnings, his son Li will always think of himself as a loyal remnant of the fallen dynasty. Li will entertain guests and hold literary parties inside this garden, using his pursuit of pleasure to mask a burning desire to raise an army and restore the old order. This he will do until it destroys him utterly.
He also knows that during Meisheng’s long widowhood, all her writing will carry an undertone of melancholy because of this night. Deprived of her partner in life, she would be left to contemplate the rest of her years in mournful loneliness. He owes her a debt that cannot be repaid. After twenty-five years of marital bliss, he leaves her with only a pair of young children and endless sorrow.
What’s more, after tonight, all his painstaking design for this garden will be lost. Only Chen, who shares his endless curiosity for the arts and the world, will know the reason. So many secrets, half-divulged through whispers of the ages, have mutely pointed to the same astonishing conclusion, only to be forgotten over and over. After all his pains and labors, he has finally caught a glimpse of the truth that is most phantasmal. The world’s familiar shape has crumbled before his eyes, exposing the pale skeleton underneath, and robbing him of his speech.
He thinks back on the strange case back in Xinghua and suddenly understands the esoterist’s stubborn silence. The words had been written by the one who created this world. Their brush and ink could not be borne by a mere mortal.
He bows his head. The water has reached his jaw, and his reflection disperses by way of the ripples. The principles of this world, hidden though as they may be amongst the stars, are nonetheless intertwined with all there is. Compared to them, the waxing and waning fortunes—be they of a man, a family, a nation, and even an age—are nothing but repetitive ripples in water. Like any individual life, the garden is only an utterly insignificant node on the all-encompassing net. It must be said, however, that the net itself is nothing more than the sum of nodes like this.
To this net, is his life no more real than a dream?
He has no answer, but he has tried his best.
By the time Chen lays her eyes upon Yushan Garden again, thirty years have passed. During the intervening decades, the Manchus have cemented their rule in China, and the girl has grown into a married woman. When her husband became embroiled in an infamous treason case, she accompanied him in exile. They made their way beyond the Great Wall to Ningguta, a desolate, frozen frontier town in the northeast.
But even that was ten years ago. The blizzards have since dulled her memories of the exquisite garden and the remnants of Ming. Now that she is accustomed to the north’s freezing winters, the south’s verdant trees and singing streams appear almost frighteningly alien.
The garden has long fallen into ruin. She makes her way across the rotting bridge and follows the path, overgrown with weeds, to the lakeside pavilion of her girlhood. One by one, the memories of that day begin to resurface.
“Before I started working on it, this garden was nothing but a desolate plot of land; and despite my best efforts, who knows what will happen to its myriad buildings in the days to come?”
Her father’s face has grown blurred in her memory, but his words on that day will stay with her always. During the fleeting summers in the north, roses bloom inside the small fortress. She would often take her children for a stroll among the sea of flowers and tell them about the one-time garden in the south, their faraway ancestral home. That garden had never seen snow, but it contained mountains and lakes, pavilions and springs, water that tasted of pine. Her father told her about how he had built a serpentine garden that embodied the three principles, how to unite the arts of painting and garden design, and how this one tiny garden could perhaps ease the entire world’s suffering. The children invariably came away with a look of confusion, and she often found it impossible to continue. Her imagination and curiosity had long died with the dried-up spring, it’s only their echoes and remnants that have dimly lighted her long journey.
The library is still standing, though neglect over the years has stripped its black bamboo walls of their luster. She climbs up step by step, coughing from the disturbed dust as fatigue seeps through her bones and into her flesh. Even though she has managed to keep her family fed and clothed for the past ten years, the extreme cold has corroded her body. Her hair is mostly white now; after all, she is almost forty.
The bamboo stairs stretch on, seemingly without end. Back on that day in the Faraway Pavilion, when she had broken the serpentine band, she ran down the stairs in a flash. Even on her first visit to this library, a few steps were all it took for her to reach the upper floor. Days in her childhood stretched long, but looking back, they came and went impossibly fast.
Chen leans against the wall and thinks to herself in the gloom. Could it really be that she has already grown old?
She is suddenly reminded of her father, who had died without reaching old age. In fact, they are around the same age now. When he walked into the shallow pond, perhaps it was with the same resignation that forced him to retire from his post. Perhaps what he found was not the secret of serpentine space but rather the pitiless stream of time.
What a shame that this abandoned garden never did offer him a link to the world above! With a soundless sigh, she continues her climb. Another hundred steps, but there is still no end in sight. These stairs stretch on too long, she realizes with a start. Far too long.
She automatically reaches for the serpentine band inside her sachet, but it has long been lost during the chaos of exile.
Yet a secret thrill, equally obscured by time, begins to echo in the silence. After all, she remembers the band’s every detail. Once she caught an ant and watched it milling about on the band, making loop after loop. The ant had been to every part of the band, but it was forever imprisoned on its surface. There was no hope of escape. Why couldn’t it simply take a step forward and free itself from the band? This she had often wondered. Father said that ants, like the drawn figures on a scroll, could not see past the flat surface. If only they could realize the world contained another dimension, they would be able to jump out from the painting.
Like her, right now.
Could it be? Could it be that her father had succeeded in the end? But if he had solved the riddle of serpentine space, why did he choose to end it all inside that shallow pond? In the dizzy darkness, she hears the sound of her breathing coming out heavy and hoarse. Her heart, too, beats loud and low. She remembers the verdant mountains and snow-buried cliffs, but the images of this world, like that night at the Lantern Festival, have grown blurry and distant. She closes her eyes and summons to mind the shape of two serpentine bands conjoined.
She holds her breath and fully expects to fall as she takes a step into the void.
She stands on a surface of perfectly real nothingness.
Realization hits her as she opens her eyes. In all these forty years, she has never seen this world’s true face. What she has seen is only an angled view of the painting’s side edge while the world contains any infinite number of edges. When she was a little girl learning to paint, did she ever spare a glance at the edge of the scroll? It was only a line, utterly insignificant and thin.
Now that she’s standing on another dimension, she sees how this thin line contains the entirety of the living world she had known. On this indescribable, illusory surface, the world repeats in an interminable loop. The still waters of the lake stretch on endlessly like the sky itself, but she knows it’s only a tiny corner of the small garden. Like every hill and every stone in this world, it sits in quiet contentment on this plane of nothingness.
She feels like she is in one long hall of mirrors, with countless mirrors reflecting into one another, and each of them contains not this illusory plane but the true reality of the world. In fact, be it the rolled-up scroll inside the closed bamboo cabinet, or the faded ink on the painting itself, she has never seen them with such breathtaking clarity. As all things are shown from manifold angles, the concept of direction becomes meaningless.
She tries to focus her vision in a small area, only to find the details expanding from inward out, all at the same time. An onslaught of dizziness forces her to close her eyes; by the time she opens them again, the details are already blurring. The myriad realities seem to flatten as if they are being committed to a painting scroll. Perhaps she is back into the familiar world again? But as soon as she takes a step or a single glance toward a particular direction, the painting unfurls itself back into the world.
Is this how watchers from the higher dimension make their way in-between the so-called realities? To them, what is this world but one of an infinite number of fragments?
Since there is no direction she could follow, she randomly walks onto a path with surprising ease. Let this path take her back to the starting point or the unknown, like how the fisherman had once stumbled into the Peach Blossom Shangri-La. The painting unfurls into the world, and the world collapses into the painting. Perhaps she has traversed a thousand mountains and rivers in this emptiness, or perhaps she hasn’t moved a single inch from where she started. In this world without direction, sometimes the sky flows beneath her feet, sometimes the lake floats high above. Suddenly she recalls the dream inside the serpentine band, with its red cliffs and white waters. Is the world transposed, or is she only seeing it in reverse? Is she living the reality or floating through a dream?
She stops and looks up. In the lake’s reflection, she watches as the evening rain weeps over the ruin of her ancestral home. She sees the black canopy boat gliding over a mirrorlike lake, the scattered lights flickering on and off in faraway mountains. She sees the bindings of the bamboo scrolls rotting into ashes, the red plates slipping off one by one. And there is the tiny figure of a man inside the splash of ink, a blue sky full of cracks and fissures. She sees a golden butterfly melting into the light of nothingness, sees countless braids tangle together to form a mountain of black and white.
She takes the world in from a thousand different angles and sees faces, familiar and unknown, appear and vanish with equal abruptness. She sees her own face and organs, every red muscle and every white bone. Could this be the true face of this world? She can feel her bones vibrating irregularly inside her, like a drum beating out its thumping cries. This, too, is a part of the giant picture that she will never comprehend.
The shouts, strange and familiar at once, knock her out from the dizzy confusion. There is her father, still a young man, standing in the middle of this explosion of colors. Dressed in that pine-colored robe, he is sprinting down the Faraway Pavilion in the world inside the lake. A young girl—her—begins to wail.
This . . .
It’s snowing hard inside that world. It was the first time she had ever seen snow. She had tilted her face to the sky and let the snowflakes melt on her cheeks. The red lanterns shone ever more brilliantly in the snow.
Then the snow morphs into a blizzard that threatens to swallow up the world. She sees an aged woman in a fur cloak being helped by a younger man as she raises a trembling hand to lift the door’s cover. Unlike the raging storm outside, she is the picture of calm as she looks out into the darkness, all the way to the faraway south.
It doesn’t take her a second glance to know who the old woman is. The fur hat-wearing younger man beside her has a ruddy complexion and a sturdy build. His hands are powerful and rough, but his facial features betray a trace of delicate beauty still.
A bittersweet feeling washes over her. There she sees her father’s eyes, bright with tears, and she understands at last.
In the end, the garden of serpentine was built. Yet not only had it twisted space to reveal a higher dimension, but it also twisted time itself. Space and time, intertwined and inseparable, are the warp and woof of the great net. The higher dimension had laid out this world according to the markers of time. The once-lucky interloper could never again enter the Peach Blossom Shangri-La because neither time nor space would allow his return.
In this altered time and space, her father had seen the past alongside the future. The past is a sunken hollow; the future, a mountain that soars. The mountain is impassable, but through the serpentine shape, one may yet find an angle to have a bird’s-eye view of the whole.
He must had seen how his Chen would live out the rest of her life in the frigid north, how his country would bend its knees to a powerful invading army, and how everything he held dear, everything he ever worked for, would crumble into nothingness underneath wild weed and a blood-red setting sun. The world of yesterday used to be real and solid, but it is readily forgotten as if it’s a dream that had never existed in the first place.
And there was nothing he could do. He could only hold her by the shoulders and watch as the feathery snowflakes rendered the world white as the surface of a scroll. Looking from the other dimension, this world was not much more than a painting on paper. In its own oblique, circuitous way, the snow was showing humanity the truth about the world, even if he was the only one who received the message. And how could he go back? Once he understood the frailty of this world, how could he go on milling about endlessly on the serpentine band? When he gave himself to the pond’s cool water, he must have attained both escape and release.
“Both mountains and human beings are phantasmal constructs,” those were his last words to her. Perhaps the time and space of this world, too, are nothing more than a false dreamscape. A human’s lifetime fades away inside the garden named after the Allegory Mountain. She can no longer distinguish dreams from reality.
But even after all this time, the figure of her father gleams in her memory. Her father, who had known everything but remained gentle and steadfast like the jade.
She sits down in front of the lake in the sky and watches as the blurred fragments hover endlessly above it. She slowly shuts her eyes and waits for infinite space and time to pour down onto her from the source of nothingness.
Originally published in Chinese in The 5th Douban Read’s Writing Contest, Sep. 2017.
Congyun (a.k.a Mu Ming) Gu is a Chinese speculative fiction writer and a programmer from Beijing, currently living in New York, US. She was born in 1988 in Chengdu, China, and has published short stories and novellas in Chinese since 2016. Her stories can be found in Science Fiction World, Non-Exist Daily, Flower City, Chinese Literature Selection, and various writing contests and anthologies.
She has won multiple awards since 2017, including three Douban Read’s Novella Writing Contest Awards, first prize for The 7th Masters of Future SF Writing Contest, the Best Short Story at the 31st Galaxy Awards, the Silver Award for the Best New Writer Award in the 10th Global Chinese Sci-Fi Nebula Award and the Golden Award in the 11th one. She is also nominated for a 2021 IGNYTE Award for Best Short Story for her first English publication in Samovar. Her first collection Colora il Mondo will be published this year in Italian and will be followed by her first Chinese collection The Serpentine Band in 2022.
Tian Huang is a freelance translator working primarily with genre fiction in the forms of video game/movie scripts and short stories.
Currently based in Seattle, she considers both NYC and Chongqing to be her hometowns. She is a long-time fanfiction writer, mythology enthusiast, and avid traveler.