Of all my clients, I liked Wen Changbao because he never touched me. I just listened to him. For a while I thought of myself as his dog, simply because he was my first friend.
As soon as he came up the stairs and closed the door, Changbao explained himself: the man he loved had asked Changbao if he’d ever been to Peking’s number-one brothel. “It’s a dreadful, dreadful place,” the man, Er-Kang, had said. “I won’t tell you where it is, in case you want to go.”
Changbao told me they’d gone to an outdoor ice skating rink in the ladies’ square with the student union. It’d been a night of jealousy for Changbao, a night of revelry for the many women who got to flirt with Er-Kang. They’d pretend they didn’t know how to skate so that Er-Kang would teach them. They’d skate the wrong way, against the current, so that Er-Kang would have to catch them, all of them then holding hands and skating fast, like a long whip.
I dreamed I was talking to Er-Kang. I asked why he never had the women from the ice skating rink take off their clothes. He answered with a seventeenth-century quotation by Li Yu: “Without leggings, a woman’s feet are as unsightly as a flower with no leaves around it.” But, upon waking, it became obvious this didn’t answer my question as to why conceal the whole body.
On our way to the dean’s house by foot, we passed brick buildings with long unbroken walls. Through vase-shaped peepholes in one wall, I saw a pond covered in algae. I stopped to get a closer look: its sides were perfectly straight and cut from stone—man-made—and not just a pond but a students’ swimming pool, its function obscured by neglect. Changbao stood behind me. I was being taken to a dinner party, where I was to pose as his date, since all the other men were taking dates from the women’s college. Changbao said he hadn’t thought to ask any of them until it was too late. In one corner of the pool, girl-faced wigeons were making a show of dipping themselves in the algae.
The dean lived in a house with two gables and a flared roof. The front of it was obscured behind some scaffolding, as it was still a relatively new house, but all the windows were open. There were already several students in their long robes and fedora hats in the doorsill, looking up and admiring the rafters. Upon entering, we saw that the dean had electricity in his home.
The dean of the National University of Peking was Chen Duxiu, and the men invited to dinner had come from different colleges within the university. Changbao belonged to the accounting school. The dean made his appearance after we’d assembled in the great room, his jellied eyes fixed on the bowl of fruit on the table. Then he sat down with his elbows tucked at his waist, awkwardly arranging a cloth napkin into his lapel, a Western gesture. We settled down, into wicker chairs, and I discovered ice cubes in each of our glasses. I thought that academics were rich because they had homemade ice.
“I called you all here,” the dean said, “because China has declared war on Germany. But I believe, for our sakes, that the war will soon be over. When the war ends, we should expect a decline in Europe’s economy and for those Chinese nationals working in Europe to return home. We can count on those returning to support our revolution. That will be our opportunity. If we can’t right the wrongs of the first election within one year of the war’s end, our country is doomed to fall to warlordism, and that will be the end of our culture.”
Within my reach at the table were two graduates who’d just returned from abroad, a correspondent for New Youth magazine, as well as a Chinese scholar of Nietzsche. On a console table, there was a framed photograph, with the year, 1917, written in a corner. It was January or February in this photograph, a pile of dirty snow in the middle of the wet street. There were some pedestrians in the background turning their heads to apprehend the camera, their dull-colored clothes rendered black in the photograph, lending them the appearance of busy uniformity. The dean stood with his foot on the snow and his hands on his waist, as if he had slain the pile of snow.
The name “Er-Kang” rang out amidst the talk. I looked up and glimpsed him for the first time, his glass raised at the far end of the table, saying something to his colleagues in the medical school. He wore a white robe and round spectacles, his hair puffed and parted like a peach. It seemed Er-Kang was some kind of hotshot revolutionary.
“Though I must admit,” the dean said. “I only like elections in theory.”
For the dean’s amusement, I described my memories of men at the brothel, though I was careful to speak generally and never mention the brothel itself.
“I remember,” I said, “the Nationalist-voting men rolling on the floor, drunk and crying.”
“Because Song Jiaoren lost?” said Changbao. “No, Song Jiaoren did not lose.”
“No, because they thought Song Jiaoren had lost,” I said.
The dean shook his head. “They must have been quite drunk.”
Then Song was assassinated. Yuan Shikai had been responsible for the assassination. The assembly did not formally reconvene until April. By July, the civil war had broken out from the southern provinces. Sun Yat-sen faced off against Yuan and lost. Then Yuan confined the assembly members and forced a vote, which elected him president. By January of the next year, the assembly no longer existed.
We sat under a thatch roof, waiting out the rain, studying a foreign cigarette brand. Er-Kang struck a difficult match, lit a cigarette, and extended it to Changbao, but warned him, “The stuff they put in here is addicting. Bao-bao, if you start smoking then all your days will revolve around smoking.”
Changbao said, reaching over to touch the cigarette pack, “Our god has a name we cannot pronounce.”
Er-Kang sounded out the English word on the pack.
Changbao made a weird shape with his tongue, giggled, and said, “You are teaching me how to pronounce the name of our god.”
Er-Kang knew who I was, but my presence didn’t seem to bother him at all. He and Changbao had agreed, perhaps wordlessly, that to bring a prostitute along would make them appear more normal, like two men courting one woman. In this secluded place in the rain, we were well-hidden. Because it was raining, I could barely hear them. I trained my eyes on the landscape, on the Heavenly Temple, its circular wall, in the distance.
When the war ended, there was a student parade, a “peace celebration,” complete with a band, buglers, a troop of uniformed men from the police school, diplomats, and boy scouts. The boy scouts carried cloth lanterns with peace slogans hand-painted on all four sides.
At the time I really felt for Changbao, his clothes completely soaked from the rain, giving Er-Kang one ultimatum after another, but I also saw his anger, which frightened me, even though he never aimed it at me, just in equal parts at himself, like a self-lacerating flagellant, and at outsiders, almost like a soldier in his intense hatred for the Japanese.
“He’s toying with me,” Changbao said.
“He’s not toying with you,” I said, in Er-Kang’s defense. “He’s not toying with you, but you are his toy.”
We were talking on our backs, side by side, on a bed with a crane embroidered on the brocade sheet.
Vendors roasted chestnuts in the courtyard. A vendor with a metal shovel stood over a round, black pot, stirring the chestnuts inside. Er-Kang requested me for the night and took me to see Changbao.
We found Changbao at a noodle shop.
“Come with us,” said Er-Kang, shaking Changbao by the shoulders. “I want to show you the Christmas tree in the ladies’ square. I saw the tree yesterday and it was hung with fruits and candies and paper flowers. We should see it before it gets rained on.” He shook Changbao’s shoulders again. “Don’t you think?”
First, though, Changbao owed the sum of his meal and the beer he’d ordered, and the waiter would not accept his money. Changbao, it turned out, had nothing but Mexican pesos in his pocket, sent to him by his family, which were equivalent to the Chinese yuan, but the waiter was making a show of only accepting Chinese national currency. Changbao told the waiter he’d visit the money shop down the street, to which the waiter responded by heckling him, calling him poor, in front of Er-Kang. Changbao went to the money shop anyway, and I waited at the table with Changbao’s half-eaten noodles and empty beer bottles, beside Er-Kang, until Changbao returned with thirty yuan. The meal had cost only ten yuan. Changbao threw down one ten-yuan note and said, “That’s for the meal,” another note and said, “That’s to show I’m not poor,” and finally another, saying, “That’s for you to get out of my face,” before making his grand exit. Er-Kang and I followed at his heels, and on the street Er-Kang left us to see the Christmas tree by himself.
Changbao and I went to an opium den thinking some opium would calm him down. Changbao was sweating despite the cold, his hands were shaking, and he said he couldn’t breathe. There was a man urinating in the alley, the urine smelling like a thick broth. Since he was urinating in the middle of the alley, we had to press ourselves against the wall to get by.
There was no door to this den, just a hollow entry in the wall. Inside, the attendant was missing. We saw only two middle-aged men seated together on stools and facing away from us. They were bent over drinking. Changbao and I sat apart for a while until we heard them sing “Happy Birthday.” One of them, the paler one with practically no eyebrows, came over with two thimbles of baiju.
“It’s his birthday,” the pale man said, pointing at the one with the dark mustache and hair sprouting out of his chest. We drank to him, and I got up and poured the remaining baiju from the cloisonné serving set into their cups.
Changbao and the pale man went to smoke. The mustached man and I sat across from each other. He spoke some Chinese, but he was French. He asked me to dance, and as we were dancing he asked me, in Chinese, “How old are you?”
With what little French I knew, I answered, “Dix-neuf.”
The Frenchman seemed taken aback. He gestured with his head, as though to say, “And him? The man you’re with?”
I didn’t know any numbers higher than twenty, so I said, in Chinese, “Twenty-three.” I asked, “And you?”
The Frenchman cleared his throat—my ear was listening to his hairy chest—and said, “Soixante-quatre.”
I ran into Er-Kang on Chengxian Street. He told me not to tell Changbao. I said I wouldn’t. He was with the boys in the medical school, avoiding Changbao.
It was the weekend. They passed it playing games. Poor games, barefoot-children’s games. Their pastime was to mash up glass either by taking turns stomping on jars they covered in cloth or by throwing the jars at the wheels of government cars. They would take the broken glass and mix it with water and flour to create a paste. Then they would spread the paste with splayed toothbrushes all over kite strings and wind the strings around wooden spoons. Their hands would get cut up from this process. They would launch these kites in the park, where they had invented a competition. One-against-one, they tried to cut down each other’s kites. Er-Kang’s kite flew pretty high, but it never gave away his location.
The protest of May 4, 1919, came and went with mass arrests of students, a note of admonishment from the Ministry of Education. Luckily, neither Changbao nor Er-Kang were arrested.
There was another demonstration on June 3, at which students were given rostrum time. Er-Kang was to make a speech. I saw him before he stepped up to the rostrum, just a peach-shaped head in the crowd of students, police constables, and children in short pants. He was wearing white again.
When the time came, Er-Kang stepped up onto the rostrum with just his legs, in other words, without putting his hands on the wooden boards. He stood and waved his hand in the air for the students’ attention. He began his speech, “Until now, we have been living in an unenlightened corner of the world, like a nation of blind, sequestered concubines…”
I was by myself at the protest, since Changbao had said, “I will not hear him speak.”
Changbao came to the brothel talking about “wanting a woman.”
“But you know,” he said, closing the door to our room, “I thought about you, and in the end I decided there was no way. You’re not my kind of woman.”
I didn’t understand what was causing Changbao to say such things.
“What’s with that face?” Changbao said.
“Would you like me to find you your kind of woman?” I asked.
“What kind of question is that?” Changbao said. “You think I can’t find my own woman? I don’t need your help.”
We were silent, him leaning against the faux armoire, the armoire positioned in the room to make it look homey but was otherwise empty, me sitting cross-legged on the bed. He shook his head laughing and said, again, “You’re not my kind of woman.”
But still I felt his eyes on me, appraising I don’t know what. My hair was short, and I had it pinned back with two pins.
I knew from the sound of the knocking on the door that it was Changbao. Er-Kang and I had heard the gunshot at Heavenly Peace Gate from Er-Kang’s dormitory. We’d seen students holding white flags earlier, before the sun set, headed toward the gate. Authorities of the Constabulary Bureau were searching for the instigators to hand over to the Court of Justice. We saw their flashlights in the rain.
I extinguished the lamp and we scuttled across the room, bent over so that Changbao wouldn’t see us from outside. We could see Changbao’s face and torso peering into the shutterless window, like the terrifying bust of a cruel European general. Er-Kang and I ducked under the windowsill. I put my hands over my ears because Changbao was outside yelling.
Er-Kang’s door was the third door. When the flashlights from outside illuminated the corners of the furniture, Changbao withdrew from the window. He let them find him.
The medical student in his long cotton shirt slept past noon, the big sleepy-headed genius. There is Er-Kang, they said, in the kitchen making his own tea. Refusing to drink after others. A youth with feminine fingers, his chest dewy beneath a pendent carved from jade. The communal teapot marked with indentations of flowers, the tea leaves clear and a little green, little leaves in the shape of thin pills. Er-Kang carried his tea outside to drink it alone.
We walked east from the university campus. Er-Kang told me about his childhood friend, a man now, who, as a boy, had promised to wait for Er-Kang, had said he would perch up on a hill in their mountain town and look toward the capital, waiting for the day Er-Kang’s form appeared again on the horizon. “There is no difference,” he said, “between you and him.”
By a kite vendor’s stand, we ran into one of Er-Kang’s old friends from the women’s college.
Feeling my ears grow hot, I turned away from them and looked instead at the kites, strung in a display five kites tall and twenty kites wide, across the brick wall, obscuring the bas-relief on the top of the wall. The kites were caricatures of the old emperors and empresses, their faces painted garishly and attached to the winged bodies of dragonflies or swallows.
I heard her ask Er-Kang to come over to her place for tea, to which Er-Kang answered, “Little Jin, it’s so wonderful of you to remember me, but I’m up to my ears these days. Perhaps you already know that I am planning to enter the government.”
As Little Jin gathered the kite she’d just bought, she eyed me and, passing us, collided the wing of the kite with my right shoulder.
“Have the strikes accomplished what they set out to accomplish?”
Er-Kang and I sat across from each other in the back corner of a noodle shop that even the most low-brow of police constables wouldn’t deign to eat at.
A sniveling waitress brought over two glasses and a bottle of beer. For every political statement I rewarded Er-Kang with a bit of beer. I poured from the bottle into a glass: the beer splashed and fizzed on the side of the glass. I didn’t pour a lot, just a splash that could be drunk in one gulp. I poured the same for myself. The bottleneck clinked against the lip of the glass. I tipped it like a lever and the beer lurched out in uneven spurts.
“I’m making you my confidant on political matters,” Er-Kang told me. “Is that okay? I’m entrusting you with what to do in the event I am killed, in the event I can’t carry out my plans.”
The left wing was shifting its allegiance to the Nationalists. Er-Kang himself was planning to “enter the government,” using whatever means necessary.
I asked if it’d occurred to him how I’d feel when he left me behind, or if he died. I suggested that he have a baby with me in order to leave someone behind to carry out his plans.
He chuckled when I said this. “You’ve been a great friend to me,” he said.
We stayed up walking the city, discussing the Chinese people’s weakness, their imminent “awakening.” With every word he said it felt more and more like we were a married couple bickering. I had a feeling rising that I wanted to demand something from him, something other than money, something other than for him to grab me by the shoulders, even, but I didn’t know what. I stopped in my tracks, my arms crossed. “What’s the matter?” Er-Kang called out, but I didn’t answer him. Now we were just two people on a cobbled street, standing, swaying.
As Er-Kang approached me, his eye caught a passing man, a stranger, and his head followed, or did I imagine it? “Do you like him?” I asked deliriously. “Do you like him?” I hung from Er-Kang’s neck. I beat his chest, begging again to have his baby, but he acted as though he couldn’t hear me.
Then all at once I felt calm. I was so close I could see the hair on his neck standing upright. I forced my head down onto his rigid shoulder, beneath the graying collar of the white robe he wore so often. “Why conceal the whole body?”
The line from my dream escaped from my mouth.
The thought of living without Er-Kang made me feel for some reason like I had all the time in the world. I went to a horse race with the Frenchman, now a client, after which I was put on the winning horse, and they took photographs of me bobbing up and down on the panting beast, our breaths rising in the morning air. The brothel mother, after much convincing, installed electric lights.
Well into the new decade, I could still recall the feeling of that frozen interval, after the democratic experiment and before I saw Er-Kang for the first time, the feeling that things had already changed. I remembered hearing about Song Jiaoren’s assassination, how Song was shot twice, and coincidentally it took him two days to die.
The morning after Song died was gray, overcast.
“But I was surprised,” I told Er-Kang, “that the sun rose, despite everything.” I pointed eastward from the roof we were sitting on. “See? It’s over there.”