To attribute the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution to one gang of only four people was a sophistry that worried many Chinese in the late 1970s. True, Lin Biao was eventually added to make five, and many people pointed discreetly to Mao Zedong as a sixth. After July 1980, Kang Sheng, a close advisor to the Gang of Four, could be named as a seventh. But the scale of such counting was still absurdly small. What about the tens of thousands of other “gang” followers? In the present story Liu Binyan addresses a “warning” to the Chinese people. Although the four departed souls in this story refer to specific people (the magnificent casket is apparently Kang Sheng’s), they represent “spirits” that are very much alive. Yet, partly because Liu’s message was a bit too bold, and partly because he had not been crystal clear about who the villains of his story were supposed to be, he and his publishers were themselves sternly warned, in spring 1980, for “Warning.”—ED.
This was perhaps the most solemn place in the world. No noise, no movement. It looked as if a row of clocks, each having stopped at a certain time, never to run again, had been put out on display. Each item looked alike: a collection of containers all more or less of equal size, most made of wood and a few of marble. If one looked inside they were even more similar—just one heap of ashes after another. These were the last traces of what had once been living creatures, born and brought up on this earth, active for a few dozen years, and now in their final resting places.
Once, all of them had experienced both joy and sorrow, good and bad fortune. But what their final thoughts, feelings, and recollections were at the moment they closed their eyes for the last time and left the world of the living, is something that the photographs attached to the front of each container will never reveal.
I want to tell a story about a few of them who made their departures from life with smiles on their lips. Three of the containers were brightly colored carved marble, showing that the status of their owners had been out of the ordinary. These three men had once had a fierce desire for longevity, and thus, while alive, had daily consumed huge doses of tonics and elixirs that more than made up for the life juices that they had spent in pursuit of sensual pleasures. Now that they were dead, the excess of these potions could still be found inside their ashes, another fact that differentiated them from the crowd. Perhaps their desire for longevity had elicited God’s sympathy, or perhaps some leftover potion was still having its effect—in any case a small amount of body heat from life still existed within their ashes. Thus, although their flesh and bones had disappeared, they still had not completely lost the feelings and spiritual attributes that had been so deeply rooted during their lifetimes.
While alive, all three had been consumed by one particular thought. Out of self-love and curiosity, mixed with a touch of terror, they had greatly wished to know how people would judge them after their deaths.
Few people visited this spot, for stepping into this other world naturally held little attraction for the living. But every time the sound of footsteps rang through this grand modern-day temple, the occupants of the three marble cinerary caskets became as excited as live wires. They would strain to catch the implication of every move made by a visitor from the living world outside. Yet they were always disappointed in the end, because no one ever spoke or expressed any feelings. Sometimes a visitor could be heard stopping in front of one of the containers of ashes, yet it was always difficult to ascertain whether he was paying homage to the dead or merely admiring the delicately carved decorative patterns on the marble. The sound of sighing from a visitor was always a tremendous comfort to the dead. They would savor it in their minds for days and nights on end, right up until the next visitor appeared.
Necessity is an extremely powerful force. If, out of necessity, mankind was able to create language, then why couldn’t human remains that still preserved some body heat devise a way in which to communicate their feelings?
“They’ve completely forgotten us,” the former general said one day.
“Perhaps it’s better to be forgotten,” said he who once was director of propaganda in a certain province as well as chief editor of its newspaper. The comment exhibited his cleverness.
“They can’t forget. As long as my mines and factories still exist, they won’t forget me,” proclaimed the one who had been in charge of guiding the economy.
At this, the general, housed in his red marble room, and the director of propaganda, housed in his green marble room, both fell into a gloomy silence, nursing their wounded senses of self-respect and pride. There was no doubt that, compared to that man’s, their own outstanding achievements would be easily forgotten. But the former newspaper and propaganda boss, being more quick-witted than the general, still had a comeback:
“What you say is true. But if anybody should happen to dig into the heavy costs you inflicted on people, then, old chap, I’m afraid your situation won’t be so rosy. My newspaper always reported your accomplishments and covered up your mistakes. Remember the time you started construction of a factory, and ordered equipment, before you bothered to investigate subterranean conditions? When the project was over you discovered there was no electricity supply, either, so a few hundred thousand tons of steel got chucked into the sea ... Ai, I still say it’s best for us to be forgotten.”
The economic leader lapsed into silence, and the three of them became lost in their own thoughts.
Time flowed on in the outside world, and changes took place. But the environment around the ash jars remained quiet and unchanging. The air around them seemed to have frozen into a solid mass similar to the marble vessels themselves.
One day, however, a puff of wind did blow into the vault. Judging from the sound of the footsteps, the visitors that day were different from any that had come before. They stopped in front of the three large marble jars, and even their breathing was audible. Then came a sound like an atom bomb, violently shaking these three unoffending souls in their tiny coffins.
“These scoundrels were all sworn followers of Lin Biao and the Gang of Four!”
The three souls had completely lost the last vestiges of their hearing ability. But their tactile sense told them that someone had spit on the pure and noble marble surfaces that sheltered them. Two days later they felt a heart-rending pain when someone used a knife to deface the photographs attached to the fronts of their jars. Soon they were each covered with a black cloth, which helped the three terrified souls to recover a modicum of calm. Then they began to ponder deeply and painstakingly on who this so-called Gang of Four might be, and what relationship they might have had with them . . .
Before too long the black cloths were removed. The three suddenly felt themselves swaying, and at the same time sensed the warmth of the living as it penetrated their marble jars. The three containers of ashes had been picked up. “Where are we going?” wondered the three souls, terrified. They could sense being carried from the moist dim vault out into the bright sunlight. Compared to the careful way they had been handled when initially carried from their memorial services into the vault, something was very different this time. The people who carried them now were either utterly careless or else deliberately displaying hostility and scorn. Under this rough handling, their once-human cinders were shaken to and fro until the order they had lain in these past years had been completely disturbed. This was very discomfiting.
Before the sun had had time to warm their marble surfaces, the motion suddenly stopped. Someone opened a rusty lock. Then, for the last and most violent time, the three were shaken up as they were thrown to the ground. The sound of human voices gradually died away, mingling with the sound of satisfied laughter.
Their world had been terribly cold and dreary to begin with, but now their grandiose marble garb made the three souls feel even colder. Cast onto the damp, dark ground, in a room that had long been abandoned, where neither sun nor human warmth ever penetra ted, their cold loneliness can well be imagined.
But even all this could be endured, and gradually accepted. What really worried the three souls most was the question of safety. The desecration of their photographs had, at worst, been an affront to their dignity; compared to the crisis facing them now, this small matter was hardly worth mentioning. The question now was: would their misfortune end here or become even more serious in the future? Could the very worst happen? Could their stone coffins be smashed and their remains trampled upon and cast to the winds? Another worrisome problem was the fate of their families. One of the goals for which they had struggled throughout life had been to bring wealth and glory to their families. Wives, children, various relatives, assorted friends—all had basked in the benefits of being associated with them. Higher education. Party membership, job transferrals, promotions, salary raises, new housing, marital matches, trips abroad, and all other privileges available to Chinese were theirs. In addition, an inexhaustible supply of luxury products and nonmaterial pleasures, including many that for the common people were not only unattainable but downright unimaginable, used to arrive in a constant stream at their doorsteps. All of this sprang from the two or three magic syllables of their august names. Truly these names had glittered and shone like gold, attracting admiration and envy, symbolizing the pinnacle of power, glory, and wealth. When the three had made their eternal partings from their families, all of these privileges seemed solid, yea indestructible—for their sons, grandsons, and future generations. Using a few “connections,” they could automatically obtain anything they might need. But now, in an instant, as their ashes fell from a top-class resting place into the dust, all the fruits of their fame were in danger: what if all were to be lost? That thought was bad enough. But even more fearful was the thought that the living standard of their entire clan might fall as iow as that of ordinary people. No one was more familiar with the horrors of this possibility than the three souls. Tearful scenes of atrocious humiliations, scenes that they had not only witnessed personally but had taken an active hand in creating, were still fresh in their minds. Could this kind of fate now be awaiting their own families?
For many days the three souls remained completely quiet. Not long ago, they had found their greatest solace in those enchanting scenes and moods that they alone had once been privileged to enjoy. These recollections had helped them to forget temporarily the lonely and empty present. (Strangely enough, although they had long ago lost the flesh that is the seat of various desires, the memories of former satiations of their lust still brought them the most pleasant of sensations.) But ever since their fall into this place, these pleasant recollections had been countered by a simultaneous fear—that their families would be faced with wretched material conditions, be treated like dogs and pigs, constantly have insults hurled at them, and continually find the doors of opportunity now tightly closed against them . . .
Yet this uneasy silence did not last very long. One day, the noise of windows shattering frightened the three souls so terribly that they nearly jumped out of their marble containers. Next there came the noise of an angry mob. To the accompaniment of sardonic laughter, some rocks came flying in the direction of those three poor little marble caskets. There seemed to be a competition to see who could throw most accurately and strike home most frequently. If our friends the souls had had the power to protest, they certainly would have cried in pain and begged for mercy.
“Why flog a corpse?” the general grumbled to his companions when he couldn’t stand it any more.
“This is simply too barbaric,” added the director of propaganda. “And furthermore, it violates our ancient Chinese custom of passing final judgment on a man as the lid is laid on his coffin.” He failed to consider that when his own cronies were at the summit of power, their barbarism toward the living had far exceeded stone-throwing. He also failed to consider that they themselves had long ago smashed the venerable tradition of leaving the deceased in peace.
Nevertheless, the stone-throwing episode actually brought the three souls a step closer to the world of the living, and thereby lessened somewhat their lonely isolation. It was now late autumn, when fierce autumn winds would sometimes howl through Beijing all night long. To the souls inside, this wind sounded like someone with a hard, thick broom mightily scraping away at all their marble surfaces. Sometimes they heard the sound of fallen leaves whipping at the window, and once in a while a few leaves would be blown through the broken glass to land on their marble covers. So in the midst of this cold loneliness they could take some comfort: they did after all have a few contacts with the outside world where they had once lived.
Fallen leaves and dust gradually built up a thin layer on the surfaces of their marble. It made the souls inside feel just a little warmer, just a little safer.
One of humanity’s distinguishing features—hope—was something still not completely lost to the three souls. The economist based his hopes primarily on the case of an old leading cadre who, over twenty years, had gradually been restored from disfavor to a position of trust. His influence had grown steadily until he had reached the pinnacle of power. The economist recalled that this man’s ashes had recently been delivered to the vault and had been set down not far from the three souls. But the fact that his cinerary casket had not later been thrown into this gloomy room with theirs seemed to show that this man hadn’t been labeled a follower of the Gang of Four. Here, surely, was cause for hope. After so many years in the bureaucracy, the economist well knew that the greater a person’s prestige, the more his “connections.” This old cadre must have had some powerful protectors who had kept him from the same fate that had befallen the other three. Didn’t this fact clearly suggest that the luck of the three, who had once been under the wing of this great figure, might take a turn for the better?
This thought was a turning point and a source of inspiration. For some days each of the souls, prancing to the music of the wind, returned to the world of his memories. They retraced the paths of their lives, carefully sorting out enemies from friends, as well as analyzing the ups and downs of those who were close to them. They had, of course, next to no energy left in their ashes for pondering such things. The last tiny sparks of energy that they did have they cherished immensely, and they used them to concentrate on the last twenty or so years. The people who had been toppled during these years had long been practically forgotten and were of no great interest now; but those who had risen, quite a few of whom had clawed their own ways to the top, could still be intermittently called to mind. Yes, there were quite a few of them. Surely they were all still living, and still wielding considerable power. Although they were not all fellow-conspirators, and some of them had even suffered extensively over the years, still they had all taken basically the same path as the three souls had, and everybody spoke a common language. Would they have changed easily—cast aside their hard-won gains and merrily altered their tune? Not very likely . . .
The spark of hope began to glow brighter.
The sound of a faint but thoroughly familiar woman’s voice came from beyond the door, breaking the silence of this nonhuman world. The sound of footsteps was followed by the wrenching of a rusty lock. The door opened.
The footsteps came closer. The woman sighed audibly, then spoke through tears.
“Can’t you find a stool? You’re not going to just put it on the ground like this, are you?”
The voice was terribly familiar, yet the souls couldn’t quite remember who she was.
“You’ll have to answer for this: I’m going to complain to the vice־ chairman!”
With this sentence she had resumed her normal tone of voice and the three spirits guessed who it was almost at the same instant. “Well, if it isn’t Sister Ts——!”
Before they had time to think further, a heavy casket—several times larger and heavier than their own resting homes—was plopped down in front of them.
It was a large cinerary casket of tortoise-shell marble. It was the largest, most exquisite, and most magnificent cinerary casket to date in the People’s Republic of China. If one were to put the caskets of the other noble founders of the state next to this one, there would be no comparison, for the others were made only of wood, and each bore a simple photograph on its front—a small copy of the photo chosen to hang at the memorial service. But the casket of this grand personage had on its front a stately bronze relief sculpture of the man it contained. In comparison to the others, the new casket was like an imposing mountain peak next to a pale dirt mound. Its magnificence was marred, however, by the human excrement that had been smeared all over it, and by the irreverent markings that had been scratched all over its embellishments. Bronze is too soft a metal—the casket would surely have been made of alloyed steel had this day been foreseen.
The three souls, with the infallible political sense they had cultivated over many years, knew immediately who this person was. Great waves of emotion rolled through the stagnant pools of their remaining feelings. They were filled with shock and indignation, but at the same time a complex subconscious emotion was born in the bottoms of their jars. Here into their disgraced ranks had come a new member whose misfortune brought them the comfort of seeing others suffer. They were also grateful for the sense of cordiality and safety occasioned by the arrival of their superior and protector.
Over the years they had grown accustomed to being submissive and self-effacing before their superiors, and thus the three souls found themselves quite tongue-tied now, unable even to voice their greetings. Yet at the same time they feared seeming discourteous and thereby arousing the wrath of their superior, who had always been suspicious and cruel by nature. The rules of proper conduct in the living world would hold equally in the nether regions.
Their chief’s perverse disposition had worsened after his death. This was due to the ceaseless pain that had spread to every cell of his body before he died. Every waking moment of his final years had been spent with violent headaches and horrifying hallucinations. Innumerable apparitions haunted him, attacking him one by one. They clutched at him and tore him to pieces, screaming of their unjust deaths. Among them were those who had died in the late 1920s and the 1930s because he had informed against them, betrayed them, or framed them. Then there were those who had died in the 1940s because of the forced confessions that he had planned and personally obtained, and those who were victims of the massive, nationwide witchhunts of the late 1950s. Even more numerous were those from the 1960s and 1970s—everyone from graying revolutionary veterans to young men and women in their prime, and even babies in their swaddling clothes. These unjustly persecuted spirits, smeared in blood, their hair in wild disarray, flew at him in droves before his wide-open eyes. If he closed his eyes they would still be there. He would almost explode from terror and the intense pain in his head, and of course sleep became utterly impossible. No sedative would work. Finally the doctor was driven to a last resort: he showed the leader movies, one after another, with no intermissions, from morning to night. The movie images helped somewhat to disperse the illusions before his eyes and in his mind, and succeeded in calming his nerves to the point where he could manage two or three hours of sleep per night. But upon waking he faced a new round of the interminable struggle. He resisted, he moaned, he screamed—sometimes for help, sometimes for mercy, sometimes madly bellowing like an insensible wild brute.
One who has held the power of executioner over the lives of a billion human beings, when finally faced with the phantoms of those who have died under his blade, finds himself trapped, and can only withdraw in helpless defeat . . .
Death ought to offer a kind of release; pleasures and pains alike should terminate when life does. But this exceptional figure could not shake off his exceptional destiny. Flames may have transformed his flesh and bones to cinders, but his pain, amazingly, had survived. Because he did not have a head anymore, the pain had migrated into each little carbon cinder that had once been part of his body.
The four souls passed many days in deep silence. The only sounds that broke through the deadly stillness of that vault were intermittent moans from the largest marble vessel. This moaning forced the other three souls to suppress some burning desires: first, to pay respects to their former chief in a manner appropriate to his station and to theirs; second, to comfort that extremely tormented soul in the hope of further ingratiating themselves. (This used to be one of their most developed skills, but by now they were losing their old touch.) They also had an irrepressible curiosity about the fate of their families and their reputations, and hoped that their wise leader might be able to shed some light on the subject.
Finally, the general—who of the three souls had been closest to the chief—mustered the courage to speak. He had barely uttered two words when an angry roar issued from the largest marble vessel:
A moment later, that familiar voice with its heavy Shandong accent began to speak, ever so slowly, in phrases that were interlaced with groans of pain:
“We must be patient. . . Let them forget, forget our existence. Now . . . there’s only one, only one hope left ... if those people . . . continue in the old ways . . . and move in our direction . . . that’s our only . . . only hope.”
His three companions knew his meaning perfectly, and the familiar image of his face floated before them: those gaunt cheeks, that cold, solemn glint in his eyes occasionally flashing out from behind his glasses . . .
From then on, the tomb was silent once again. Would history in the outside world move along according to the wishes of these ghosts? Or would more ash jars pile up in this forgotten place?
The autumn wind in Beijing was gusting fitfully, occasionally sending a withered yellow leaf through the broken glass and into the tomb, where in some small way it dispelled the deathly stillness . . .
November 1979, at the Literature and Art Conference
Originally published in Zuopin (Guangzhou), no. 1, 1980.