5. All About Dandan.

(PAGE 51) Dandan, with his delicate feminine features, was Xiezi’s neighbour. Prior to his thirteenth birthday, he looked just like a girl in every way, and was always dressed in bright, colourful clothes. This wasn’t his idea, rather his Grandmother’s. Dandan was the only child in his family with no older brothers and no younger sisters and his arrival into this world was the result of a major feat of endurance. His Mother had a problem that caused her to habitually miscarry, and countless pregnancies had all been lost. The doctor told her she had just one chance left and that if her bull-like husband didn’t give her a break from sex there’d be no hope for her.

Dandan’s Father was from Shanxi Province, and a well-known miser. He sometimes turned up for work wearing his right shoe on his left foot and his left shoe on his right foot. He’d sit cross-legged on his desk and jiggling his foot in the air, earnestly impart to his colleagues, ‘Your soles wear down at the same rate like this. When the left side of your left sole has gone, the right side’s still fine.’ When they first saw him wearing shoes on the wrong feet, his work-mates fell about laughing. ‘What’s so funny about that?’ he asked, bemused and looking around at them. They all loved making jokes at his expense: ‘I’ve heard you Shanxi folk stop your fans wearing out in the summer by holding one in front of your face and banging your heads up and down.’ Peals of laughter filled the room. But Dandan’s Father didn’t think it was funny at all, and busied himself with thinking of other little household economies he could pass on.

Whenever his fingers touched upon a coin in his pocket, he joyously proclaimed, ‘Isn’t money brilliant!?’ His work-mates called him ‘the steel chicken’ behind his back, a nick-name derived from his reputation for having no feathers to pluck. Every month the electricity bill in his home never went over three clicks and it was a long time before people who knew him managed to solve what for them had become a profound mystery. He had installed a large, powerful meter which barely moved with the single fifteen watt bulb he allowed to be used, and still he racked his brains trying to devise other economies. People in the courtyard secretly whispered it was his stinginess with the electricity that caused his wife to have so many miscarriages: as soon as they had eaten and night had fallen, they got undressed and climbed into bed. (PAGE 52) As the nights grew longer, he wouldn’t allow the light to be turned on, so sex was all they had to keep themselves occupied. His wife was caught in an endless cycle of pregnancies and miscarriages and it had left her terribly sad and drawn. Men seem to think miscarrying and curettage is nothing more than standing up and pissing, and that women are little more than child-bearing machines. Every woman wants a baby, right? The only reason us men marry you lot is so that you can have children and serve us. What else would you do with your lives? Dandan’s Mother had been through curettage to staunch any serious blood loss after every one of her miscarriages, and it had left her uterus as wizened as an autumn leaf. The doctor told her if she was ever going to bear children, her husband would have to pack himself off for a few months. And sure enough, when he came home, she was pregnant and the whole family was deliriously happy. The baby’s Grandmother smiled at the new-born boy’s willy and did a little dance for joy. From the day of his birth, she gave him a jingley-jangley, slightly pornographic pet-name: Dandan, meaning Egg-egg, referring somewhat coarsely to his balls.

In her state of heightened joy, she recalled the phrase ‘a hemp rope is only as strong as the thinnest point.’ And as the people in that region believe, girls are easy to raise and boys are hard to nurture. It’s like flowers: the more precious they are, the more difficult they are to tend; the more worthless they are, the easier they drop their seeds and spread like a plague. You only have to look at wild flowers and weeds trampled underfoot and flattened by storms, but still growing strong. So if you want an only son and heir to survive into adulthood, he must be raised as a girl until his willy matures and stiffens and he can then be changed back into his original guise.

Although Dandan’s Grandmother was a Buddhist, she seldom went to the temple to pray, mainly because it was a long way and walking any distance on her little bound feet was agony. But when she found out her daughter-in-law was pregnant, she forgot the pain and trotted the ten li to the temple to pray: ‘Oh, merciful, benevolent Buddha, go on and grant me a grandson.’

A few months later, her daughter-in-law duly produced a son and Dandan’s Grandmother was convinced he was the result of her prayers to Buddha. The rooms in their home were piled with offerings and she spent entire days burning incense and reciting scriptures, wreathing the place in eye-watering smoke. At least the mosquitoes were kept at bay and they didn’t have to burn the stinking rope of dried plant stems they usually used. But she didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was that with the blessings and protection of Buddha, her grandson should grow tall and strong as a tree, and to hell with everyone’s eyes. Her greatest wish was that her Grandson should marry young and have sons of his own. Then she could die in peace. (PAGE 53)

On the day he was one month old, Dandan’s Father uncharacteristically forked out for an enormous celebration. The family invited all their friends and relatives and twelve tables were set with whole ducks and whole chickens – an extraordinary luxury in those days. Toast after toast was raised by the guests to the continuation of the family Zhao. At last, they have a son, safe and sound through his first month. Here’s to sons and grandsons for a thousand generations to come, and long may they continue! When all the toasts were drunk, the guests filed through the tables to Dandan’s Grandmother to wish her luck and a long life, and complimented her on choosing such a fine sounding name, Egg-egg, so redolent of masculinity. Others laughed up their sleeves. What a stupid name. Never mind him, how’s his Mum going to have the balls to call him in off the street with a name like that? The day carried on in raucous merriment. People ate from noon until dusk, drinking vast amounts of alcohol, littering the courtyard with empty glasses. They drank ‘Lucky Wine’ and ate red-shelled eggs. (It’s a local custom for people to eat boiled eggs painted red, symbolising good fortune, when a baby boy completes his first month of life.) Friends and relatives took turns in presenting gifts and little red envelopes of money. Dandan’s Father had kept close tabs on the expenses for the day, but fortunately there was more in the envelopes than he had spent. He had figured that if everyone gave an average of five yuan each, then with a hundred guests he’d pull in five hundred yuan. The most you could spend on a hundred guests was three hundred yuan, so a profit of at least two hundred yuan was there for the taking, with his original outlay completely safe. Done and dusted, and a splendid spread to boot.

After the banquet was finished, everyone was solemnly invited into Dandan’s home. His Grandmother rootled around inside a large wooden chest, eventually pulling from its depths a small cotton bag. Slowly she opened it under the gaze of everyone there, and they all watched spellbound as she unwrapped layer after layer of silk until she came to a small embroidered handkerchief bundle. Everyone held their breath in wide-eyed anticipation. As she removed the last corner of the handkerchief, there for all to see was an exquisitely delicate silver longevity pendant, the most intricately carved anyone had seen. A peach, symbolising long life, was carved into its front, surrounded by the characters for luck, wealth and longevity. Two bats, symbols of happiness, their wings spread in flight, were immaculately carved into each of the top two corners, and the entire design was repeated in all its beauty in perfect symmetry on the reverse side. It was the most stunning longevity pendant anyone had ever seen. They stared, open mouthed and silent, not a sound in the room. A treasured heirloom, it had been passed down through the family for generations. Dandan’s great-grandfather had worn it against his skin as a talisman, (PAGE 54) a charm for the continuation of the family Zhao. Even though the line had been tenuous with only one heir in each generation, as long as they had this longevity pendant, the line would continue for generations to come. Dandan was the third generation of only sons. His Grandmother had once been afraid that the family line would end with her son, but he had always worn the pendant as a child, and as a result had grown up as strong as an ox. Dandan’s Grandmother’s wishes were finally fulfilled as she held a grandson in her arms, but whether Dandan was to grow up big and strong like his Father depended on the power of the longevity pendant. That evening, sombre in her finest silk clothes, she hung the family treasure around his neck, where it would bless and protect the next generation of Zhaos, ward away evil and bring comfort and ease to Dandan’s life. And Dandan’s Grandmother believed absolutely that the pendant could lengthen the wearer’s life. It had the power to remove all hardships, guarantee a houseful of grandsons and bring fortune and wealth. She had already seen it to be true with her own eyes and wouldn’t hear otherwise.

After Dandan’s first month he was dressed in bright girl’s clothing, and after his baby hair was shaved it was left to grow into two lustrous long plaits. To try and ensure that Dandan and his willy would grow and mature, the whole family decided to live an enormous lie and bring him up as a little girl. Every day, his Grandmother examined his willy and clucked with pleasure to herself, tickling it with her finger like a tiny bell.

‘My little Dandan,’ she softly crowed, ‘Grow up big and strong and give your Granny lots of great-grandsons with their own little willies, eh? And wont our family be strong, eh? And wont everyone look up to you, hmm? The whole family’s relying on your little willy.’ So saying, she lowered her head and slurped her grandson’s penis into her toothless mouth. Dandan’s Mother instantly burst into a cold sweat, terrified her Mother-in-law would bite it off in her excitement. She saw her status as the Mother of the family’s heir disappearing before her eyes; her tortuous pregnancy had all been a waste of time. But her Mother-in-law let Dandan’s willy fall wetly from her mouth, smiling so her eyes turned into two little slits. ‘It’s so sweet!’ she said. ‘It’s so tasty!’ Dandan’s Mother let out a huge sigh of relief. Her status was assured.

Dandan lay burbling in his Grandmother’s arms, but from his lips she heard the sweetest promises of a floor crawling with baby boys, the perfect idyll of ‘four generations under one roof.’ Such perfection was something she had only dreamed of, and her hatched and wrinkled old face broke into a smile like a peony in bloom.

Dandan grew bigger by the day. Despite being a boy he was dressed more gaudily and flamboyantly than any of the girls in the neighbourhood. He had a sweet and pleasant disposition and only liked playing with other girls. When Dandan and Xiezi played Mothers and Fathers together, it was always him who insisted on playing the mother, stuffing a pillow up his top and pretending he was pregnant. As Mother he radiated femininity, whispering sweetly as he fed his doll with a pretty little basket on his arm. Xiezi was the exact opposite. Dark and rough, she could only have ever played the Father in their games. (PAGE 55) She had studied the mannerisms of her own Father and when she gruffly waved and gesticulated at Dandan, he was obedient and considerate just like a ‘good wife’ should be. In their world, the Yin and Yang of male and female didn’t exist. Masculinity wasn’t male and femininity wasn’t female. They enjoyed it, and things could easily have been worse.

One day, Dandan was playing under his tree when Huzi (Tiger Boy) and his friends strode up to him. ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ demanded Huzi, knowing the answer. A howl of laughter rose from Huzi’s friends, and Dandan’s eyes glittered with tears as he looked around desperately for support. ‘Tell us Dandan, do you stand up or squat down to take a piss?’ Dandan was very meek and he hated fighting or arguing. He ran home as fast as he could while the children behind him shrieked with laughter. ‘Keep your legs together or your nuts might drop off!’ someone shouted.

The obscene laughter chased him into his dreams.

When he was much younger, he dreamed his Grandmother had fried his penis and shared it out amongst the children in the courtyard. They ate it saying, ‘This is gorgeous!’ but someone spat out a toad saying it had changed in his mouth. He wet his bed that night and pissed what he imagined looked like a map all over his Grandmother’s dog-skin mattress. It had been given to her by her husband as an engagement gift before they met, and she had kept it ever since. Her husband died early leaving her a young widow and her dog-skin mattress was the only keepsake she had of him. She suffered from lumbago and her dog-skin was the only way she could avoid the chilly night draughts. The warmth in bed reminded her of when her husband was alive. Usually, it was only her who had the privilege of sleeping on it, but when Dandan was born she pulled it out from beneath her bedding without a word of complaint, and presented it to her only grandson. She gently placed him on it, saying, ‘Ooh, these cold January winter winds, eh? Let’s put you on this and you’ll never be cold again, hmm?’

Dandan, barely three and asleep on the warm map he had drawn, had another dream. He dreamed he escaped from the map, but his Grandmother’s huge red claw reached over the distances to snatch him back. He ran as fast as he could and he ran and he ran until he came to a mountain where everywhere he looked there were Blue Ghosts. They reached out their hands and pulled him up to the top of a tree. (PAGE 56) His Grandmother stood at the bottom of the tree, stamping her tiny bound feet, screeching, ‘Get down, Dandan! Get down from there Dandan! You’re not allowed to run!’

‘I don’t want to come down,’ he said with a wave of his hand, ‘Go away, Granny.’ She reached out her claw to grab him, but the Blue Ghosts lifted him into space and he almost bumped the moon. His Grandmother was as tiny as a sesame seed, so small he could hardly see her, but still he could hear her calling his name. ‘Come back Dandan! Come back!’ Her voice got smaller and smaller as she became ever more distant, but it still scared him. He wanted to escape to a place where her voice could never be heard, and the Blue Ghosts picked him up and flew into the depths of the moon. At last, he couldn’t see her and he couldn’t hear her. He was safe.

He played for days inside the full moon with the Blue Ghosts, climbing trees, turning somersaults and when the phases allowed, swinging on the tip of the crescent. No one asked if he was a boy or a girl and no one cared if he squatted when he pissed. Life was so easy there and he asked himself, ‘What do I want to go back for?’ He decided he’d stay for ever and ever and never leave. He told his new little friends about his decision, and they raised their glasses just like grown-ups! And to seal their promise to each other, they each took out their little blue willies and shook them against his own. He happily laughed himself awake.

When he opened his eyes, his Grandmother was fiddling with his balls, scaring him out of his wits. She laughed.

‘What a good little boy, giggling in your sleep.’ Dandan sat up and the smell of urine rose with him. His Grandmother didn’t even think of scolding him. ‘Who’s a clever boy then,’ she said as she washed him down in warm water, ‘learning how to wet your bed already? One of these days you’ll get yourself a good little wife, and then she’ll take care of all your piss and shit for you.’ She smiled and her eyes narrowed into two little crescent moons.

‘What’s a wife, Granny? Can I eat one? Are they nice?’

In his dreams and in his waking hours, Dandan saw his Grandmother eating his willy. (PAGE 57)

A wall of water sped down the river, mushrooming out through the city and mountains in a vast plume of destruction on a scale never seen before. When it pounced, everyone felt the earth shifting beneath their feet, but unlike the shuddering jolts of an earthquake, it was a perfect and flawless motion. The villages on the slopes of the mountain to the east of the city slipped into the valley in the blink of an eye, but in a stroke of astonishing good fortune, no one was killed and there was little serious damage.

The children especially were thrilled. For them it was like sliding down a helter-skelter into another world. There were gentle breezes and soft rains in the valley, not the animal-like existence and howling winds of the mountain slopes. As soon as the winds picked up on the mountainsides, it froze people’s souls. For the older children, sick of their lives in the mountains, the unexpected move was a dream come true. The breezes in the valley turned their thoughts to love and they dreamed of sailing a ship down-stream to the ocean.

Mudslides are usually a moment of unimaginable terror, when an entire village can disappear in a flash as though its roots had never existed. Herds of cattle and goats and hundreds of homes with people inside all turn into nothing. The only thing visible beyond mud and swamps is flawless desolation. And then one day in a hundred years time, an archaeologist will discover them and their value will soar. Their skulls will be exhibited in a museum and be the subject of lectures by guides. Their worthless pots and pans will be turned into priceless antiques and peddled around the world by an anonymous fence for fantastic prices. And all the poor souls who lived such wretched lives and died such agonising deaths would never believe that centuries later their rotting bones would be placed on goose-down cushions of purple silk in fine glass cabinets in an enormous modern palace. Their eyeless skulls will ask, ‘Why is it when alive we lived like dogs, and in death we are the nobility?’ (PAGE 58)

This is but one example of fate. There are people more tragic than these with no one to recall them from cradle to grave, and such graves are opening and closing with every passing moment. The lives of such people are more fragile than their breath: their souls neither ascend into Heaven or descend into Hell, they just cease to exist.

Perhaps they should be grateful for the archaeologist’s efforts. At least their lifeless essence will enter a luxurious museum.

Time will never sell your soul.

The burning orange sun shone relentlessly down upon the surface of the rusty brown river. Wisps of a hot breeze gently breathed, layering the leaves in the city with a dusting of red earth. The mountain slopes too had changed in an unperceived moment from yellow to red.

‘I saw all this before towards the end of the Qing,’ said Old Man Qi, a hundred-and-eight years old, ‘and if that wasn’t a case of Heaven’s angry legions coming to earth on a mission, then I don’t know what is. And what happened? The Nineteen-Eleven Revolution and the end of the Mandate of Heaven, that’s what. All the men cut their queues off overnight, and the whole country went to war. The Kingdom of Peace, the Great Harmony, gone and never to return. All the armies from the Warlords to the KMT went mad making refugees out of everyone – even the Emperor grabbed his jewels and legged it leaving any old git who dared to come and fill his palace. I tell you, this is no good omen.’ He fell silent, ruefully shaking his head from side to side, and turned to walk through his door, a pipe in one hand, his bent and crooked back supported with the other.

Old Man Qi’s face was a testament to history, his nine cycles of twelve years etched into every line and wrinkle. Battered by the elements and the trials of life, his vast experience and enormous age filled everyone who met him with unending awe.

Embracing old customs is a form of rank sentimentality, worthy of the harshest censure.

So said the high-ranking cadres who thrived on the privations of other’s lives.

‘I’m old alright,’ said Old Man Qi, ‘Can’t remember the new, can’t forget the old.’ Whenever Old Man Qi opened his mouth, it was to talk about the Qing or when the armies of the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace tried to butcher their way into Beijing, and how they killed every foreigner they saw. He said how there was a popular saying at the time: (PAGE 59) ‘The people fear the officials, the officials fear the foreigners, and the foreigners fear the people.’ And how can it be that all these years later, things still haven’t changed? ‘So you don’t see many foreigners these days, but the people still fear the officials.’ He sighed.

Old Man Qi’s Great-grandson tugged at his rustling old waistcoat.

‘Great-grandpapa. You shouldn’t talk like that. Aren’t you afraid of being dragged through the streets?’ Old Man Qi sucked slowly and pensively on his pipe, rolling his cloudy eyes with disdain. ‘What have I got to be afraid of?’ he drawled. ‘What can there possibly be that an old man like me hasn’t seen before? I’m just a sack of old bones.’ He paused in thought for a moment, then continued, ‘In those first few years of the Republic, old Sun Yat-sen came along with his ideas of democracy and his “Three Principles of the People.” As far as I’m concerned, he had the right idea alright. Life was a hell of a lot better in those days.’

His Great-grandson almost howled with fright. ‘Great-grandpapa! You might not want to live anymore, but we do! Forgive me for not sparing your feelings, but you mustn’t talk like that!’

Old Man Qi stopped. He turned away, but continued muttering under his breath. ‘Aiya. An old tree has a lot of roots, an old man has a lot of words, in case you didn’t know. I can’t see what you’re getting so worked up about. So what if they want to take me down. A hundred-and-eight year old Counter-Revolutionary? If they take me down and food production goes up because of it, then I’ll put my hands up and forgive them for taking me in. I’ll shake their hands on a job well done.’

Old Man Qi’s eighty-year-old second son coughed dryly. ‘Papa, you shouldn’t go on like this. Things are a lot different now to your day. If you don’t care about my loss of face then at least think about your grandsons and great-grandsons. They have to live and work by the government’s grace and how are they supposed to survive if you go on like that?’

‘Alright, alright, alright.’ he said, a petulant child. ‘My lips are sealed. I won’t say another word.’ He turned to go through his door, but stopped, one foot either side of the threshold, supporting himself with a hand on the door frame. Breathing hoarsely he suddenly said, ‘This is no good omen!’ and disappeared behind the curtain.

The next morning, Dandan discovered his favourite Scholar tree had moved to beyond the courtyard wall. But it still lived, swaying in the breeze and casting its dappled shadows.

When Dandan was seven years old, he should have gone to school, and his family tried to get him enrolled under false pretences, still insisting he was a girl. Xiezi’s Mother knew what was going on, and raised a puzzling, yet pertinent question: where was he going to go to the toilet? He was getting bigger all the time, and couldn’t just carry on going to the girls’. The school principal examined their household registration form where it clearly stated Dandan was a boy, but standing there in front of her was clearly a girl. What was going on? There were rules about this sort of thing and they couldn’t have boys copying girls and girls copying boys everywhere. If he wanted to come to this school, there was nothing she could do until he got rid of those plaits. ‘I’ll have to leave the final decision to the staff-student body otherwise there’s no way I could explain this to the other parents.’ she explained categorically. The family shuffled their feet with embarrassment. ‘His willy should be sorted by now.’ said Dandan’s Father. ‘Let’s cut off his plaits, get a uniform on him and pack him off to school.’

Dandan’s Mother was in a dreadful dilemma. In a Chinese tradition that can only be described as a vicious circle, almost all mothers who live with their daughters-in-law seldom get on or see eye to eye. Even as a downtrodden mother rises through the ranks of her family with sons of her own, she will in turn gain satisfaction from bullying and harassing the wives of her own sons. A stickler for tradition, Dandan’s Grandmother was always looking for an excuse to harangue her. But tradition also left Dandan’s mother inferior and servile to her husband. All through the ages in China, wives have accommodated their husband’s every wish and the only option for Dandan’s Mother was to toe the passive line of the ‘Doctrine of the Mean.’

‘Whatever you decide is my decision too.’ she said quietly, weakly leaning against the office wall. Dandan’s Grandmother was devastated and instantly burst into floods of tears. Despite her crying, she spoke with rationale and reason, carefully and precisely. If they do that to Dandan, the last seven years will have all been a waste, and anyway, according to the rules his boyhood can only be returned on his thirteenth birthday – any sooner and we’ll offend the Buddha Queen Mother of the West and there’s no way of knowing when his spirit will be returned. These were the rules handed down by the ancestors, and there was no way she was going to be moved. (PAGE 61) ‘You dare and I’ll jump in the river.’ she threatened. Dandan would just have to stay at home and be educated by her.

She never would have jumped into the river. That’d be the greatest heresy.

That night, with her head resting on her pillow, Dandan’s Mother said to her husband, ‘Everyone else’s kids all go off to school with a satchel on their backs, but Dandan’s going to stay here with a Granny who can’t even read. And she’s only got five or six years left in her. What kind of education is our son going to get?’ She heaved a deep, sad sigh, rolled over and was silent. Dandan’s Father lay quiet in the darkened room. ‘Why does she have to be my mother?’ he said into the darkness, also sighing deeply. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ He rolled over and fell asleep with his wife in his arms.

‘A hemp rope breaks at its thinnest point’ went round and around in Dandan’s Grandmother’s head. She was determined that the family line would not be broken. Zhao is the very first name listed in the Book of Family Names and is therefore a hugely important name to have. It was vital to have a brood of great-grandsons. As the oldest member of the family, the continuation of the line was a responsibility that fell to her alone. If there was the slightest slip-up or accident, it’d be impossible to explain it to the ancestors never mind plead them for forgiveness. How could she find the face to stand in the realms beyond? Just the thought of it convinced her she was on a divine mission for her ancestors. She would raise Dandan to be big and strong and mould him into the sower of seeds for the family Zhao.

Dandan’s Grandmother was an expert at making paper cuts, casting life into any piece of paper put into her hands. She could fashion animals so life-like they almost breathed and flowers so vibrant they seemed to burst with life. She would take a sheet of red paper and folding it four times with scissors in hand, say ‘Look Dandan, I’m making you a monkey riding a horse.’ Her hands became a blur as the scissors fluttered and nibbled, showering the floor with shreds of red paper like falling autumn leaves. A few seconds later she’d unfold the paper, and lo and behold, a laughing little monkey was riding a galloping horse. Dandan was smitten. (PAGE 62) Sometimes she’d conjure up a fat little baby boy riding a huge carp. In Chinese, the words for fish and plenty are pronounced in exactly the same way, so fish have traditionally symbolised an abundance. She handed them to him with a wink and a prod of his willy.

Dandan’s Grandmother never had an education, she had learnt all her paper cutting skills at her mother’s side. She knew nothing of art and even less of the profundities of artistic theory, but her paper cuts were steeped with imagination, a wonder to behold: monkeys that could fly, a butterfly standing on a dragon’s back, a bird with breasts suckling its chicks. Scissors and paper thrived in her hands. The animals she made had souls, true in every detail, vivid and virile, exuding animation. Dandan’s window was plastered with vibrantly colourful cuts she had made of mythical birds, dragonflies and butterflies. She had also made him a small amulet to wear next to his skin with a butterfly on the front and a mandarin duck – famed for its loving devotion – on the back. Whenever anyone saw it they were lost in admiration for his Grandmother’s skills, and told him how lucky he was to have such a Granny to care for him.

Dandan watched his Grandmother’s ability to magic anything she wanted into existence with her scissors, and picked them up one day to try and copy what she did. As soon as she saw him she snatched them away. Dandan was shocked, his open-mouthed bafflement silently asking her why. She gently stroked his long black plaits.

‘This isn’t a thing my precious little baby should learn how to do. You’re a boy and this is for girls.’

‘Then why do you put me in girl’s clothes?’ he asked, still puzzled.

‘My little baby is dressed like a girl because it’s easier to raise you, see? It’s easier to make you all big and strong, see? But remember,’ she said tenderly, ‘you’re still a little boy.’ and she reached down to tweak his willy. Dandan leapt to his feet and backed away. He hated her touching him there. He lowered his head, turning the piece of paper he had started over and over in his hands. ‘Well, I’ll just be a girl then, that’s all.’ he said gently.

‘Don’t talk rubbish!’ snapped his Grandmother staring at him, visibly rocked. He lifted his head to look at her, (PAGE 63) her eyes as big as two copper coins, glaring him into silence. Softening her tone she said, ‘You’re a little boy, Dandan. You’ll understand when you’re older.’ She swivelled around on her tiny feet and teetered to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.

Now Dandan was even more confused. He couldn’t comprehend why she was so single-mindedly raising him as a girl but then wouldn’t let him do things he loved, like paper cuts. It was far more interesting than the rough and tumble of boys. He sat down heavily on his stool and gloomily thought, ‘Why do grown-ups never let me do what I want to do?’ He looked up at all the paper cuts on his window and walls and jumped to his feet to rip them all down.

Dandan spent his days in rapture at the glory of flowers, or in listening transfixed to the beautiful strains of a far away flute, idly stroking his plaits. Under the hand of his Grandmother, he had grown to be blatantly effeminate, much to the scorn of the children in the courtyard. He was left all alone with no one wanting to play with him. Even Xiezi and her sisters preferred not to. Who wanted to be seen hanging around with a poofter? The other boys in the neighbourhood made up a song to tease him with:

  Poofter, poofter, poor little poofter,
  Pretty red ribbon in his long black hair,
  Is he a girlie, is he my sister,
  Ooh, look! three legs, hanging down below,
  Who’s going to love him, we don’t know.

Dandan ran home, hurt and in tears. ‘What’s a poofter, Granny?’ he asked. She knelt down and hugged him.

‘Don’t you worry about those little bastards.’ she said. ‘If anyone ever bullies you again, you come and tell your Granny and I’ll go and sort them out once and for all.’ But she hadn’t answered his question, and once again his heart sank; yet again he had to bury his pain and disappointment inside. (PAGE 64) His Grandmother lovingly stroked his waist-length plaits and without thinking, reached down to fiddle with his willy. Again, he sprang away from her clutches, squirming with embarrassment.

‘Why do you always have to do that, Granny?’ he pouted, and ran away.

He went to hide under his favourite Scholar tree, and lying on the ground, unconcerned by the sand and dirt, gazed up at the clouds drifting through the vast blue sky. He imagined escaping into a cloud and being wrapped inside it like a huge ball of cotton. He sped through the sky and no one could catch him and no one was there to laugh at him. Why was everyone always laughing at him? Why had he become neither boy or girl? A ray of sunshine shone through the leaves and onto his face. A hot tear had appeared in his eye and rolled down his cheek. He silently cried, unbearably sad, unable to utter a single word.

The river flowed silently on.

It had never stopped. Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, year after year and cycle after cycle. Oh, Great River, what stories could you tell of the joys and rages, the sorrows and pleasures of this land?

Time passes day by day. The greatness of this country lies in the inexorable journey it has taken through time.

Time is like an enormous pot, where all ugliness and beauty is thrown, all happiness and grief, all life and all death.

Cycle follows cycle, living life and dying death. Only the great river rolls on unending.

The day of Dandan’s twelfth birthday was the day his willy matured and hardened and was also the day he completed his first cycle of twelve years. His Grandmother tied a length of red rope around his waist, saying it was to ward away evil. Red is a lucky colour because it dispels ghosts. When a ghost sees red, it doesn’t dare come near you. (PAGE 65) The final year in a full cycle of twelve can be either extremely lucky or extremely disastrous so you have to be particularly careful. The twelve years in a cycle of Earthly Branches are Zi for the year of the Rat, Chou for the year of the Bull, Yin for the year of the Tiger, Mao for the year of the Rabbit, Chen for the year of the Dragon, Si for the year of the Snake, Wu for the year of the Horse, Wei for the year of the Sheep, Shen for the year of the Monkey, You for the year of the Rooster, Xu for the year of the Dog and Hai for the year of the Pig.

Later in the day, Dandan’s Grandmother sent out a request for the presence of the local Shamanist White Witch, and prayed to a statue of the Buddha Queen Mother of the West by burning incense and furiously kow-towing. Her face was stern and austere as she called Dandan over to her side and told him to kneel. She kow-towed seven, eight times, so hard that her head made a clunking noise on the cement floor.

‘Dandan, kow-tow too! You have to kow-tow too!’ she commanded. Clunk, clunk, clunk as she kow-towed again and again. Dandan looked at her out of the corner of his eye, trying to see whether a lump had appeared on her forehead yet. ‘I’m not doing it as hard as that,’ he told himself, ‘it must be agony.’

The whole family prayed and kow-towed. Once – grant the family Zhao a long future. Twice – and sons and grandsons and great-grandsons in peace and safety. Thrice – may Dandan grow up a strong man. Four times – and have sons and grandson and great-grandsons of his own. Five times, six times, seven times, eight times, nine times, by the blessings of the Boddhisattvas may everyone in our family live to be a hundred.

By the time the White Witch arrived, the eight-sided ceremonial table had been symmetrically and propitiously laid with eighteen plates and eighteen bowls of every kind of meat and vegetable dish. Dandan’s Mother and Grandmother had spent the previous three days and nights in the kitchen, boiling, steaming, shallow-frying, deep-frying, stir-frying, roasting, braising, baking, stewing and marinating until they didn’t know which way up they were, filling every room in the house with oily smoke and wonderful mouth-watering aromas. Dandan dribbled constantly with greed. The smells tormented him even in his dreams and when he awoke his chest and pillow were sodden with drool. For those few days all the grown-ups had furtive expressions on their faces as they bustled in and out of the home, but Dandan hadn’t been told what was happening. They kept warning him not to tell anyone else what they were up to. Surely making food was just a normal, daily thing. Everyone does it just like everyone goes to the toilet. What was so secret about going to the toilet? Day and night for the duration of the preparations, windows and doors were firmly closed and the curtains drawn. But the smells still managed to escape through cracks in the door, wafting far and wide.

Xiezi sidled up to Dandan. ‘What’s all this with the gorgeous smells coming out of your place? (PAGE 66) My stomach goes mad every time I get near.’ Dandan genuinely didn’t know.

‘I haven’t a clue either.’ he said with a shrug. Xiezi snorted with disbelief and walked away. He went home and said to his Mother, ‘What are you making all this food for? Have we got an important guest coming?’

‘Go and ask your Granny.’ she said, smiling. He looked at his Mother’s eyes, bloodshot from days of cooking, and thought to himself, ‘Granny won’t tell me. Granny never tells me the truth.’ and he banished the idea from his mind.

As dusk was slowly falling, the Witch slipped through the door like a wisp of smoke. Her face was concealed by an ancient and grimy head-dress. Long, beautifully coloured strips of cotton, an inch or so wide, fell down to her chin. Her top and her skirt were made in the same way, so that only when she moved could her thin and emaciated body be seen beneath the lightly billowing ribbon-like strips. Her feet were the biggest anyone had ever seen and her elongated, bony fingers had hard, sharpened nails that sliced through the darkening air like a monster’s claws. Dandan couldn’t see her eyes, although they occasionally flashed through a slit in her head-dress, deep-set, black and chilling. She held a length of smouldering mosquito rope in her hand, curses and mutterings spilling from her mouth:

  Spirits of the Heavens appear,
  Spirits of the Earth appear,
  Ghosts and Goblins get thee away,
  This family’s son comes home today.

The more she recited the faster it came out as though she was rolling a red hot coal in her mouth. Her tongue flicking so rapidly it was impossible to understand what she was saying, and the more incomprehensible it became, the more her curses seemed imbued with mystery and magic. Dandan’s Grandmother stood with her eyes tightly closed, awaiting the miracle. (PAGE 67) His Mother stared in bewildered amazement while his Father stood inscrutable in the corner of the room. Dandan was stupefied by the whole proceedings, not knowing what was going to happen.

The Witch had placed a plate-sized crucible full of strong liquor on the floor, and ran back and forth spinning the rope and dipping its tip until a dark blue flame flickered into life. She danced through the room ever more wildly, leaping over the flame and swinging the rope, swatting Dandan hard on the crown of his head, twice, three times until he saw stars in front of his eyes. She was beginning to knock him senseless and he staggered backwards and fell to the floor. He felt a vice-like grip around his upper arm and was jerked into the air like a mouse in an eagle’s talons. He thought his arm was about to break and gritted his teeth as hard as he could. Just as he was about to scream in pain, the Witch relaxed her grip. She flapped her arms in a blur of cotton and colour and Dandan was swathed in swirling air. Without warning she struck the crown of his head again three times, giving him no time to brace himself. He smelled burning. His hair was on fire! He stood terrified and white as a sheet, unable to move or speak. The Witch span away and coiled the rope into the burning crucible, and suddenly his Grandmother appeared, humbly presenting the Witch with a large pair of scissors as though she were making an offering to the Buddha. Dandan watched the Witch coming towards him, brandishing the scissors, and with two loud, crunching snips, his plaits fell to the floor.

Everyone in the room suddenly burst into loud cheers, except Dandan’s Grandmother who quietly watched with a tear in her eye, her toothless mouth trembling. The Witch was still in the midst of her ecstasy as she nimbly and gracefully dipped to the floor to pick up Dandan’s plaits. She twisted and twirled them in her hands and cracked them like a whip; she span them in the air over everyone’s heads, mumbling intricate curses and spells. She stood as still as a rock for a moment or two, then shot into the air as though struck by lightning and dropped Dandan’s plaits, twelve years long and black as crows, into the flames of the crucible. They easily succumbed to the burning alcohol and slowly turned to ashes, filling the room with acrid smoke with nothing remaining but a few stray strands and a thick black sludge. The Witch motioned Dandan’s Grandmother to fetch a bowl. Her tiny feet sprang into action and she scrambled into the kitchen, coming back in a flash with a small green porcelain bowl which she slowly and with dignity presented to the Witch. She raised the crucible high into the air then resting it on her head paced the circumference of the room three times, reciting passages from the Scriptures. (PAGE 68) She staggered like a drunk as she lowered the crucible down in front of her chest and looking as though she was about to topple over, somehow managed to pour every single drop of black sludge into the bowl on the floor. Falling to her knees, she lifted the bowl to her nose turning it in front of her face, and breathed the fumes deep into her lungs.

She walked quickly to where Dandan was standing rooted with shock. ‘Drink it down!’

‘Drink it! Drink it!’ shouted his Grandmother, wringing her hands.

‘Dandan. Oh, Dandan.’ whispered his Mother from the side of the room. His Father strode purposefully across the floor and violently pressed the bowl to Dandan’s mouth. He screwed up his face and drank it all down without taking a breath.

‘Oh, great and merciful Buddha!’ wailed his Grandmother as everyone shouted and jumped for joy. Dandan’s Mother’s face was streaked with tears. At last she could walk with pride amongst her own people. From this moment on, her position in the Zhao clan was assured beyond all doubt. A smile of satisfaction spread across Dandan’s Father’s lips. Henceforth, his son was complete. The spirit of a girl had been thoroughly exorcised; it had completely disappeared.

It was a glorious day for Dandan’s family.

As soon as it was all over, the food prepared by Dandan’s Mother and Grandmother was brought out for the Witch, and everyone ate and drank well into the small hours. Dandan’s Grandmother emptied her pot of all the money she had saved over the years and gave it to the Witch. As the cock crowed at five o’clock, the Witch staggered away in a drunken haze.

Many years later, Dandan learned about eunuchs in the Imperial Courts of old. After they had been castrated, they lovingly put their dried proof of manhood in a small basket hanging from a rafter where rats couldn’t get them. As they lay on their death-beds breathing their last, their testicles were ground to a powder and swallowed. When alive they had never been complete, but at least they would be whole in the netherworlds.

Was Dandan luckier than them? Would he revert to being a real man in the real world? What was waiting for him in the future? No one could foretell. (PAGE 69)

After he was made into a boy again, Dandan should have stepped through his door to show the world his full power and stature with confidence and righteousness. Who would dare call him poofter now? But he stayed indoors, hiding. He was petrified and didn’t dare go out for three whole days. He stared at the mirror, turning his head from side to side trying to see who he was. The plaits he had so loved were gone. He sadly recalled the flattering praise of kind strangers: ‘Whatever you do, young lady, never cut off those beautiful plaits.’ But now his head had been shaved, and a sadness floated through him at losing such a defining part of his life. He went into his Grandmother’s room and fell sobbing into her arms.

‘I hate looking like this, Granny.’

‘Oh, grow up, Dandan!’ she snapped. ‘This is the real you now. You’ve got to be a big strong boy and there’s no point blubbing about it.’ This was the first time his Grandmother had ever reprimanded him so sternly and her callousness stunned him. He never would have believed she could be so harsh, and couldn’t understand why she had changed so suddenly. Then early one morning, she pushed him through the door into the glaring, unavoidable sunshine.

‘Get out. Go and show the world what you’re really made of.’ The door closed behind him with a resounding thud.

The children in the courtyard all hooted with laughter. ‘Come and see!’ they shouted. ‘Dandan’s a boy! He’s changed! Poor Little Poofter’s turned into a boy!’ Xiezi heard the commotion from the kitchen where she was chopping feed for the chickens. Always one to enjoy a spectacle, she rushed outside, her hands still dripping.

‘Wow!’ Standing in the middle of the courtyard was a boy she had never seen before. Dandan, who everyone was used to seeing in a skirt and plaits, was now dressed like a boy with a blue cotton jacket and boy’s regular grey trousers with a button fly down the middle. Just like a boy! Everyone was howling with laughter and even Xiezi was snickering behind her hand.

Dandan stood in the middle of the courtyard, blanched and trembling.

And they laughed and laughed and laughed. (PAGE 70)

And he just stood there, alone, surrounded by people pointing and laughing as though he was some kind of bizarre animal. A boy with a large head a few years older that Dandan tugged hard on the corner of Dandan’s jacket.

‘What about your cock? Is it real or what?’ he leered into Dandan’s face. ‘Whip it out so we can see for ourselves, eh?’ The laughter reached another peak and Dandan reddened to the tips of his ears, then blanched again.

In that instant, Xiezi started feeling sorry for Dandan. She realised that life could also be hard for boys.

A few years later, when his Scholar tree was big and robust, Dandan would sit alone in its shade, endlessly and patiently sketching maps. Ever since his dream of escaping the map he had pissed into his Grandmother’s dog-skin, he had fallen in love with them and amassed a collection of all different types and sizes. He could sit there hour after hour, just gazing at them. He travelled through their lands, and the farther he ran and escaped from their boundaries the better, to a place where no one would ever find him. His Grandmother had suffocated him. In so many dreams he had seen her grabbing at his groin and if he tried to resist, her claws would leave scratches and bruises all over his body. She had instilled in him a terror of women. Whenever he thought about women, he pictured his Grandmother’s piercing eyes, rooting him to the spot with fear. A voice in his head told him his beautiful friends, the Blue Ghosts, lived a life of freedom and ease in a place called Sesame Mountain, with no one telling them how to be.

‘I don’t want to be a progenitor for the family.’ he thought. ‘I’m not just a stallion for putting out to stud.’ His tree cast speckled shadows down on his face, and in his pure and child-like eyes flashed a burning resentment.