A Mystical History of China

Article excerpt


This is the story of a mutilated relic, a sacred and lost text inscribed on an 800-year-old roll of silk reportedly torn in two by the teeth of an enraged and frustrated emperor.More than that, this is a miniature and mystical history of China from the days of the Last Emperor in the 1930s through the senseless savagery of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s to a modern China still inextricably tied to its past. It abounds in inventive mythology darkly threaded by a tragic love story.

Dai Sijie, who wrote the memorable Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, has written a haunting and complex book about a world within a world where mysteries still cling to the centuries. The strange story of the scroll is told by a never identified narrator who is a Western student in China. She becomes the lover of a young man called Tumchooq, who is sentenced to three years of reeducation during the terrifying days of the Red Guards who inflicted the most severe punishment on intellectuals who were branded thought criminals.

This is a surreal book told with a spare elegance of prose that explores the tangled policies and complicated psychology that have defeated many who probed the secrets of the Middle Kingdom. What is inscribed on the lost scroll is attributed to Buddha, and it is typical of the author that the message it bears proves simple in its eloquence. But there is nothing simple about the language in which it is written or the effort involved in the kind of calligraphy that used a brush made of polecat hairs.

Tracing the hazy and confused labyrinth of her Chinese memories, the student relates what she learned from an elderly historian known as The Living Dictionary of the Forbidden City. The historian recalls how Puyi, the Last Emperor, who sought to practice the art of calligraphy in the style of an earlier emperor, took the remains of the scroll with him into exile in Manchuria. The torn scroll's peripatetic history then moves to the ostensibly mundane setting of a greengrocer's shop in old Peking.

That was a time when followers of Mao were so berserk they shot a profane swallow that laid a clutch of eggs on his statue and nobody was safe from the predators who rampaged the country. In that shop, the narrator meets Tumchooq, a young man whose name signified the language of Buddha. He tells of his estranged and imprisoned father, French linguist Paul d'Ampere, who has muted the miseries of his imprisonment in a labor camp by studying the ancient language of Tumchooq. He eventually dies a hideous death at the hands of fellow prisoners who reserve their deepest hatred for those who dare to think.

Tumchooq admits to his secret world the female student who becomes his lover by permitting her to see a photograph of the fragment of the mutilated scroll locked away in the Forbidden City. He reads to her the words his father had deciphered in the original, and they are forever engraved on her memory. …