Young Huli has pushed back the remnants of the Communist Party to Inner Mongolia. His tanks and yellow-shirted infantry have crushed the guerrillas that controlled the provinces below the Yangtze River and the remaining People’s Liberation Army along the Yellow River. He has declared himself emperor. His armies march across the provinces waving blue banners with yellow half-moons, the new symbol for China.
To celebrate his victories, the young emperor builds a palace in his homeland of Tibet that borders the Gobi Desert, the remnants of the Great Wall stretching in the background. To fill it, he has chosen one virgin from every province to be his concubine. This, he explains to the Chinese people, signifies the country’s unification into greatness. And the girls, whom he will treat equally by going to bed with a different one every day of the month, represent his equal treatment of all the provinces. New China consists of thirty-one provinces, and he has declared that, in the months when there are only thirty days, he will not sleep with Manchuria.
In order to appease the growing demand for democracy—mostly among college students—the emperor has given his concubines certain powers. They will act as a sort of sexual senate. Each concubine will act as a representative to her respective province. They will be able to propose laws, suggest amendments, encourage pardons, and ask the emperor for consideration as a judge or military commander, all on their scheduled nights when the emperor sleeps with them. The college students remain unsatisfied, but the emperor understands that one cannot force-feed democracy. Such sudden freedoms might burst the nation’s stomach.
He believes his biggest problem will be keeping his palace court in order. Reforms bring about unforeseen obstacles: how will the emperor maintain control of his sexual senate? He decides to reinstate an old tradition used by the emperors of past dynasties: the recruiting and training of gong-gongs. A gong-gong is a manservant of the emperor and the emperor’s concubines who, on appointment, is made a eunuch. The young emperor has read Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dreams of Red Mansion, and he understands that in China’s past, even when eunuchs and concubines were not given any official power, public intrigue reached such levels that they were sometimes able to usurp the throne. He must pick his servants carefully.
One of the recent appointees is a man named Zhang Mei, a cook he met in Beijing during his siege of the city. The man is unusually loyal and trusting, but the emperor did not waive the cutting of the testicles. “Traditions,” he said to Zhang Mei, who was kneeling before him. The emperor must strictly maintain a tradition as important and as commonly known as the requirements to become a gong-gong.
Zhang Mei is not from the city. He was born in the countryside, and snuck into Beijing when he was twenty using a fake birth certificate. He did not know it was the new emperor Huli who was enjoying his hand-drawn noodles during the Siege of Beijing, always sitting on that patch of dirt next to his concession stand. The man’s face looked more like a beggar’s—covered with hair, his teeth crooked, his nose long like an opium addict’s pipe. He sat there and ate and steam came out of his mouth, and he laughed with his entire body when his soldiers said something funny. Zhang thought he was an infantryman, or perhaps a tank commander. On one such occasion, Zhang was standing in front of the strange man, pouring him flour broth, when he saw a stray shrapnel flying toward them. He knocked the hot shrapnel away with his wok. In the process, he spilled the steaming broth on the soldiers. He was almost afraid the hairy man would lob a grenade at his concession stand. Instead the man thanked him and brought him to Tibet, then made him a eunuch. Zhang Mei considers his current station in New China to be most fortunate.
He has a cousin stuck in the countryside. This cousin, Pei Pei, has recently married his village sweetheart, and their dream is to live in Beijing or Shanghai. Zhang wants to help them. He calls his cousin using his government-issued phone, and urges him to come to Tibet and work for the emperor.
“You won’t have to worry about money anymore,” Zhang says in his new high-pitched voice. “Everyone will have to bow to you. I’ll put in a good word with the emperor.”
At first Pei Pei thinks that the change in his cousin’s voice is due to the dry climate of the Gobi Desert. Then he realizes that it is because his cousin is not a man anymore. Not having testicles, Pei Pei realizes, affects you beyond your penis not hardening. Not only is his cousin’s voice not a man’s anymore, it is not anything. Not exactly a woman’s voice. Not exactly a boy’s squealing. It is bass-less, like talking while being choked.
“Give me a few weeks, Zhang,” he says. “Let me think about it.”
“What’s there to think?” Zhang says.
“Well, it’s that Song and I want children.”
“You can still have children. First put the bun in the furnace, then take the position.”
“Will the emperor wait that long?”
“What do you mean?” Zhang says. “How hard can it be?”
“Well, we want more than one child. Do you think the emperor can wait a year or two?”
“I don’t think so. He has already made many amendments regarding the appointment of gong-gongs. He might start issuing an examination for it. This is an opportunity few people get. Think it over, Pei.”
Pei Pei hangs up the phone. It is October and winter comes early in the countryside. He is sitting cross-legged in his mud shack, huddling on his stone bed in his sheepskin coat, smelling of urine. He turns around and looks at Song. She is squatting by the furnace, fanning the flames so she can begin to prepare dinner. She turns around, smiles, and says, “It’s cold tonight. Dinner shouldn’t be ready for a while.” What will happen if they have children? He can see them, noses running, sitting around the fire with Song, waiting for their dinner, trails of flame flickering onto their faces. She deserves better than this, he thinks.
The next morning Pei Pei goes to his parents’ house to borrow some flour and hears his father talking on the phone. His father turns and smiles when he sees him coming in, and his mother gives him a large sack of flour, more than twice what she normally gives him.
“Brother Zhang tells me he can make you into a gong-gong,” his father says. “Congratulations. Everyone here is very happy for you. Your mother and I are proud.”
“What do you mean ‘everyone’?” Pei Pei asks.
“Your brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, everyone in the village,” his mother says. “Do you expect us to keep news as good as this to ourselves?”
Pei Pei drops the sack of flour on the floor and covers his face. He sits down at his parents’ table and becomes silent. He rests his elbows on his knees, his face still in his hands.
His father sits down next to him and pats his head. “You are young, Pei Pei,” his father says. “I know you are at an age when your genitalia are very important to you. But it would be irresponsible of you not to take this position. You are the oldest in the family, and you have responsibilities. Brother Zhang tells me the emperor has allowed you to have children. You still have time to help Song conceive. As your father, and as an old man, I can tell you that genitalia are not as important in the future as you think. You have nothing to worry about. You will still be normal. Better than normal, in fact. Everyone will respect you.”
Pei Pei looks up. His face is covered with flour, white as death. He sniffles, and then sneezes. Liquid drips out of his nose and eyes and streaks through the flour like rivers.
“Let me get you a towel,” his mother says. She takes a dirty towel from the kitchen and wipes off his face.
He leaves his parents’ house and walks home, the sack swung over his shoulder. On the way back, he notices the new way people look at him. They nod when he passes them, and smile, showing him teeth. He passes his old teacher. “Finally making something of yourself,” the woman says. Pei Pei walks faster. He looks down and tries to hide his face, and when he gets home, he locks the door and barricades it with the sack.
“What’s wrong?” Song says.
“You don’t know? You haven’t heard the news?”
“No,” she says. “I’ve been cooking lunch.” She stops fanning the furnace. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he says, calming down. “Everything is where it should be.”
The emperor Huli knows that gong-gongs serve as much as they are served. He understands that those indentured to the powerful are also powerful themselves, that this is the way it has always been in imperial China. Because Zhang saved his life, the emperor has made him the head of his band of personal eunuchs. The emperor has read of a trend in Romance of the Three Kingdoms where eunuchs given to concubines aren’t used as servants at all, but are played with like pets. The concubines dress them in female clothing, and have them perform tricks and feed them treats. The emperor is careful not to put Zhang into such a humiliating situation. He respects Zhang’s opinions, and has given him a large mansion within the palace walls.
Inside his mansion, Zhang claps his hands twice. Two chambermaids enter the room carrying his cell phone and a pot of steaming water. They take off his clothes and scrub his body. He lifts the phone to his ear and calls his cousin.
“Just come for a visit,” he tells Pei. “Take a look at how extravagantly I am living.”
“Give me some more time,” Pei Pei says.
“I can’t give you any more time,” Zhang says. He stares at the chambermaids wiping off his body. They are wearing traditional Chinese dresses, pink with colorful jasmine designs, sashes folded over at the waist and then buckled with a black belt. He touches one of the girls’ hair, and then reaches into her dress and feels her breast. He tries to remember what he felt like before he became a eunuch. He regrets not being able to do anything with her, but he manages to convince himself that he is in a better circumstance, give or take.
“If you’re even considering this position,” he says, “you need to come for a visit.” The chambermaids put his clothes back on. “The emperor, and the concubine you’re to be serving, want to see you. I can’t convince them just by running my mouth.”
He hangs up. He puts on his title hat, a black top hat with a topaz in the middle and two long rabbit-like ears protruding from the side, and opens the door. He swings his hand carelessly at the chambermaids and walks through the courtyard with his hands tucked behind his back. He passes peach trees and fountains and he forgets that it’s winter and that he’s in a desert. The entire courtyard is a greenhouse, under gigantic panels of glass.
He makes his way into the main palace. He walks past rolls of identical rooms until he comes to a red door with Lady Jing inscribed on it. Lady Jing is the newest concubine in the palace. The young emperor has recently returned from Henan province where he picked the sixteen-year-old Lady Jing from one of the poorest villages in the country. He told the people of Henan that he picked Lady Jing “because of her beauty, grace, and excellent acumen for law and justice.”
The chambermaids lead Zhang into the interior, where the young girl is brushing her hair. Immediately she turns around and smiles.
“I’ve been waiting for you all night!” she says.
“I had to make a call,” Zhang says.
She stops brushing her hair, walks over to where Zhang is sitting, and starts playing with his title hat, flicking the rabbit ears back and forth. “There isn’t one thing to do in this forsaken place!” she says. “Not one man between fourteen and forty.” She sighs. She is kneeling on the floor next to where Zhang is sitting, looking up at him as if she were his daughter. “So where are you taking me tonight?”
“Nowhere,” Zhang says. “I’m here to tell you that the emperor’s going to want you tonight.”
“Oh, curse the emperor! He’s so hairy, and he stinks. Tell me again about this cousin Pei of yours. Tell me again how handsome he is.”
Zhang looks down at the girl sitting at his feet, and wonders how she is ever supposed to represent an entire province. How could she ever symbolize fifty million people? She is naïve and immature, just like everyone else in Henan. Maybe that’s it, he thinks, maybe it takes someone who is naïve to represent those who are also naïve.
“I can’t wait until he comes,” she continues. “These maids are so boring! They look at you as if you had knives for eyes. I don’t have any friends here.” She looks down.
“What about the other concubines?” Zhang says. “Lady Xiu lives down the hall. Have you tried making her acquaintance yet?”
The girl shakes her head. “I spoke to her once,” she says. “She’s very secretive. Why are all educated people so secretive? Sometimes she goes out in the middle of the night.”
Lady Xiu is the only concubine who has a college degree. At twenty-four, she is also the oldest. She represents Beijing, which the emperor considers a province all to itself. He met her after his siege of the city, when he declared himself emperor and told the Chinese people about his plans for the sexual senate. He saw her at a suburb along the outskirts of the city, where he ordered the town to line up its available girls so he could choose. Right away he knew he wanted Xiu. She wasn’t the most beautiful, but she was the most adamant, speaking confidently and clinging to his arm.
“Nobody knows what she does,” Lady Jing continues. “The maids think she has a lover.”
“She better hope the emperor doesn’t find out.” Zhang walks to the door.
“At least she has something to be excited about. I have nothing.”
“I’ll see to it that my cousin is here within the month,” Zhang says, passing through the silk veil.
As he walks back through the palace halls and into the courtyard, he thinks about Pei Pei. “I am doing him a favor,” he tells himself. But he doesn’t recognize his own voice anymore. “I am fortunate,” he says. “Millions of people would love to be in my position.” He walks in small, mincing steps—the only way he is able to walk after the operation. He feels useless whenever he walks. “Anyway I can’t take it back now.” The only thing he can improve now is his status in the palace. First he must gain the emperor’s full confidence, then surround the emperor with his own allies. If his power continues to grow, he will soon have enough people around him to do anything he wants, perhaps overthrow the emperor, and his traditions. Do to him what he has done to me. Smiling, he opens the door to his room, and claps his hands twice.
“You have to go,” Pei Pei’s father says. “Zhang tells us it’s an order from the emperor. If you don’t go they can have us beheaded.”
“Please don’t tell Song,” Pei Pei says. “I told her that I might be going to the city. She thinks I have a job prospect.”
“You are thinking about this situation the wrong way,” his father says. “Song will be proud to learn that her husband has achieved a high rank.”
His mother nods. “There are many paths that lead to a girl’s heart,” she says.
“Just don’t say a word,” Pei Pei says again, and shuts the door.
When he gets home, he sees fabric lying around the floor and on the bed and on top of the furnace. Song has an old magazine on her lap and has needles in her mouth.
“What’s all this?” Pei Pei asks.
“I went to the store today,” she says. “You have to look good for the interview. Come and look at this magazine. Tell me which shirt you want.”
“It’s not glamorous,” Pei Pei says. “I’ll just be working for a bicycle route.”
“If you get it,” she corrects him.
“How did you get money for these things?”
“I’ve been saving up the allowances you gave me,” she says. “And I borrowed the rest from my parents.”
“You shouldn’t have.” He walks over and takes the needle and half-sewn fabric out of her hands and puts them on top of the furnace. He puts his hands on her shoulders and moves them slowly down to her breasts and then down to her hips. He kisses her hair. Then he leans over and whispers into her ear, “Come to bed. You can do this in the morning.”
She shrugs him off. She reaches over his shoulder and grabs the needle and fabric. “Not tonight,” she says. “We have more important things to think about.”
He stops touching her. As he walks to the bed, he mumbles, “What’s more important than a woman’s duty to her husband?” He snuggles onto the hard bed and covers his face with his blanket.
“Pei Pei,” Song says, “you shouldn’t act like this. We can do it any time you want. Right now there are more important things. You have to think about your duties as well. A man needs to take care of his family.”
He doesn’t lift the covers. He whispers, and this time soft enough so she can’t hear, “What family?”
The imperial palace is surrounded by three rings of walls. A shallow moat surrounds the outer wall. Poorer citizens use its waters to wash their clothes. Three drawbridges, each guarded by a pair of tanks, connect the city to the palace. The emperor understands that the moat and walls are not of any practical use. Rather, they are a symbol of power, rooted in tradition, something to make the Chinese people believe that he has obtained the Mandate of Heaven.
“I’ve never once seen those drawbridges up before,” Zhang says to Pei Pei. They are sitting in his limo. Crowds of people swarm the car, holding signs. They are yelling profanities, demanding change. The driver gets out, shoves his way over to the tanks, and then maneuvers back to the car. A tank comes over and clears a path. They follow it through the outermost wall.
“Who are those people?” Pei Pei asks.
“Young reformers,” Zhang says. “They’ve been protesting since the palace was built. Don’t mind them. The emperor is thinking about cleaning them out.”
“What do they want?”
“Democracy mostly. They’re not satisfied with the concubine system. They don’t see that the concubine system is democracy. Instead of asking for more, they should embrace what they have, and make grievances to their provincial concubine.”
“Would that give them what they want?” Pei Pei asks.
“Not if they want the impossible,” Zhang says.
They pass through the outer rings and enter the palace courtyard. Winter turns to spring. Pei Pei starts seeing everything as if through a curtain of green silk. Willows and peach trees fill the yard. Women wearing traditional Chinese dresses walk past them holding umbrellas. Pink and orange petals fall from the dome.
They drive up to Zhang’s mansion. His chambermaids stand by the door to greet them. A girl takes Zhang’s hand and the other one carries Pei Pei’s bag.
“You’ve arrived just when the emperor has departed for the outskirts of Inner Mongolia,” Zhang explains. “The emperor is serving double-duty on this trip, both to check up on the situation of his forces at the front and also to find an Inner Mongolian concubine.”
“What do I do now?” Pei Pei asks, looking around Zhang’s mansion. Antiques litter the room beneath giant fans. Unraveled paintings and coiled calligraphy cover the walls. Large decorated vases and tangled ginseng roots sit in the corners.
“Don’t worry,” Zhang says. “There are still other people to see. But first we have to get you out of those clothes.”
Pei Pei looks down at the shirt Song has made him: a cleverly designed shirt with alternating strips of blue and yellow fabric to make it look like a striped sweater. He thinks about the time it took Song to make it, the time wasted, the time he could have helped her conceive. This shirt might have cost me a son, he thinks. And then he blames himself. If he hadn’t been such a coward she wouldn’t have wasted that time on something so useless.
That entire night, he can’t sleep for thinking about Song. Around two in the morning a chambermaid walks in and sees his naked body. Pei Pei quickly covers himself. “Tea?” the girl asks, and he suspects she might have forgotten someone was in the guest room. “No, thank you,” he says, and she leaves, smiling coyly. He lies back down, feeling pleased that he had such an effect. It’s obvious that she hasn’t seen a real man for months. If he becomes a eunuch, he will no longer have this effect on any woman. No amount of handsomeness or cleverness can save a man who doesn’t have it where it counts.
“When you see Lady Jing,” Zhang says, “immediately go to your knees and kowtow three times. Also, always stand a meter or more away, and don’t ever touch her. Understand?”
Pei Pei nods. Zhang knocks on the red door, and the chambermaid opens it, taking his hand. Pei Pei follows them inside, almost tripping on his robe, which swings from side to side, trailing the ground. When they pass a silk veil Pei Pei kneels and starts kowtowing.
“Is this him?” Lady Jing asks. “Stand up. Please, stand up.”
Pei Pei gets up, looks at the girl’s face for a second, and then looks down again, his chin touching his neck. The girl is beautiful. She smells of bananas and lavender. She wears a large floppy headdress with flickering rubies and sapphires.
“I’d like to be alone with him,” she says. She waves her hands and Zhang and the chambermaids exit through the silk veil.
She bounces next to Pei Pei and takes his arm. They sit on the bed for a few minutes not saying anything. Then the girl grabs a bunch of letters off her table and flips through them carelessly.
“Do you know anything about laws?” she asks.
Pei Pei shakes his head.
“Can you read?”
“I’ve been getting these letters incessantly,” she says, handing him one. “Read it to me.”
He flips it open. “I’m not a very good reader,” Pei Pei confesses. “I stopped going to school when I was fifteen.”
“You have a beautiful voice. The emperor reads these letters to me, but he has a thick accent. I fall asleep before he finishes. Go on, read it to me.”
Pei Pei holds the letter over the light and squints to make out the handwriting. “Dear Lady Jing,” he reads, “we hope you are happy in your new home in Tibet. We wish you a thousand smiles. Our school is located in Xinchun Village. We haven’t had a teacher for a while now. Our last teacher, Mr. Bai, became a gong-gong. We know that he is needed elsewhere, that by serving the emperor, he is also serving us.
“We understand that the emperor can’t afford to send great men, those who graduated from the universities, to come and teach a peasant village. But if someone who is literate can be sent over, we would be grateful. We, the parents, donated our savings and hired a man from the city to help us write our words down in—”
“You can stop now.” She yawns. “I’m going to fall asleep. Maybe it wasn’t the emperor’s accent that made the letters boring.”
“There’s more,” Pei Pei says.
“Never mind,” the girl says. “Come here and sit next to me. Zhang tells me you have a wife. Is she pretty? Do you have a picture? Has she given you any children yet?”
Pei Pei puts the letter back on the girl’s desk and sits down next to her. He talks, but doesn’t know what he’s saying. He describes what Song looks like, but he can no longer picture her in his head. Children? He doesn’t even know if he wants children anymore. How many children does a man need anyway? How many children can the world support? The girl listens with enthusiasm. She likes him. She’ll treat his family well here. Song will not need to worry anymore. He will not need to worry anymore.
Over the next few days, Pei Pei begins to accept his fate. He spends a great deal of time with Lady Jing, learning the trade. In the afternoon, he accompanies her to the Discussion Room where all the concubines meet with their provincial lobbyists. Lady Jing finds these events boring and always falls asleep. “When you officially become my gong-gong,” she says to Pei Pei, “I can stay at home and you can take my place.”
There are very few concubines who attend these meetings, and the ones who do tend to be indifferent. Their gong-gongs speak with the lobbyists for them. Having been to only a few of these meetings, Pei Pei has already noticed the grin on their faces when the lobbyists hand them envelopes, which he suspects are stuffed with money. When he becomes a gong-gong, Pei Pei thinks, he will not be so easily corrupted. He will act on behalf of the people and use his position for the benefit of New China.
The only concubine who seems enthusiastic at these meetings is Lady Xiu of Beijing. Her gong-gong is never present. She argues with the lobbyists in a refined manner. Instead of allocating money to the big businesses, she distributes the money to schools and orphanages. She has also started a program that helps underprivileged young people in the countryside find jobs in the city. The lobbyists hate her. Watching her argue, Pei Pei finds her a remarkable woman. He would like to join her cause as soon as he comes to power.
A few hours before a meeting, Lady Jing complains of a headache, and tells Pei Pei to attend in her place. During the meeting, the Henan lobbyists talk amongst themselves, seeing that Pei Pei is not officially anything yet, and hand him envelopes, telling him to deliver them to Lady Jing. After the meeting, taking advantage of Lady Jing’s absence, Pei Pei walks over to Lady Xiu and introduces himself.
“I admire what you’re doing,” he says. “New China needs more concubines like you.”
Lady Xiu looks him up and down, and Pei Pei realizes that he has forgotten his place, that he is not officially anything yet. He kneels and begins to kowtow.
“You still have your testicles?” she asks.
Pei Pei nods. He looks up and sees that she is smiling. Her eyes are surprisingly gentle.
She leans in. “Let me give you some advice,” she whispers. “Keep your testicles. Leave this place.”
“What does the Lady mean?” he asks.
“Come to my chambers and I’ll explain.”
He follows her down the palace hallway and into her private chambers. Her maids stand guard by the door. Inside, the room is almost identical to Lady Jing’s room. The bed, desk, chairs, lamp, and vases are all placed in the same locations. Stacks of books and papers litter the floor. On her desk is a large typewriter with a half-written letter inside.
She sits down and puts on a pair of spectacles. “The emperor doesn’t allow us to have televisions or computers,” she says, typing the letter. “I had to have my chambermaids steal this typewriter from outside the palace walls.”
He looks around and realizes that something is missing. “Why doesn’t the Lady have a gong-gong?” he asks.
“He sleeps in his room all day. It’s what I tell him to do. You can never trust eunuchs. They’re always out for themselves. Useless in more than one way.”
Pei Pei keeps quiet. With her spectacles on, Lady Xiu doesn’t look like a concubine at all; she looks like a young girl in a pretty dress, like a college student hard at work.
“You are from the countryside?” she asks.
“I am,” he says. He feels almost ashamed.
She laughs. “You walk in giant steps, like you’re standing in a sorghum field.”
He looks down. “Is that why Lady Xiu thinks I am not fit to become a gong-gong?”
She slides over and takes his hand. “No one is fit to become a gong-gong,” she says. “Why would you want to give up what you have for this? Some of us are here not because we want to be, but because we have to.”
“My village is poor,” he says. “We have no food. My family is counting on me.”
“Your family needs you to be where you are.”
Pei Pei nods, and then looks down. “Lady Jing will be wondering why I’m not back yet.”
Lady Xiu smiles. She leans in and kisses him on the cheek.
Busy commanding his armies in Mongolia, the emperor has left Zhang in charge of the palace. Before he left, he told Zhang to be especially weary of Lady Xiu. The emperor complained that she had been more interested in politics than in sex during her nights with him. Zhang told the emperor that he was suspicious of her himself. One night, while taking a walk on the outermost walls, he saw her talking with some strange men. She was disguised, but dropped her hood for a moment and Zhang could tell she was a concubine. Her headdress also indicated that she was from Beijing. “If anything else of the slightest suspicion occurs,” the emperor said to Zhang, “do not hesitate to take action.”
Zhang is pleased that the emperor has given him such powers. He wants to take full advantage of them, and appoint Pei Pei before the emperor returns. Secretly, Zhang calls Pei Pei’s parents. He tells them to pack their bags and prepare to leave for Tibet. He also tells them to inform Song that her husband will become a high official. Pei Pei has been in Tibet for a week now, and Zhang suspects that he is beginning to get used to the daily baths, meaty meals, and soft beds of palace life.
“It’s time to set a date for the operation,” he says. “I’ve spoken to the surgeons. How does next Tuesday sound?”
“Can’t we wait until the emperor returns?” Pei Pei asks.
“The emperor has already accepted you,” Zhang says. “Anyway, it’s better to have the operation before he arrives, in case for some reason he really doesn’t want you.”
Pei Pei nods. To try and relieve some of his anxieties, Zhang takes him to the room where he is to have the operation. The room, with its stone walls and small windows, reminds Pei Pei of a dungeon. A wooden bed is located at the center, leather straps hanging off the sides. The surgeons who greet them don’t look like doctors at all. They are all eunuchs, dressed in yellow and red half-moon jerseys, with strange grins on their faces.
The night before the operation, it snows. Overhead, a sheet of white covers the green panels, barely allowing light to escape through. At noon, the courtyard already has its streetlamps turned on. Pei Pei sits on the steps outside of Zhang’s mansion, thinking about tomorrow. He turns around and looks through the window at Zhang, who is laughing and talking on his cell phone. That is what I will become, Pei Pei thinks. He imagines Zhang speaking in his high voice. “I am Zhang Mei,” he tries to mimic, but he can’t imagine his own voice ever changing into that.
Zhang opens the window. “Your parents want to talk to you!”
Pei Pei gets up and walks into the mansion. “Here he comes,” Zhang says, and hands him the phone.
“We’re so happy you have made your decision,” Pei Pei’s mother says.
“Congratulations!” his father says. “But you have to speak with Song. She is hysterical.”
Pei Pei looks at Zhang, who smiles back. He carries the phone outside and takes a seat on the steps again.
No one is on the other side of the line anymore. He hears a lot of noise in the background. His parents are having a party. Among the drunken shouts, he hears someone sobbing.
He has never heard Song’s voice through a receiver, and he is surprised that he even recognizes it.
“Is this what you want?” she says.
He doesn’t say anything.
“How could I have known you were unsatisfied with me? You don’t yell at me. You don’t hit me. You tell me I’m a good wife. How could I have known?”
Suddenly everything becomes clear. His parents must have tricked her. He can see their faces. They stare at the fabric and needles and magazines lying around Song’s room. “Look at all the stuff you buy,” they say. “It’s no wonder he feels so much pressure. You’re a spendthrift.” He can see them going to the furnace and looking through the pot of rice and the stew cooking on top. They take a ladle and have a sip of the stew. Their faces turn sour. “And how can he eat this every day?” they say. “It’s really no wonder.”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Pei Pei says. “I’m coming home.”
“We used to be so happy,” Song says. “I remember the summertimes when we used to find spots in the wheat fields and we’d hide ourselves from the other workers. I remember the times when we were kids, when you sneaked up to my window and took me to the watermelon fields. We pretended we were husband and wife and the watermelon halves were bowls of rice. You told me you wanted three sons to help you in the fields, and you promised me a daughter.”
He can hear her stifled tears. Sitting on the steps, he puts his head in his hands and rubs his face. He looks up at the green panels of glass where the sky is supposed to be and suddenly everything around the courtyard seems dark. Petals fall on his legs and shoulders and face, but because of the layer of snow covering the panels, the petals lose their color, and look more like flakes of charcoal on his skin.
The snow falls heavier and the palace grows darker. Later that evening, Zhang’s spies follow Lady Xiu as she makes her way through the three walls and past the moat. She’s wearing a black sweater with a black hood. They see her conferring with several people outside the palace and then giving them a letter. Immediately Zhang’s men try to arrest her. The men around her retaliate against the spies, one of whom is severely wounded. The guards sound the alarm, and because of the flatness of the desert and the footprints on the snow, Lady Xiu and her accomplices are easily captured.
Upon reading the letter, Zhang determines that Lady Xiu has been part of the rebellion all along. She has coordinated plans with the college students to take advantage of the emperor’s absence and conspired to storm the palace. In order to demonstrate that treason will not be tolerated, Zhang has decided on the immediate execution of the former Lady.
Tuesday morning, as the snow outside accumulates to over thirty centimeters—a Tibetan record—Zhang stands on top of the innermost palace wall and looks upon the execution. The greenhouse is still dark from the accumulated snow, but the heavy-duty lamps have been turned on and the courtyard looks as if the sun is out. He feels that Lady Xiu’s execution is happening at a most opportune time. Pei Pei stands next to him, wearing the striped shirt his wife made for him, his bags packed. He would have left this morning if it hadn’t been for the snow.
“What did she do?” Pei Pei asks.
“She was very dumb,” Zhang whispers. “If she wanted to overthrow the emperor, she should have waited. Gain his confidence in full, and then take action. What did she think she could have accomplished? The emperor still has his armies.”
On the square below, soldiers with ceremonial spears grab Lady Xiu by the arms and drag her through the petal-covered grass. They pull her onto a platform. Her hair is wild with a few jasmine petals stuck in it, hanging underneath her torn title hat. The two soldiers bring Lady Xiu to the far side of the platform and tie her to a pole. Below the platform, her chambermaids are also tied up. Next to them a fire burns the former Lady’s letters and typewriter. One of the soldiers underneath walks up to a chambermaid, takes out his pistol, and shoots her in the head. Then he walks up to the other one and shoots her in the same way.
“Your parents told me about Song’s disapproval,” Zhang says. “I understand that you are leaving for her sake. It’s very noble of you.”
The soldiers drop their spears and pick up bolt-action rifles. They march to the other side of the platform and look up at Zhang, waiting for a signal. Lady Xiu moves her head around. Strands of hair hide her forehead. Her head is hunched over, weighed down by the torn headdress. She tries to keep it up by pressing it against the pole, but it keeps falling down. Eventually she gives up and her head falls almost to her shoulders.
“After all, what is a man without a woman?” Zhang says. Once Pei Pei crosses over he will understand. He only needs a push in the right direction. He is still my cousin, Zhang thinks, someone who needs my help. “Except,” Zhang continues, “a better, more independent, and clearer-thinking man.”
“You should wait until the emperor comes back before you take any action,” Pei Pei says.
“Pei Pei,” Zhang says. “You misunderstand what New China is about. The emperor is not New China. His time is limited. We are its future.”
“Zhang, you can’t do this. She is a good woman. She cares about China.”
Zhang nods to the soldiers below. They count down from ten. On five, the soldiers shoulder their rifles. On two, they take aim. On one, Lady Xiu’s headdress falls to the ground and rolls to the other side of the platform, by the feet of the soldiers.
“Do you understand?” Zhang continues, his long rabbit ears quivering. “We are its future. We will be the ones in power once the emperor loses control. These concubines—they’re nothing. They’re puppets. It’s going to be men like us, eunuchs, the most intelligent and most ruthless and most loyal to each other, who will be at the top.”
Pei Pei feels dizzy, listening to Zhang’s voice. It slides into his ears like a rusted knife. He can see the future of New China: thousands of men in his likeness.
“Becoming a gong-gong,” Zhang says, “is the only path there is.”
Pei Pei sees children smiling and clapping their hands twice, sees men of his likeness taking care of them. New China doesn’t need more people; it needs to take care of what it already has. It doesn’t want him back in the countryside, creating more problems. The country folks watch him. They are counting on him. They chant his name and stare at him with awe. He walks near them, striding like someone in a sorghum field, but they don’t seem to recognize him anymore. As he approaches, they draw back. They ask him: Who are you?
The young emperor returns from Inner Mongolia triumphantly. His armies have now pushed back the Communists to upper Mongolia and are laying siege to Ulaanbaatar. It should be a matter of weeks before the communist leaders surrender. To celebrate the thorough defeat of his enemy, the emperor has decreed that he will double the number of concubines in his court. In order to represent the people of New China thoroughly, he will need two concubines for every province: just like how it is in America!
Some of his eunuchs, including Zhang, advise the emperor against having more concubines. While it’s true the incident with Lady Xiu has shaken the emperor, he believes that the quick and thorough actions of Zhang have proven the court can handle more. From now on, he will no longer accept any girl with a college education. Whereas gong-gongs must be intelligent, concubines serve only as a median between the emperor and the people. Any girl with a college education, the emperor reasons, has already separated herself from the general masses, and therefore cannot represent the people accurately. He will choose more girls like Lady Jing, who everyone in the court considers a model concubine.
In order to support these additional concubines, the emperor has to recruit additional gong-gongs. There will be a new entrance exam. It will look for intelligence above all else. College graduates are preferable. The emperor instructs his current line of eunuchs to begin development of this exam. Sitting high up on his throne, he claps his hands twice. His eunuchs walk in mincing steps, and stand hunched before him. He scans them one by one, nodding his head, inhaling and exhaling like a meditating Buddha. He takes pride in all of his gong-gongs, who consider their current station in New China to be most fortunate.