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Wang Ping

Into the Three Gorges

One million migrants from the dam area won’t be a problem. They can work in factories and tour services. They can grow more oranges.                                --Deng Xiaoping

        We find our way into the Three Gorges disguised as tourists who are curious about the dam and the Central Government’s policy on the displaced people.
        According to the official document, 40% of the total funding for the dam has been spent on the migration. Each migrant should have enough money to move into a new house, to be trained for a new job, to learn a new dialect, to open a new business…
        The new settlements are not hard to find. Along the Long River, where the old towns are under the water or half submerged, new towns pop up a few hundred meters above or across the river. They all look the same, be it the Ghost City Fengdu, or the Poetry City Fengjie, or the port city Wanzhou—match-box structures of concrete and steel and glass for the residents, imitations of the White House or New York’s Fifth Ave. buildings for government and corporate…
        For three days, we can’t find a single migrant. According to the official, about 1.5 million people were resettled, the largest exodus in China’s history.
        In Chongqing, we paid a driver three thousand yuan to drive us to Hechuan, Fengdu and Wanzhou. From there, a boat will take us all the way down to the Dam--the route of the submerged towns, fields and migrants. “Once you’re there, you’ll see them everywhere,” assured the tour guide who sold us the service of the rental car and boat ride. But the driver is skeptical. How can you find anybody unless you know their names and addresses? We beg and promise him more money. He sighed, and said he’d try to find the friend he made in Hechuan ten years ago when he drove a truck there every week to buy fowls for Chongqing restaurants. But that was ten years ago, he said, and we’ll see our luck.
        We find the driver’s friend in a mahjong house. It’s two in the afternoon on a weekday. But the house is full of men at the tables staring at us as the driver talks to his friend.
        “Come and have a cup of tea in my place,” he smiles at us.
        “Where are the migrants, Mr. Xiao?” I ask. The driver didn’t introduce us. I assume it’s safe to call him Mr. Xiao since the place is named Xiao Family Town.
        Mr. Xiao just smiles. The driver gives me a look. I shut up and follow them.
        He lives on the third floor of a concrete building. It’s spacious inside. A young couple is eating a late lunch in the kitchen. A gigantic TV is blasting a funeral scene. Mr. Xiao’s wife serves us pipa, a fruit that cures coughing. Two little girls are playing on a fake leather couch.
        Mr. Xiao takes out his little phone book. “So you want to see the migrants? I’ll call the Mayor. He can come over and give us some information.”
        He starts dialing before I can stop him. Once the official sees our blue-eyed, blond-bearded American, our hope will be smoked. The phone rings, but no one answers. Mr. Xiao puts it down with disappointment.
        “He’s not in, I guess. Where can he be in the afternoon?”
        Playing mahjong, perhaps? I think to myself.
        Mr. Xiao points to the screen. “My son.”
        A photo of a young man in uniform flashes on. So his son is a soldier. Why is he on the news, though?
       “He sacrificed his own life to rescue people and his comrades in the 1998 big flood.”
        No wonder the perpetual smile on his face looks so sad.
        President Jiang Zeming appears solemnly, shaking hands with the parents of the soldiers who died in the flood. Mr. Xiao and his wife are among the crowd.
        “I’m terribly sorry,” I stammer in English. For some reason, I can’t find the Chinese words to express my sympathy. “Your wife must have cried her eyes out.”
        He smiles and points to the stunningly beautiful girl dancing to the TV music on the couch. “We lost our son, but we got her. The Party let us have another child. We wanted a son, of course, but she’ll do just fine. Her future is set. The Party will send her to a military college and groom her to be a commander. Both my wife and I have good pensions, and we can travel anywhere in China for a week every year, all paid by the Party. My son is dead, but his spirit keeps watching over us. Even our nephews and nieces are benefited from his martyrdom. They were all given privileges in choosing colleges and jobs.”
            “Mr. Xiao is the town’s rich and famous,” says the driver. “His words weigh more than the Mayor’s.”
The TV stops. Mr. Xiao presses the remote and starts the video again.
        “How’s the river now?” I ask.
        “Much quieter. The big dam has tamed it down. The Party said no more young soldiers will have to sacrifice their lives. Would you like to see the migrants’ housing now?”
        The heart-wrenching funeral music starts again when we stand up to leave. Does Mr. Xiao keep the tape looping every day?
        We drive through the town. The wide main street is paved with ancient blue slabs. The same stones are used for sidewalks and steps leading to houses. It must have looked grand in the old days. But now everything is covered with heavy moss. The place looks like a ghost town if not for a couple of old people sitting at the crumbling doors with bamboo fans in their hands.
        “Old town,” Mrs. Xiao says apologetically. “Our new town is much nicer, thanks to the migrant funding."
            I sit up. “How so?”
        “Well, each migrant is entitled to a piece of farm land. The migrants sent their representatives all over the country and picked out the land they wanted. They just pointed to the place and it would be theirs. We give them whatever they want because it means money for us. Big money. No one farms the land any more. It’s a losing money business. On a good year, we can barely break even. If there’s a drought or flood, we can’t get our seeds back after a year of sweat. It’s better to let the fields grow weeds. Most young men and women go to the cities to earn some cash. Those who stay behind kill time playing mahjong. The Dam is a great money making opportunity for us. Once the migrants pick the land they want, our town representatives negotiate the price with the migration bureau. The Party has rules and prices on everything, but there’s rich land, and there’s poor land, and that gives us room to negotiate. Then the Party has money to build housing for the migrants. Who are going to contract the construction? Us, the local government and business people. Who are going to be hired to build the housing? Us again, the local peasants. That’s why we welcomed the migrants like fortune gods. When their scouts came to inspect our land, we showered them with red carpet, music, food, wine, and showed them our best land in the best location. Are people worried about losing the land? No, we’re delighted. As I said, no one farms anymore except for some stubborn old people. The fields are empty, the town is empty. We need quick cash to boost it up. Ah, here it is, the migrants’ housing project.”
                We get out of the car. A grand three-story building with eight aluminum store fronts blinds our eyes in the hot afternoon sun.
            We stand in silent awe.
           “The first floor is for business like groceries, bike repairs, car repairs, or home industry. The second and third for the living,” Mr. Xiao says proudly.
            Three floors for one family. Not a bad deal at all.
        “Can I go in and talk to somebody?” I ask.
            “No one is here yet. They are coming in two weeks.”
        “Impossible! I have the official document that said they’ve been here for two years, and some of them were even elected into the town government.” I shake the paper to Mr. Xiao.
            He smile and wave his hand. “You must have lived in America for too long. You’ve forgotten some of our officials like to exaggerate good news a little. The migrants are coming in two weeks. That is that. We have another site for them. Want to see?”
            From the car window, we look at the cream and orange tiled building.
        “They’ve got it good, lucky bustards,” murmurs the driver as he starts the engine.
            Everyone nods.
            It occurs to me there is no place for kids or animals to roam around. At least nothing in the front. The building stands a few feet away from the highway.




        The second site is on the back road. It has the same impressive façade with one less story—six store fronts with aluminum gates and living quarters on the second floor. Across the dirt road are houses for the local peasants. No one is around. A rotting pool table lies upside down in the front yard. A girl peeks out from the door and vanishes quickly into the darkness when she sees my raised camera.
            It is a quiet place. The only sound comes from the rustling corn leaves in the fields.
         What kind of business can the migrants do here? To whom will they sell cigarettes, liquor, candy and other goods? For whom will they repair cars and bikes?
        I keep my mouth shut as everyone praises the new project.
        One aluminum gate is wide open. I walk in, stepping over the concrete mixer, empty cans of paint, rolls of plastic and other construction materials. The second floor has one big family room, one big bedroom facing the street, and a smaller room facing the rice paddies and corn fields. In the middle is a tiny room with no window. It stinks with old urine. I grope for a light switch but can’t find any. I squint and see a hole in the concrete floor. No water tank for the flushing. Everything is concrete gray--the walls, the floor, the staircase. The migrants are arriving in two weeks. Will this place be ready for them?
            “This is what they want.”
        Mr. Xiao’s voice is gentle and soft, but it still makes me jump. I turn to face him. I hear the rest of the group walking up to the second floor.

“They are given money to do the interiors for themselves. Everyone has a different taste. Some like hardwood floors, some prefer tiles. Some like wall paper, whereas others would rather have the walls plastered and painted.”
            “They’re loaded with money,” the driver cuts in loudly as his face appears on the landing.
            We walk to the kitchen. Three peasants in straw hats are sealing the deck with tar.
            “We guaranteed no leak or crack,” says Mr. Xiao. “And we promised that the new arrivals would be able to cook their first meal the day they move in.” He points to a small coal stove in the corner and a stack of honeycombed briquettes along the wall.
        One worker blows his nose into his hand, throws the fluid on the wall and wipes his fingers on his pants.
        “Where’s the chicken coop and pigsty?” I ask.
        “They won’t need it,” he says quickly.
        “They will,” I insist.
        “How do you know?”
        “Because I’ve been a farmer, because those migrants have been farmers for thousands of years. As long as there’s land, they’ll till and plant. As long as they plant, they’ll need animals to grease the soil, their rice bowls and their pockets. Animals are their cash machines and friends.”
            Everyone laughs, including the workers and my American team mate. It must be the expression on my face.
        “Cash machine? Yes! Friends? No!” says the driver. “You’ve read too may romance novels.”
        “Things change. People change,” says Mr. Xiao. “Our town was a totally different place five years ago. So was I. It’s life. It’s fate. ”
            “But certain things have to remain the same, like this,” I cry out, pointing to the school children singing outside the window. They are trotting home along the thin field path.
            “Everything changes. Nothing stays the same,” says Mr. Xiao in his quiet, persistent voice.
           “Stop playing your son’s video then and let him go!” I want to shout.
        Instead, I thank him loudly for showing us the new housing projects.



Peace. Girls. Hot Fondue


        Quick, he says, shoot the girls.  I turn my camera, but the curtain has dropped, only a glimpse of a lavender dress, floating hair, a whiff of fragrance and sweat. Above the door are four plain characters in black—he ping wu ting--peace dance hall, and hand-written ads for hairdressers, message girls, apartment rentals, and cures for genital warts. A man lingers outside the door. 
        I turn back to the woman selling steamed bread and chicken gizzards on the street. On a small cart behind the stove, a child sleeps soundly. The alley is dim. We are all in the shadow of the highway bridge.
        A girl in white runs out of the dance hall swearing in the local dialect.
        We climb the narrow steps to view the city.
        Wanzhou is small in size, but big in population. Located between Chongqing and Wuhan, the two big cities along the Long River, Wanzhou has been a busy port for ships and barges for thousands of years. The city is known for girls, hot fondue, and bangbang jun--porters with yokes and ropes waiting to be hired to carry goods along the steep steps that zigzag from the top of the hill all the way down to the port where ships gather like clouds and stands line the blue slabs selling fruit, herb, vegetables, clothes, fish, pots, meat, steaming gege of lamb, dumplings, ribs, innards of all sorts.
        It’s a city of dust and noise and colors.
        A city full of herbal stores, restaurants and hair salons with floating girls eager to please.
            It hangs like an ancient scroll on the steep hills of Wanzhou.
        On the distant cliff, a yellow sign of 175 meters. By 2008, the river will rise to the silent clock and everything will go under.
        Most of the old town is already in the water—including the Bridge of Eternal Peace. When it was blown up in 2003, old men and women gathered here to watch. They came wearing white mourning clothes.
        Part of their being went down with the bridge.
        Memory, like soul, is not abstract. It is physical, sometimes more so than the objects we hold and destroy.
        Wanzhou was once called City of Heavenly Son.
        A few feet away from our faces is a building built in the 80s. No light from the windows. No shadow flickers behind the shades. On a bamboo stick hangs a skirt, a bra, and socks—abandoned by the owner when she moved out. Caterpillars are digging away under its foundation. When the building goes down, the pit will become a water park for the rich...
        Across the highway bridge, the dance girl in white is talking fast to a broad man, her hands chopping the air. The man glances at us and starts walking in our direction.
        “We’re in trouble,” murmurs Mr. Zhang’s son-in-law.



        We met Mr. Zhang and his son-in-law through Prof. Wang who teaches at People’s University in Beijing. Since the dam project started in the mid 90s, Prof. Wang has been spending his summers roaming in the Three Gorges’ would-be-flooded area collecting memories from old people—their songs, stories, myths, jokes.  And Mr. Zhang is one of Prof. Wang’s informers. He’s a good story teller indeed. In an empty tea house, he chats non-stop for two hours, pouring his entire life out to us.
        His mother died giving birth. His father soon married a young girl, his third wife, who refused to take care of the baby. So Mr. Zhang grew up as an orphan, begging food from door to door, village to village. A few families tried to adopt him. Some were quite wealthy. But he always ran away. A free soul can’t stand the restrictions, he said. He didn’t go to school till he was twelve. In the 60s, he went to the countryside to be a peasant and married a girl there and soon they had a daughter. Ten years later he returned to his birth town and worked in a store selling rice, flour, noodles. Just when his life was settling down, his wife divorced him, and his daughter couldn’t find a job after she graduated from high school. Now his house is going to be flooded, but he can’t get a penny. He bought the property under his wife’s name and he never changed the deed after she left. The government would compensate according to the paperwork only, which means that his wife, who has her own land and property in the countryside, will get paid someday, and he’ll get nothing. 
            “I wish I could be big-hearted and let go of my house to support the Three Gorges Dam project.” he sighed.  “It’s our country’s need, our Communist Party’s need. I’m proud that my sacrifice will make this glorious project happen. But I still need a place to shelter my old bones.”
            He showed us the photo of himself blowing candles in a big cake with a group of people watching. “My 65th birthday,” he smiled. “Also my last night in my old house. I’ll take you there tomorrow. But there’s not much to see,” he warned, puffing his pipe. “The whole town is gone, nothing but broken tiles and bricks and garbage. The only house left is mine, and Mr. Ran’s, my life-long friend. You’ll meet him tomorrow. He’s the only one still living in the ruins. I was going to stick it out with my pal till we get paid, but my daughter and son-in-law kept begging me to move in with them. My grandson needs my company. They work thirteen to fifteen hours a day in restaurants, seven days a week. So we keep each other company, the old and young. I’m glad I’m still useful in my old age. I’m a lucky old man with a filial daughter and son-in-law,” Mr. Zhang said loudly.
           His son-in-law nodded at us. He was on the phone arranging a hot-fondue party for us in the restaurant where his wife worked as a waitress. He had purple bags under his eyes, and his legs were covered with blisters. I asked what happened to his legs and was told that he was filling hot pots with boiling chili oil and dropped one on himself as he dozed off. It was two in the morning.


        Now he whispers behind me, voice full of fear.  “If the man wants to see your camera, let him. You didn’t get the girls, right? ”
           Before I can assure him, he adds, “Do whatever he asks. Don’t argue with him.”
        He hops away on his blistered legs.
        “Howdy!” the broad man says, leaning close.
           I smile at his giant jade rings, thick gold chain, and his face round and bumpy like a pumpkin.
            “From Beijing?
           “Minnesota, Meiguo,” I pull out my business card and hand it to him. The best thing to do is tell truth at this moment. “This is Professor Von Gelden. We both teach in the same college.”
            “America, beautiful country like Wanzhou.” He shouts as he looks up from the card. “Well, professors, let me show you the fun places we have here.” He points to the brightly lit hill top where the new town has moved and tells us the best dance hall in town that opens 24 hours a day, the best message salon with t        he most enchanting sisters, the best restaurant and herbal store...
He has the same chopping gestures like the girl in white. Do they all train in the same karate school?
         My mind drifts to Xintian County where Mr. Zhang and his pal Mr. Ran’s houses stand alone in the ruins. When we visit them tomorrow, will there be trouble? Will we bring them trouble? Wherever we go, people notice us—one bearded, blue-eyed foreign devil, and the other who looks Chinese but no longer moves, talks or smell like one. The government seems extremely jumpy on the topic of the Three Gorges migrants. Whenever I call to ask their locations, they all want to know where I’m from. At first, I tell them the truth, and they either hang up on me or tell me to report myself to the Migration Office immediately and explain why I want to know the whereabouts of the Three Gorges migrants. I found some articles on the subject by Chinese journalists on line. When I called the authors, they all claimed they had nothing to do with the subject any more and had forgotten everything they’ve written.
        “So what are you doing here, Miss Professor?” 
         I put on a quick smile. “To see the beautiful river and Three Gorges, of course. What do you do here?”
        He looks stunned.  Chuckling, he scratches his crew cut. “I’m a scientist,” he says.
        I laugh. “Really? What kind?”
        “Orchids. I study and collect them. There are thousands of varieties, just in China alone. The rare ones cost thousands of yuan, you know that? But money isn’t important.”
        I nod. I don’t believe that this man could have studied his way into college and studied his way out with a degree in science. But I do believe, from the fire in his eyes, that he loves orchids, perhaps even more than his love for money.
          “Have a nice visit. I’ll call you when I visit America someday. I heard there’re many wild orchids in deep mountains there. My dream is to go there and collect some species. I’m working hard to make it happen.”
        He puts my card in his chest pocket, and trots down the bridge to his Peace Dance Hall. His girl across the bridge is leaning over the fence, her voluptuous body curving the dark steel. She is one of the human orchids he has collected.
           “Time to go,” whispers Mr. Zhang’s son-in-law behind my ear.
            “Did he come over just to talk about orchids?” I turn to him.
              “The girl was telling him that you took many photos of the dance hall and were going to sell the girls’ images to porn websites.”
        I turn on my camera to show everyone what I have. There’s one shot of Peace Dance Hall. No girl or pimp. Only a shadowy man passing by, face turned to the drawn curtain. Above the door where the wall is covered with handwritten ads for message girls, housing rental, genital wart treatment, I find a fading red number—177 meters.
            By 2008, the Long River will rise to the red mark. Wanzhou will be under the water, including its noise and dust from the steep steps lined with food stands, herbal stores and hot-fondue restaurants, including the young porters and beautiful orchids from Peace Dance Hall--the ocean of desire.


Orange Dream


        When the autumn wind blows across the Three Gorges, the hills along the Long River light up with ripening oranges. They have been hiding behind leaves like shy girls all summer, but now they burst out shamelessly, filling the valley with their sharp citrus fragrance and flaming color.
        And the peasants get busy.  First, they repair the road from the orchards to the villages, from the villages to the highway and the river. All the roads are narrow dirt roads. All zigzag along the river cliffs. They get muddy after a few rains, and are often washed away by landslides. But no matter, it’s the only way to carry the golden harvest off the mountain slopes in bamboo baskets, out of the villages and Sichuan Basin in boats, ships, trucks, planes.
        Next they clear the yards to make baskets. Oranges are fragile, easy to bruise and get moldy. Bamboo baskets are the best and cheapest containers. Since each family has about ten to twenty thousand jin of harvest, they’ll need hundreds of baskets. The villagers buy the raw materials, and hire bamboo smiths to make the baskets. Bamboo smiths come as a family, husband and wife, children, cousins. They work from six o’clock in the morning till midnight, taking breaks only when they eat. For each basket, they make two yuan, and a good smith can make about thirty five baskets a day.
        The peasants are just as busy. They pick oranges, pack them in baskets, carry them down the steep hills, sell them to buyers from Chongqing, Chendu, Shanghai, Beijing…Orange price fluctuates according to the market demand, traffic, weather, and the whims of the wholesalers. There are times when they can’t sell at all. When late fall comes rolling with rain, the fruit rots in the mud. Even pigs won’t touch it.
        This has been the way of life for the peasants along the river for two millennium.

        The oranges from the Three Gorges have been known since the time of the Confucius (551-479 BC), Warring States (475-221 BC), Qin (221-207), Han (206 BC-220 AD), Tang (618-907) dynasties, during which orange production was just as important as the salt industry, if not more. There were salt officials as well as orange officials managing the trade and farming. At 15, Du Fu (712-770) got his first government job to take care of 40 mu of orange groves and 100 mu of grain fields in Fengjie, where he wrote many of his great poems and made the place known as Poetry City.

        The earliest and most famous poem, however, was Qu Yuan’s (340—278 BC) “Ode to Orange.”

Orange tree, destined to be the best between sky and earth
Born in the southern country
Your devotion and deep roots keep you at home
A real gentleman with beauty and spirits

Pure and independent, you refuse to drift with the currents

Moral and selfless, you stand as tall as the sky
I want to be your friend, to live and die with seasons


        Qu Yuan wrote this ode in exile to express devotion to his homeland, the kingdom of Chu. Banished from the court by the King of Chu for nine years, he’d been roaming along the Long River, his heart broken as he watched his beloved country swallowed by the aggressive King of Qin, his king kidnapped and die in the enemy land, his people suffer from the war. Like the orange tree that refused to live or flower outside its homeland, he’d rather die than live as a slave in a strange land. When his country’s capital fell under the hooves of the Qin army, he filled his robe with earth and jumped into the Miluo River.
        On May 5th, lunar calendar, the Chinese eat sticky rice dumplings and race dragon boats in memory of Qu Yuan and his orange spirit. It’s one of the three most important festivals in China: Spring Festival, Duanwu (dragon boat festival) and Mid-autumn Moon Festival.
        Beginning from the Three Gorges and down the Long River, oranges flower and form China’s citrus belt—Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang. Away from the belt, they change flavor, color and taste. The farther away from the river, the worse they fare. Is it the soil, the climate, or Qu Yuan’s spirit?
        The orange harvest has also been used as a symbol for the rise and fall of China. When an emperor chose the right way to run the country, there would be a good harvest and oranges would ripen with the right taste, color and texture. That was because the Three Gorges orange was the best of all fruit, and would serve only the true heavenly son. If the throne was usurped, oranges would turn sour, or refuse to grow at all. Peasants regard oranges as lucky symbols because of its shape, color and sound. Ju (orange) is close to the sound of good luck—ji. A peasant bride would hide an orange cake, rock sugar and a mirror in her bra on her wedding day, hoping they would give her a good, sweet and bright life.
        Dried orange skin is called chen pi. It cures gastric pain, clears phlegm, and revives the faint of heart. 
        Oranges soaked in 65 degree liquor taste the best with hot fondues. It’s fire upon fire, burning the toxin out of the body, all the worries out of the mind.
        The tastiest oranges grow on ancient graves.
        For 2300 years, the orange has been the best friend to the peasants who live along the Three Gorges. In Fengjie County alone, orange agriculture supports 200,000 people.
        Since 1970s, the orange praised so highly by Qu yuan has been replaced by new varieties from Florida, Washington, Japan, and South America…
            Most migrants are no longer growing oranges. Those who moved 100 meters above the hills have lost the land and climate suitable for the citrus bush. Those who crossed the river sit in high-rise apartments with a big mortgage and little hope for a job. Those who moved to Shanghai, Fujian, Guangdong, and Shandong are struggling with different dialects and cultures, with dire opportunities for jobs or schools. They’ve been farmers for many generations, and growing oranges and fishing are the only skills they have. Many old and middle-aged migrants can’t stand the homesickness. They steal back to their old homes and live with their relatives or friends as illegal idlers. Many men have joined bangbangjun—the army of porters on streets, and girls become “goddesses” in hair salons, hotels, dance halls.
            The orange—soul of the Three Gorges. It haunts the dream of every migrant. Even those who have made it in their new places aren’t exempt.

Orange trees have roots in the earth.
We migrants have roots in our souls.

        Almost every migrant said they missed the orange fragrance, its color and taste, missed climbing the steep hills along the river to the orchards, missed the backbreaking season of the golden harvest.
        They sing “Orange Tree” to the tune of the popular song “Olive Tree.”

Don’t ask me where I came from
My old home is far far away
Don’t ask why I keep roaming
Roaming in this strange land

For the birds wheeling in the sky
For the gibbons calling from the riverbanks
For the fish that swim upstream to spawn
I’m roaming, roaming

For the orange tree in my heart
For the orange soul in my dream


  • The Long River, China’s longest river, is known as the Yangtze River to the Westerners.
  • Mu: a unit of area (=0.0667 hectare)


                                    The Little Mermaid in My Heart

Obsession §I: a compulsive preoccupation with something or someone—Webster’s

"I know exactly what you want," said the sea witch. "It is very foolish of you, but just the same you shall have your way, for it will bring you to grief, my proud princess…I shall compound you a draught, and before sunrise you must swim to the shore with it, seat yourself on dry land, and drink the draught down. Then your tail will divide…it will feel as if a sharp sword slashed through you…every step you take will feel as if you were treading upon knife blades so sharp that blood must flow…are you willing to suffer all this?"

Is obsession a blind faith?

She knows her journey will lead her to destruction, but she goes anyway. Her mind is set: to win the prince and his immortal soul.

痴迷chi mi—obsession: demonic possession of the soul and body that causes a person to do things irrationally, compulsively, and against one’s will—A Chinese English Dictionary

She can’t tell the prince that it is she who saved his life. Nor can she tell him how she suffers with every step, how she will turn into sea foam at the sunrise. She has traded her tongue for a pair of legs. She just dances and laughs with the weight of death in her heart.

Who in the right mind would abandon the princess status (and all the comfort and glory that come with it) to pursue a hopeless love? The little mermaid is not normal. She is possessed, lost, insane, crazed, obsessed. She is a maverick of the sea.

Maverick: a lost, unbranded calf away from the herd, a person with a streak of stubbornness.

The little mermaid joined in the wedding dance. Her tender feet felt as if they were pierced by daggers, but she did not feel it. Her heart suffered far greater pain. This was her last evening to be with the prince for whom she had forsaken her home and family, for whom she had sacrificed her lovely voice and suffered such constant torment, while he knew nothing of all these things. It was the last night she would look upon deep waters or the star fields of the blue sky. A never-ending night, without thought and without dreams, awaited her who had no soul and could not get one.

So much pain, and so little reward. But the possessed has no choice. Like a salmon returning home to spawn, forgoing food and sleep, she pushes towards her destiny with no remorse.

痴chi—sickness over the mind
迷mi—lost, confused, craving

I came across “The Little Mermaid” when I was a little girl who had just tasted the bitter sweetness of reading. The Cultural Revolution was ripping China apart. The Red Guards sealed the libraries and burnt all the books of “poisonous weeds.” Anderson’s fairy tales were on the most toxic list. I got the book through an underground network, and devoured it like the little mermaid drinking the sea witch’s draught. And I’ve been “poisoned” ever since. She emerges from my writing constantly: poetry, story, essay... Her siren song has lured me away from an island on the East China Sea to Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing, from China to New York, St. Paul. Every day, she takes me deeper into the water, farther into unknown territories. She possesses me.

"Remember!" said the witch. "Once you have taken a human form, you can never be a mermaid again. You can never come back through the waters to your sisters, or to your father's palace. And if you do not win the love of the Prince so completely that for your sake he forgets his father and mother, cleaves to you with his every thought and his whole heart, and lets the priest join your hands in marriage, then you will win no immortal soul. If he marries someone else, your heart will break on the very next morning, and you will become foam of the sea."

"I shall take that risk," said the little mermaid, and swam to the shore.

What keeps her/me going on the path of pain and loneliness? Love? Curiosity? The need to know the unknown, to cross the boundary at any price?


Once on the way, there is no going back.

She believed, therefore she was. Is.

There is a mermaid in the deep of every heart.