A Story of Stone Statues

Yan Li (IWP '03) a poet, novelist and painter, lives in Beijing. We have used his painting "Two Shadows" as the graphic motif of this issue. An interview in which he talks, among other matters, about the relationship between his visual and verbal art can be found at http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/pubs/yan_li.htm

Two Shadows

One’s earliest dreams are always the clearest. I dreamed my first dream a long time ago. Since then I kept have reviewing it in my mind. Colors are added to the picture, and the dream never fades away. Glancing back through the historical events, I find that dream of mine quite plain: I dreamed of a camera.

Actually, the key point of the dream is not the camera but why I longed for one—for otherwise the idea of a camera would have never come to my mind. In the winter of 1965 I was too young to feel premonitions, let alone political premonitions. I was thus in no position to understand how the Cultural Revolution broke out. I was then living in Shanghai, in a small squat building with a big courtyard. There were two stone statues in the yard, one near the gate and the other near the house. They looked the same except that they were of different sexes. Since there are only two sexes in the world, we had only two of them, one male, the other female. If there were four or five sexes, then perhaps we might have had four or five statues. Anyway, two make the story much simpler. In fact, two have already made things complicated: thousands of stories have been written about them, yet new ones pop up every day.

One morning it was so cold that the yard seemed contracted when I peeped out of the window. The gate, too, looked smaller in the cold, though its frame remained the same. The wind wriggled in through the crack like a man: first the head, then the body. But then I laughed at the image because the wind was actually climbing right in over the walls. Next I remembered that I left my scarf on the neck of the male statue when my uncle took photos of me last night. My uncle was eager to do that because he wanted to send the photos to my parents. They were working in another city, for their ideals and for a salary—something easy enough to understand. But why couldn’t they realize their ideals and get paid here in Shanghai? Well, there is always somebody who decides who can work and live where. That is the best answer to the question. That’s what we call “power,” and my parents didn’t have any of this “power” to make decisions for themselves. Were they born without power, or did they lose it later? I didn’t ask questions like these at that time, and now these questions are no longer questions. Two small cogs in the same machine won’t ask each other why you are there while I am here. When I went out for my scarf, it was on the neck of the female statue near the building. But I knew I had put it on the neck of the male statue. I was still young and had a good memory. Had it just been my imagination? Still, I imagine that someone else removed it put it on the female statue. Everyone in the building was asked, but no one seemed to have ever seen my scarf. Anyone who had seen it would have simply taken it anyway--- or so my Uncle said. Nobody would take it from one statue and put it on the other. Simple logic.

That night, Grandma said that it would be colder tomorrow and I would need to put on more clothes for school the next morning. Before going to bed, I thought about the scarf incident again. I began to fancy that it was the male statue who put the scarf on the female statue. But how could he walk all the way to the back of the courtyard? After all, he was inanimate. I couldn’t let this go without an explanation. I went out into the yard, wrapped the man with my scarf and returned to bed. The next morning, the scarf was around the woman’s neck again. I knew that I had uncovered a miracle. But I said nothing to Grandma, or to Uncle. I decided to keep night vigil, and to find out what was going on.

That night I was very excited. With the light off, I sat by the window and gazed at the man. The courtyard was lit up by a nearby street lamp. I could see clearly what would be going on. Two hours later, I fell asleep and woke up to find the woman with the scarf. I went to bed reluctantly, and dreamed a dream. In it Grandma told me that boys should always be manly. If there is only one scarf, you should give it to the girl. Boys are stronger than girls, so you ought to give the girls precedence.

When I woke up, I began to imagine how the man would walk to the woman and hand her the scarf. But can a statue walk? I’d never seen a walking statue. When I sat by the window that night, I tried hard to keep awake by pricking my finger with a tack from time to time. Finally, I saw the man start walking. Amazingly, the woman walked too. They moved somewhat like the robots that I would see many years later in the United States. Face to face they stopped in the middle of the yard. He took off the scarf and offered it to her. She pushed back his hands, seemingly asking him to put it on. The scarf flapped in the cold west wind. I began to worry that it might drop to the ground. Fortunately, she gave in to his insistence, and he helped to wrap her throat in the scarf despite her reluctant air. Then she walked to the gate and gestured him to go to the back of the yard. I thought that I knew what she meant: now, warmed by the scarf, it would be she who would stand in the front of the yard where the wind blew more bitterly. I hoped that he wouldn’t go along with her, for otherwise, the other family members would soon discover the secret. I didn’t know what would happen if they knew it. Just as I wished, he drew her back. She then took off the scarf. Clearly she meant that since the wind by the gate was sharp and cutting, he should put it on. Then I remembered that I had another scarf. Tomorrow they could be spared their heartbreaking dilemma. I also reminded myself that I needed to take the scarf off tomorrow morning, then put both back on before going to bed at night so that nobody would notice.

The following evening, I gave them each a scarf, and thought that they would not have to walk that night. But in fact, they did walk. The scarf on the woman was longer and heavier. So she insisted on him taking that one since the wind was more biting up front. In the several nights to follow, they again walked up to each other, murmuring something I couldn’t hear. Then I came up with an idea.

I asked Grandma and Uncle if we could put the two statues side by side. So, Grandma explained to me how they protected our house: The man statue was the first line of defense against Evil, while the woman statue was the second. I said it didn’t make any sense. If Evil could defeat the stone man, it would be easier for him to defeat the woman, for men are always stronger than women. But if we put them side by side, they would combine to greater strength. Grandma stuck with her answer, but Uncle said that it sounded like a good idea. So he put them side by side. I was most enthusiastic when Uncle moved the woman statue to the gate. I glanced at the statues from time to time, expecting to find smiles of taciturn understanding on their faces, but I spotted no change. Nevertheless, I was content that Grandma and Uncle and the rest of the family were in agreement with the idea. That night, though, I felt a bit regretful—standing side by side, they wouldn’t walk any more. I couldn’t ask Uncle to move her back because it was my idea, and my upbringing forbade me to go back on my own ideas, especially when they were deemed to be good. I was suffering this dilemma every time I leaned out of the window and looked at them standing there, quite still. It was in thinking about my parents in another city that I concluded that I had done the right thing. The reason why they had to work there and leave me here remained unknown to me. Grandma had said their work needed them to be there. That need was a cruel need to me. So I reunited him and her. If there had been a little statue, I would surely have put it next to them.

The happy reunion did not last long. In the summer of 1966, a mob of Red Guards broke into my home and rummaged about in the house. They struck the heads off the statues, calling them superstitious idols, and said all such idols in the world should be destroyed. The photos that I took with the statues were burnt in the yard, together with their negatives. After the Red Guards left, I tried to put the heads back on the statues. The man’s head was broken into dozens of pieces. I recalled the bandage Uncle had used when he broke his leg. So I wrapped up the head and stood it back on the statue’s shoulders. Then I went to find Uncle, and told him that the photos may have been burnt but we now could take more with the statues. His face turning sad, Uncle said to go have a look at the camera. I went into the next room and found that the camera was in no better shape than the statues, or even worse, since even a bandage couldn’t help it—its lens had broken into smithereens. It was lying next to Uncle’s pillow: obviously, he had already mourned over it. The Red Guards smashed it because it was made in the Soviet Union, Uncle said. But I so wished I could take a photo with the wounded statues! I was hesitating about whether I should tell Uncle what only I knew about the statues when he dashed into the yard as if something of extreme importance had suddenly occurred to him. I followed. He quickly took off the bandaged heads from the statues’ trunks and said that I mustn’t to do that, for it would court disaster for the whole family: the Red Guards would take my conceit as defiance. He wrapped up the bandages and said it was lucky no one had seen them. You must promise never to do that again, he said, relieved when I nodded. Then he promised to buy a camera made in China and take more photos for me. But we can never take photos with the statues, I said. It’s all right, he said. We can always find something else to take photos of. Then I said that not even the statues were strong enough to defeat the Red Guards. Not even they could exorcise evil spirits of this sort. Uncle made me next promise solemnly that I should never repeat these words to another person. Our families are of the wrong class, and subject to the rule of the proletariat. That means we are always in the danger of being put into jail. We are not in jail now because they haven’t found any evidence against us. So never ever speak like this, please. I tried hard to hold back my tears for a second but after a while they trickled down. I stood in front of the headless statues, and told them silently that the camera was broken and that Uncle would never take a picture of us together.

Translation Haihong Yang