5480 words, short story
The Possibly Brief Life of Guang Hansheng
My discovery of Guang Hansheng was probably down to random chance, in the end.
It was a rainy afternoon, and I was headed for the library, striding across wet asphalt and feeling dizzy. Inside they were hosting a quiet, desolate little exhibition—just a few exhibits and a drowsy admin under bright stage lighting.
Of course, I knew what I was in for before entering that exhibition hall: a collection pertaining to Late Qing dynasty fiction.
It sounded dry and dull, but I’m quite a dry and dull fellow. And then came random chance, and the unexpected.
The exhibits were a smattering of old and unimportant things: a page of the Shanghai News, illustrative of the prosperous newspaper industry back then, but just a sheet of newsprint with an unsightly layout, and not very prosperous-looking really. Then there was a TOC from a volume of New Fiction, edited by journalist and reform leader Liang Qichao . . .
Next to the sheet of Shanghai News was an exhibit case containing many other samples of papers that ran in Shanghai, like the famous Eastern Times and Sin Wan Pao, and lesser-known papers like The New Women’s Journal and New Daily. It was a piece in the latter that piqued my interest.
It wasn’t the content of the fiction that drew me in, but the small, blurry illustrations accompanying it. Ratlike humanoids stood on the cratered surface of the Moon. They were rigging up a crude, concave reflector like a present-day satellite dish, using a crater rim for support. I knew it was a reflector because in the far corner of the image was the Sun, shining a beam of light onto the Moon, which the dish redirected at Earth. Black smoke rose from the focal point on Earth.
This gave me pause. Someone from the Late Qing knowing the Moon was cratered? Then again, it made sense. Part of the ether fantasy propagated back then was a notion that the fabled substance might fill the Moon’s craters, so that from Earth, the Moon would appear smooth. But my brief doubt caused me to linger on this newspaper, originally no more interesting than the other exhibits. Serialized novel chapters, each with a summarizing couplet, were the main form of fiction in the Late Qing.
This sheet of newspaper featured the ending of the seventeenth chapter of the novel in question.
I leaned over the display glass and struggled to read the small print.
The scenes described were similar to those illustrated, but the ins and outs were clarified. The rodent-like people were called “Lunar Squirrel Folk,” their origins unknown. They occupied the Moon and meant to attack Earth—that was all I could tell at this point. They’d come together for this war, but they were bickering and in-fighting, at an impasse regarding how to attack Earth, various factions sticking stubbornly to their views. These different plans weren’t enumerated. It was only clear that by assaulting and biting each other, they subdued dissent and finally settled on the plan illustrated: the burning of Earth with a reflector. They called it the “Moonlight Death Ray.”
I wasn’t sure if such a design would’ve been considered novel at the time. Perhaps readers found it provocative. The piece ended on a note of suspense, with the fate of the Squirrel Folk’s Moonlight Death Ray unclear. The design diagram was complete, but the weapon was not yet online. The Squirrel Folk were still in-fighting, biting each other’s necks, while watching Earth, squeaking, and grinning. There was the sense that Earthbound humanity was already doomed, and oblivious to the fact. This was quite in keeping with pervasive sentiment among Late Qing era people, their panic as they regarded their own affairs and the wider world.
I had become engrossed and skipped the title of the novel. It was Ascent to the Moon: Travel Notes of Guang Hansheng.
This further stimulated my interest. I hadn’t seen any sign of a character named Guang Hansheng. In what sense were these travel notes? Based on Chapter Seventeen, Guang should already have made it up to the Moon. So, where was he hiding? Hadn’t these fierce and factious Squirrel Folk found him yet?
I checked the author’s signature: Xijin Guang Hansheng. Not surprising, actually. There was no first-person narration in Late Qing novels, but there were many quasi-first-person perspectives, as in The Travels of Lao Can. But who was this Guang Hansheng? Another unknown.
I decided to dig deeper into Ascent to the Moon: Travel Notes of Guang Hansheng and its author Xijin Guang Hansheng.
First, I needed to read the entire novel, which wouldn’t be difficult. I just had to visit the microfilm archive and apply for film of the newspaper, specifying the time period I wanted. But there would be a short wait.
I guessed when Ascent to the Moon might have begun its serialized run. I applied to the archive for September 1905 through September 1906 of New Daily. The admin said it would take about half an hour.
I searched the library’s digital database while I waited. I wanted to see if this Guang Hansheng had written other novels. And there was his signature, “Xijin” Guang Hansheng. During the Late Qing, many authors still signed with the “birthplace plus esteemed name” method. Guang’s hometown ought to be Xijin. But where was that? Something else to follow up on.
First, I simply searched for keyword “Xijin.”
It turned out to be in Beijing. During the Liao dynasty, it was called the Southern Capital Seat of Government. Later, it was the secondary or accompanying capital of the Yuan dynasty’s Dadu seat. It was located near the Lotus Pond of present-day Beijing. I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. If it had been a small place, I might’ve been able to visit and speak with some old folks, people over a hundred, if there were any, and that might’ve yielded something. But in Beijing, you were unlikely to get anything from locals regarding a decade past, never mind a century.
At this point, my New Daily microfilm was retrieved from the archive.
I turned on a microfilm reading station, rather impatient. The machine was like an old-school, cumbersome eighties PC. You inserted microfilm in the front, beneath the light-reflecting element. Your content appeared on a screen lit yellow from beneath. Then you just fiddled with the focus until the content was clear.
The reading station’s cooling fan buzzed, and the black-and-white text of Shanghai was before me. Beginning in September 1905, I started scanning upward page by page, speeding through days with the turn of a knob.
I scan fast, but I miss nothing. Soon I came to page two of September 13, 1905, and an ad for the serialization of the “science novel” Ascent to the Moon: Travel Notes of Guang Hansheng.
The ad was like others of the time, touting the piece to Heaven: world-class thrills, a science novel with Three Kingdoms far-reaching strategy, Red Chamber pathos, Journey to the West-style banter and humor, Water Margin chivalry, and so on. The style and phrasing were not particularly tasteful.
With no self-intro from the author, Chapter One came right after the ad.
Guang Hansheng appeared at the get-go, but he was in Shanghai, not on the Moon. I thought maybe he’d build a rocket or something. Harboring doubts, I continued to read. It turned out Guang had not the slightest notion of visiting the Moon. Instead, in the manner of a down-and-out intellectual, he ran away to Shanghai’s most notorious red-light district, Sima Road, to patronize the bordellos and sow his wild oats. Choosing a higher end brothel, he went in and ordered a famous, beautiful courtesan, a “Queen of Flowers.” Unexpectedly, this highest of courtesans turned out to be Guang’s childhood sweetheart.
To my eye, the story was already a melodramatic cliché. I barely wanted to continue reading. Where was the Moon? Where were the Squirrel Folk? I checked the title again, confirming it was indeed Ascent to the Moon: Travel Notes of Guang Hansheng, signed “Xijin Guang Hansheng.”
It ought to perform as advertised. I had no choice but to brace myself and continue scrolling and reading.
After several consecutive days of serialization, the first chapter finally ended. The character Guang was still in the brothel, wallowing in pleasure.
I started reading Chapter Two, and it seemed there was a light at the end of the cliché tunnel.
This chapter opened on the Moon. All previous melodrama was gone, replaced by a meticulous, detailed description of the Moon’s appearance. The writing style had changed utterly, becoming refined. This was the Moon as world and background scenery. The precision and detail amazed me. At the general scientific level of the Late Qing, he was somehow able to describe lunar craters and render the low gravity environment, and the fantastic beauty of the starry lunar sky filled with a rising Earth, a full Earth corresponding to a full Moon, the surprise and joy of looking up at this, portrayed flawlessly. But even with such eye-catching content, there were serious shortcomings. This was only scenery. There was no story line, no Squirrel Folk. Chapter Two was just a seasoned popular science piece.
On the other hand, because of this strikingly different second chapter, I was all the more intrigued. So maybe it wasn’t a bad thing.
But once again a problem arose. As I continued to scroll and read, I encountered gaps in the microfilm record of this newspaper. The gaps were three to five days at first, and I could still find fragments of Ascent to the Moon on occasion. But then came month-long gaps, and soon, scrolling into 1906, there was little besides February’s Nanchang Missionary Case, with its media controversy and big debate layouts.
This sort of thing is actually quite common, but when I’m interested in something and the scholarly trail goes cold, my sense of helplessness and frustration can seem to pervade the universe. What could I do? If the material wasn’t there, it wasn’t there. Even if I went hunting to the fountainhead of microfilm production, Shanghai Library, I’d still be unlikely to find what I wanted.
The situation seemed irrecoverable when I left the library. I walked the glistening asphalt in a restless trance. Then I happened to look up, and there was the bright Moon, dominating the sky, and suddenly I felt connected to Guang Hansheng, this human-shaped mystery who’d lived over a century before. Perhaps Guang had gazed upon this Moon all those years ago with anticipation and hope. But anticipation of what? Hope for what?
I hurried home and decided to at least find out what kind of person Guang Hansheng was.
His fiction had provided some ingress. I’d only seen one of his works, and incomplete at that, but it had conveyed much. Setting aside the vulgar story of Protagonist Guang in Shanghai, Chapter Two’s description of the Moon demonstrated considerable scientific literacy. Compared with the ubiquitous, unbounded, and enticing speculation of the time—supersonic airships and the like—Guang’s moonscape was scientifically sound. But due to gaps in the text, I didn’t know how that serious lunar description gave rise to Squirrel Folk.
At the same time, although he clearly wasn’t much of a fiction writer, he was wildly ambitious when it came to narrative structure.
From what I’d seen of the novel, I guessed it had roughly a two-thread structure. One thread traced how Guang Hansheng, our protagonist, was deceived into love and profligacy by his childhood sweetheart. The other was Moon scenery, sans distractions like plot or character. This sort of writing had never appeared in Late Qing dynasty novels. I knew from Chapter Seventeen that the Squirrel Folk eventually appeared, but when and how would Protagonist Guang end up on the Moon for his tour? These were his “travel notes,” after all. When would the title be honored? It seemed unlikely I would find the answer.
The guy seemed like a narcissist, his writing willful in its nonconformity. Maybe he knew his scientific literacy set him apart from other writers of the time but didn’t know his literary ability wasn’t up to the task of constructing a viable long-form novel.
I spent the next few days at the microfilm library, scrolling through reels of film.
Despite the nonsensically smashed and scattered literary conventions of Ascent to the Moon, I was getting more curious about how the Moon setting had been developed and how the Squirrel Folk arose.
I was unlikely to find any more novel serializations in New Daily. It would have been irrational to keep chasing the fantasy of a miraculous discovery. I figured that since Guang had been quite scientifically literate, and proud of it by the looks of his writing style, he’d probably displayed his talent in other, science-oriented papers.
Self-important people cannot abide silence or anonymity.
I began with The All Nations Gazette, one of the most popular disseminators of Western science back then. Although the electronic database was exhaustive, leaving nothing to be desired, I was afraid I’d missed something. I searched for “Guang Hansheng” and “Xijin Guang Hansheng,” turning up nothing. So, I decided to thumb through the original documents myself.
Based on when Ascent to the Moon: Travel Notes of Guang Hansheng had been serialized, September of 1905, and the maturity of the writing, I inferred Guang wouldn’t have been active before 1904. But just to be safe, I began my search of The All Nations Gazette in 1900. I scrolled through days and months and years, through the Boxer Rebellion and the signing of the Boxer Protocol, Marie Curie’s research on radioactive uranium, commercial use of ariel photography in Los Angeles, and more, but no trace of Guang Hansheng. I was especially careful with 1905, but there was nothing—no articles by Guang, no mention of him.
Of course, being unable to find something in The All Nations Gazette wasn’t so unusual. I soldiered on, burying my head in other publications: Shanghai News, Eastern Times, China Discussion, Sin Wan Pao, Jinghua Daily, and so on.
The search was turning out to be quite difficult. A month passed in the blink of an eye.
I showed up at the library early every day and worked all day. Some of the microfilm managers came to know me, and sometimes we chatted during breaks.
I guess they didn’t understand my obsession. They would ask which university I was a professor at, and then, when I’d disabused them, they’d follow up timidly: was I a PhD student? No again. They’d keep guessing, but at that point I’d cut them off with a new microfilm request. Eventually they came to understand I wasn’t going to divulge my social identity. They stopped inflicting embarrassment or boredom on themselves. We chatted about life, parents, the little complaints of microfilm custodians, and other small talk.
Although few but me visited this library’s microfilm archive, there were occasional students. There was, after all, rare and unique microfilm there. They were PhD students doing doctoral dissertations, needing vast quantities of documentary support, forced to consult microfilm. They were clumsy, clueless about how to load film in a reader. They’d clearly never touched this technology during their master’s degrees.
Sometimes I would gaze upon the garden outside the window to rest my dry, tired eyes. During these breaks, the admin would sometimes recruit me to guide a fumbling newb.
You can learn it in a few seconds, with little effort. My unskilled, low-tech guidance led some PhD students to chat with me a bit more.
I didn’t mind, if I was on a break, and so long as it wasn’t about me. They didn’t mind in many cases, taking the opportunity to vent about the difficulties and stresses of their dissertations. Occasionally they chanced upon a topic I knew something about, like Late Qing periodicals and newspapers, their circumstances of publication and things like that, and I would idly share my opinion. I imagine most of them found my advice excessive. They smiled out of politeness, nothing more.
At these times, I would tactfully return to my reading machine and reimmerse myself. I had things to do.
No one knew who or what I was looking for. No one knew better than I how hard it was to find this Guang Hansheng.
It doesn’t bare repeating, all the newspapers I was obliged to rummage through. But I wasn’t doing a doctoral dissertation. I didn’t have to be as exhaustive as a scholar. I was free to follow my hunches, by which I might know my month-long search was going in the wrong direction. I had focused on The All Nations Gazette because of its popularity and its function of disseminating Western technology. Now I gradually deviated from that course.
My first step was to apply once more for microfilm of New Daily and to read through it again carefully. I confirmed that apart from the incomplete serialization ending with Chapter Seventeen—where the Squirrel Folk finally decide to use their Moonlight Death Ray against Earth—there was nothing about Xijin Guang Hansheng, not another datum, not another character. Meanwhile, I decided this Guang Hansheng would not have been published in ordinary, popular newspapers. No way. That much was clear from what I’d seen of his novel. Maybe Ascent to the Moon had been his debut, and bad enough to not only be discontinued at Chapter Seventeen, but to cement the author’s bad reputation, guaranteeing he would ascend no higher in the world of letters.
I abandoned the likes of Shanghai News and China Discussion for periodicals devoted purely to Western science and technology, like Chinese Scientific and Industrial Magazine.
And then, in October of 1906, finally: a discovery!
A piece signed “Xijin Guang Hansheng,” published in a monthly magazine that only put out five issues, New Learning of the Western World.
Seeing his name again was like a reunion with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. But my old friend seemed to have an attitude problem. His short piece wasn’t fiction, but something like an official call to arms. He was crusading against a masterpiece of translation by Yan Fu, who at that time was president of Fudan University. Guang’s target was a translation of Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, published years before. His assault seemed unhinged, lacking reason or basis, a mere screed in which he insisted, repeatedly and passionately, that the translation was loaded with errors, and even ran counter to the views expressed by Huxley in the original.
After reading the piece, I began to fear for Guang Hansheng. If Yan Fu or his followers had seen this aimless, digressing invective from such a lowly scholar, they must have extinguished him on the spot.
There were two more issues of New Learning of the Western World. I read them carefully but found no response to Guang’s incitement. I searched other platforms that might’ve published controversial articles, but no one seemed to have taken Guang’s bait.
I couldn’t decide if this was good luck or bad for Guang. The multitude had ignored his howls.
Thanks to the New Learning of the Western World breakthrough, I had a new research direction, and finding Guang Hansheng suddenly got easier. Articles signed “Xijin Guang Hansheng” appeared frequently in small popular science magazines and periodicals similar to New Learning.
He seemed to peak in mid-to-late 1906. I called to mind every popular science periodical I knew of and kept searching. “Xijin Guang Hansheng” appeared in many tabloids that only ran four or five issues before extinction.
These were street tabloids, really, many or most of them one-pagers. The top half was usually ads for hair removal, brain boosters, miracle methods for giving up smoking, and the like. Illustrations of oddities and phantasmagoric figures held up goods for sale, accompanied by carnival barker language such as “Ladies and gentlemen!” It was all irredeemably kitschy, commercial, and tiresome. The lower halves of these one-pagers were often Q&As rather than complete articles, like the regular column in The Western Natural Science Compilation.
The questions were all kinds of strange:
“Why is yawning contagious?”
“What is the underlying principle of the Westerners’ X-ray?”
“Why does our rooster only crow at night?”
“If someone can generate a sulfurous smell by rubbing their palms together, can that person generate electricity?”
And other such inquiries. Many had nothing to do with science. For example, someone might ask, “What’s the probability of sitting the Western imperial exam?” Some of the questions were so ridiculous I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The answerer was different in each issue. The mere conscientious elucidators of principles didn’t interest me. I wasn’t seeking their refined, thought-provoking conclusions.
When Guang Hansheng appeared, the style completely changed. Someone asked, “How long is the longer of the two right angle sides of a right triangle where the shorter is one zhang (3.3 meters), and one of the acute angles is 35 degrees 20 minutes?” Such questions had come up before, on occasion, and generally the answer was a careful run down of the calculation. But Guang tore right into the questioner, saying, “This is a forum for difficult scientific questions. Why ask about elementary problems that require only a bit of calculation? If you really can’t figure this out, refer to an arithmetic or geometry textbook. I recommend Geometry Preparation, Algebra and Analytic Geometry, or anything similar from the mountain of such texts that exist. You really didn’t need to waste my time here.”
I read on and realized Guang Hansheng had actually responded to many questions. It amounted to a lot of content, but he probably didn’t leave many questioners happy. Most of his answers were terse, one sentence affairs. The question was either conceptually flawed and unworthy of a reply or a matter of common sense and unworthy on that score. “Find the answer yourself and you’ll see it wasn’t worth asking,” he would say, or he’d simply reply with a book and page number to reference, without a character of explanation.
This troubled me even more than Guang’s scolding of Yan Fu. If this was how he’d conducted himself, how had he made ends meet? By then, the Qing government had abolished the imperial exam system that had persisted for over a millennium. What sort of life or career ladder was there for an intellectual like him? In the Late Qing, authors were paid by the character. Guang’s contemporaries were as wordy as possible, but he seemed to take an arrogant, perverse pleasure in concision and self-impoverishment.
Unsurprisingly, the name Xijin Guang Hansheng soon vanished from all the pop sci tabloids. Harmonious tranquility returned to the Q&As.
It seemed the world of popular science had unanimously expelled Guang Hansheng.
And once again I had lost contact, and my strenuous pursuit began anew.
Where had rude, condescending Guang run off to? How was I to decipher his lunar world? I feared the key was lost with him, and I feared there would be no further sign of him as I proceeded into 1907.
By that year, the reform of the Qing court seemed to be succeeding where the Hundred Days’ Reform had failed a decade earlier. The Qing government’s international status had improved somewhat, but then Qiu Jin was killed, sparking widespread indignation. There was upheaval at every level of society, but from what I could see in the rise and fall of pop sci tabloids, no sign of what I sought. Brief-lived periodicals, kitschy ads, and no Guang Hansheng.
Maybe this was it. In one of the last parts of Ascent to the Moon I’d read, the character version of Guang had considered becoming a teacher at a girls’ school, to spend the rest of his days as an object of ridicule, teased and despised by the students. Maybe the real Guang had done just that. Maybe he’d vanished from history, descending into eternal silence.
As I considered various possibilities, I kept combing through the meager archives left to me, month by month.
Perhaps he’d changed his pen name. This was the most likely explanation. In many cases, magazine and newspaper editors didn’t know the true identities of their contributors. It was common for multiple people to share the same pseudonym in order to maximize re-numeration. When his foul temper got him exiled from the pop sci tabloid world, it would’ve been easy for Guang to change his pen name and keep scribbling for a living.
If he really had done so, that was goodbye. These archives are like a vast ocean. Even though they’re shrunk onto microfilm, they require warehouses of storage. And this was Guang Hansheng. There wasn’t going to be a celebrity behind the name. There wasn’t going to be anyone of note who’d been written about by close friends. There would be no memoir to supply clues to researchers. Guang Hansheng was no “I’m a Foshan-er,” pen name of Late Qing writer Wu Jianren, or “Self-Awareness of the Eastern Sea,” pseudonym of Xu Nianci. If Guang had changed his pen name, seeking him out would be harder than finding Eileen Chang’s new work Little Reunions. I’d heard the PhD student looking for Reunions in the microfilm archive had ended up with detached retinas.
On the other hand, I had a vague feeling that the person behind the pseudonym Guang Hansheng hadn’t taken the reasonable way out.
And then, there he was again, in an obscure tabloid at the end of 1907. An article, not a Q&A. No “Xijin” added to the signature, just the three characters Guang, Han, and Sheng.
When I saw that, even without the Xijin affectation, I was so excited I nearly cried out in the crypt-silence of the microfilm archive. But I didn’t want to be premature. Was this Guang my Guang? I had to read the article before I could judge.
It seemed like a modern special column, a unified title and format, no illustrations, no intro. And it was about . . . the Moon!? Now I really was moved to voice my excitement, a low-toned exhalation. That Moon of Guang’s, as if from a lifetime ago, once more appeared before me on the screen of the microfilm reader, the fan whirring behind the yellow light.
It seemed that indeed Guang Hansheng was back, with his lunar world.
I scanned back through the microfilm again, afraid I’d missed something. I confirmed the article was Guang’s first published in this tabloid and started reading.
At first, I feared he’d been lazy and taken Ascent to the Moon’s lunar worldbuilding and moved it here. Had that been the case, it would have been a meaningless discovery, another empty phantom of the past, and not the essence of Guang I was seeking. But as I read, I realized I was overthinking it. I ought to have had more faith in old Guang. I even felt a little ashamed.
In the first part of the column, Guang frankly stated that the Moon, which the world sees every night, was one of the least understood celestial bodies. All descriptions of the Moon, he claimed, were wrong. However, knowing what was wrong, he admitted not knowing what was right. He therefore gave up on truth and embraced imagination.
The column’s title was “The Suppositional Moon.”
I was relieved and reassured. Guang’s speculative prose wasn’t going to be about a mere fairyland, or the Jade Emperor’s Temple in Heaven, or anything like that.
In the first part, he imagined the Moon as a cave or hole.
He described our fantasizing as we gaze up at the bright and shining full Moon, wondering who lives up there, what sort of people they are, what their architecture is like. But maybe it’s all an illusion, a misconception. The human eye often preconceives convexity or concavity. Guang wondered if we did so with the Moon. Perhaps it was a hole instead of a ball, a wormhole from an alien galaxy to Earth’s doorstep, fully open one day a month, communicating with the beyond for hundreds of millions of years. Perhaps it had conveyed numberless things here and had taken away many more. Perhaps we humans simply didn’t understand. Perhaps we couldn’t.
The article was short and uncharacteristically civil apart from the beginning, where Guang satirized those who imagined they understood the universe. It seemed his setbacks had finally taught him to behave, after more than a year of silence.
He went on to imagine the Moon as a power plant, then as a human spaceship that could accelerate via gravitational slingshot (he didn’t use that term, but his idea wasn’t far off).
This column probably improved Guang Hansheng’s reputation. Suddenly his name was appearing in other newspapers, but as I read these pieces, I grew once more troubled. The old Guang was back, a quarrelsome perfectionist not suffering fools gladly. He was quick to denounce and condemn. He responded, via article, to anything he found objectionable, and he pulled no punches. It was like his earlier dressing down of Yan Fu for his Huxley translation, pen keen and shrill, the art of composition fiercely ignored, step-by-step deductions and reasoning processes taken for granted and not elucidated.
Argumentative but inept at argument: that was Guang Hansheng. I feared that he was truly doomed this time. Unsurprisingly, he disappeared from the record three months later, along with his suppositional Moon and his impatience with unreason.
I was sure there would be no second resurrection.
Indeed, I couldn’t find another trace of him in microfilm thereafter. Maybe my assumptions came into play, and I didn’t look hard enough. I don’t know. Maybe he appeared a few years later under “Guang, Han,” or “Xin Yuesheng,” the New Moon reborn, or “Gui Sheng,” or other such pen names. But I didn’t think my Guang would change his pseudonym. He would hope and wait for a chance to resurface as Guang Hansheng, and I feared no one would dare give him such an opportunity.
I wasn’t going to do a dissertation on him. His life and writings weren’t worth a dissertation, and even if I did it, it wouldn’t be worth scholars’ time to read. Why then waste my time on the endeavor? But I still had to find out everything I could about him. Even the smallest tidbits. I wanted to know this person. Maybe his life had been short, his death unnoticed and not noted.
I left the library and couldn’t help taking the bus to Lotus Pond, the place once called “Xijin.”
It was night when I arrived. Looking up, I found a full Moon.
There was the pond, its water low, and the park enclosing it, where fairs and sales expos were staged, and beyond that area, no old buildings. A bit desolate under the moonlight. Some restaurants were still open, but it was Mid-Autumn Festival, so most people were home with their families. Only a few foreigners sat drinking and enjoying the lonely Moon.
Perhaps I’d fancied my obsession strongly enough to conjure Guang Hansheng this night. I wanted to ask him how the Squirrel Folk appeared on the lunar surface. “With your rational and scientific mind,” I wanted to say, “you know they couldn’t appear out of thin air. So how did they do it? And why? Did they eventually achieve their goals? The ending must be tragic . . . ”
I strolled all the way to the south square of West Railway Station. It was noisy and messy, bustling, a miasma of body odor, and I didn’t find what I sought.
What did this place look like a hundred years ago? Even so far removed from modern clamor, it must’ve been as quaint and worldly and profane as now, right? The dense crowd was made up of people—common, ordinary people, then as now. And back then, as now, they would not have been inclined to look up at the bright, full Moon. There was no need, no face up there worth remembering.
Then as now, living well was more important than anything else.
In fact, my Guang Hansheng is almost certainly not the historically accurate man, or woman, but wishful thinking. I like to imagine an awkward, cantankerous savant possessed of scientific insight transcending his epoch, but unable to communicate it effectively. Understanding much that others can’t, proud yet distracted, getting no approbation, insignificant, at the end of his rope, nowhere to go, nowhere to vent, and not even knowing himself clearly—and suddenly, death is coming. He has squandered his rare smidgeon of talent, while watching others advance while he stays where he is. Alone. Just like countless literati of the time, and now, and even the future.
Originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World, Supplemental issue, 2016.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Liang Qingsan, a science fiction writer and researcher of science fiction literature, has won several Chinese Nebula Awards and the Gold Award for Best Short Story at the 10th Global Chinese Science Fiction Nebula Awards. His research on the edition of The New Stone Chronicle was published in Qing Dynasty Novel Kara. He has published full-length novels Silent Winged Wheel, The New New News: Dark Shadow of the Magic City, Shanghai Girls in the Kitchen, The New News: Rise of Machinery, and Literary Girl Detective.
Andy Dudak is a writer and translator of science fiction. His original stories have appeared in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best, and elsewhere. He’s translated many stories for Clarkesworld, and a novel by Liu Cixin, among other things. In his spare time he likes to binge-watch peak television and eat Hui Muslim style cold sesame noodles.