Feb. 12th, 2015 05:35 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
For [ profile] cislyn


A long time ago, when dragons and demons roamed the lands of the Jade Empire, when Tang Seng had yet to make his Journey to the West with Song Wu Kong and Niulang had just fallen in love with Zhinu, there was a little boy growing up called Xiaodi — in our tongue, little brother.

Xiaodi was a child full of curiosity. From the time he could speak, he asked why things were the way they were — why the sky was blue, for example, or where the huli jing — fox spirits — came from, or what made someone one of the Eight Immortals. His parents never tired of his questions and answered them the best they could, but all too soon, there were questions they could not answer.

When they didn't know the answers, though, they told him to consult the elders of the village, the scholars and the mayor, who was appointed by the Imperial City itself. And he did — as a boy Xiaodi played not with wooden toys but buried himself in the books that the scholars referred him to, as a teenager practiced penmanship instead of pretending to be a general of the army, and as a young man was seen more around the magistrate and the town council than the pretty girls that his peers were flirting with.

But every passion requires a devotion that causes other pursuits to fall by the wayside, and so while his knowledge grew, his friendships with others faltered. But to him, it was a fair trade — while he may not have been the trusted friend, he was the proven expert on many topics. While others may not have liked him as much, they did respect him.

Eventually, as he grew and learned, his questions grew beyond what even the wisest men and women village could answer, and their answers grew more and more uncertain and satisfied him less and less. They offered him a role assisting the magistrate with disputes between villagers, and that satisfied him for a while — dealing with cows that were sold as barren but turned out to be fertile and sorting out promises made based on the trickery of yao guai was a new and exciting experience for the young man, one that expanded his horizons.

But what he also learned was that there was a right way to do things, an optimal way — a perfect way, even. As his knowledge grew, he realized at once both how close and how far he was to this perfection — he was sure that his judgments came closer than the others, because he knew more than them — and indeed they often deferred to him as time went on — but at the same time, they were so far from the best outcome, which would require knowing even more.

Even then, there were questions that stayed in his head like mosquitoes, questions that itched for days that simply could not be answered by anyone in the village. But why do we not banish all the spirits, he asked, and shook his head in frustration when the magistrate simply said that it wasn't so easy to do. But why does the emperor not resolve all disputes by putting Qilin in every court, since they only punish the wicked, he asked, and was given only poor obfuscations, ones that he immediately saw through.

It came to a head when he wondered aloud if the government official test should be adapted for all citizens to take instead of only those that wished to be officials, so that those less fit could be removed from society, and openly disagreed with the magistrate's shocked opinion. "But why!" he shouted. "Perhaps then, every judge could answer every question, instead of only giving half answers and truths that are as flimsy as the kites we fly!"

In the silence that followed, Xiaodi knew he had made a mistake and made to apologize, but it was already too late. Disrespecting ones' elders was never tolerated, and the council and magistrate debated for long days and nights on what a suitable punishment would be, as his parents pleaded for leniency. Eventually, they all agreed: there could only be one path for this young man.

He was summoned to a meeting of the council. Perhaps, they said, it was time for him to take a journey — not just a short trip away, but one to the Imperial City itself, where there were libraries and universities and scholars that did nothing but consider and answer questions about how the world worked.

And, the magistrate added, they had sent word of his deeds and his questions, and received a favorable answer from none other than the emperor's majordomo for Xiaodi to study at the Emperor's Library.

And, his parents said, this was for the best, and it would look well upon their family and their ancestors would be proud.

So it was settled, then: exile — though clothed in the softest of silks, exile nonetheless. After a brief parting with his parents and a briefer parting with the rest of the village, Xiaodi was sent on his way to the capital.

It was a long journey of almost an entire moon, travelling across the mountains and the plains, ever north, but Xiaodi made it himself, knowing that he would have little to fear if he treated everyone with respect and took no one than was offered. He was not greedy, nor lustful, and he knew that he had little that the trickster and malevolent spirits wanted.

But he was in his heart of hearts a little bit vain, and there were demons afoot in those days, demons that followed men and women through the woods and took it upon themselves to create other demons like themselves. And there was one demon in particular that might have been a scholar when it was alive, one who took note of Xiaodi and thought that it could ensnare him. It set up a trap for him, weaving its glamour over a decrepit building a few hours away.

Xiaodi found a surprising view as he crested the next hill on the road — in front of him was a library, three stories tall, well maintained and quite luxurious, and he immediately altered his direction to approach it. It only grew more impressive as he got closer, and while Xiaodi had not seen a library on his path from the maps, his thoughts quickly turned to marvelling at the library instead of wondering at its existence.

"Ai!" He shouted, announcing his presence and stepping through the open door, stopping immediately inside and staring up in wonder at the floor-to-ceiling rows of books and scrolls, at the long tables with brackets set up to hold the unrolled scrolls, at the bronze and gold inlays, at the beautiful designs. Truly, this was one of the best libraries that he had ever seen, Xiaodi thought.

The owner turned from looking at one of the shelves in the back and headed down a staircase towards Xiaodi. He — or maybe she — was quite attractive, but of a curiously indeterminate gender. Regardless, Xiaodi bowed and smiled, and received one in return.

"Welcome to my humble library, young man," the owner — the demon — said, smiling widely at him. "I don't get visitors much, but I am fond of them — it's always good to meet new friends."

"Thank you, kind sir — I am a man of words, and I find this treasure simply extraordinary," Xiaodi responded, and the owner smiled even more broadly.

"Are you now? What fortune! Would you care for a wager, perhaps?" the owner asked, to which Xiaodi furrowed his brow.

"I am not a gambling man, sir, but a wager on words intrigues me. What do you propose?"

"That we trade off in knowledge," the owner said, spreading his arms. "Facts for facts, or perhaps theories for theories. Knowledge for knowledge, and we see who is more knowledgeable. It has been a long time since I have had a visitor, and I wish to learn about the world."

Xiaodi thought about this for some time. It would be a way to learn, he thinks, something that he has not had in some time — and yet, the logistics of it would be difficult. Who would check what facts there are, or if the theories are made up?

"How would we find out what is true?" he asked the demon, and the demon appeared to ponder this for a moment.

"Perhaps that would be too hard, indeed. If only we had a dragon to adjudicate, but they all seem to be busy at the moment," the demon said, though without the smile that Xiaodi expected at such a jest. But before he could address it, the demon continued.

"Let us try something different, instead. You see, this library does not just contain knowledge. It also contains a curious machine that I found from the Western mountains, far, far away, in the lands of Tianzhu. You see, there is a flat golden pan on this table, and what this pan does is create what you think. It must be small, smaller than the pan, but it will make whatever your mind shapes. It is a most wonderous thing."

"Let us — you and I — each create something, and have the next passer-by judge which is more perfect. Observe—" the demon said, and pointed to the table at the center of the room. It closed its eyes, and after a few seconds a golden cup appeared, simply materalizing out of pan. The demon filled the cup and drank it, and then tossed it to Xiaodi with a wink.

Xiaodi caught the cup, staring at it in wonder. "I accept," he said, reverently, thinking that whatever the cost, it was a wonderous device that he would perhaps not get to try if he did not defer to the owner's desire for a small wager.

The demon smiled, then, and snapped its fingers, and just like that, the illlusion crumbled away. Its teeth grow to be sharp and jagged, and the wonderous library is no more than a decrepit, abandoned mansion, without even a roof, and decay everywhere.

The golden pan, though, was still there, resting on a table that has only three legs.

"You should've asked what the stakes were," the demon said, gleefully. "But now that you've accepted, you can't back out. If you win, you get to leave; if I win, you stay, forever. So go on, make something. Anything."

Xiaodi closed his eyes, and then nodded. "I accept," he said again, and walked toward the pan. His thoughts are frantic, but in some sense, strangely clear; he will simply use the one thing that he's always relied on — his mind — to get him out of this. And so he started constructing: first a set of bronze, silver, golden chopsticks, then a plate, then a cup, then a chair, a table, then a meal, fresh and steaming — and as he worked, he watched as each item took its form on the golden pan, exactly as he constructed it in his mind, whatever materials, color, shape he could think of.

"Is that what you choose, then?" the demon said, and Xiaodi could almost hear the hunger in its voice.

"No," he responded. "I will tell you when I'm done." And he thinks, harder, faster. It must be more complicated, he thinks, more perfect, and so he directs his thoughts at the pan once more. It changes, then, from roast duck, from dumplings, to an oven, to a wheel that powers an oven, to a windmill, each item appearing and disappearing as his mind shuffles over the possibilities. As he thinks bigger, the edges start brushing up against the pan, but he simply thinks of them as being smaller, and realizes that he can still hold the image perfectly. It's a breakthrough: he doesn't have to make one thing smaller than the pan; he can simply make whatever it is he's thinking of smaller.

Then he thinks harder — if a windmill will work, why not a temple? If a temple, why not a few buildings, joined together? And slowly, a city begins to take form, a miniature village, then town, one that grows as Xiaodi imagines each and every structure, each roof, each wall, each road. Eventually, a full city is there — but it's empty. Empty, he thinks, and then he starts picturing people, and they — small people, only an inch tall, start to appear. The restaurateur, the magistrate, the mother and father, the children at play, the famers and laborers and scholars. With each thought, a person takes shape, until this city contains a reflection of the greatest city that his mind's eye can picture: the imperial capital.

He's almost done, he thinks, and he takes a step back, looking at what he's done. And he holds the picture in their mind, thinks of how everyone is moving, and how they go about their ways, how there are little patterns here and there, and then he smiles — a curious smile, one perhaps tinged with a touch of regret, a dash of understanding — and the city disappears. And in its place is a cup, a humble, wooden cup, one that he remembers drinking from as a child, with a crack on the top that goes an inch down, its handle worn from years of use.

"I'm done," he announces, and the demon looks shocked, the outcome completely unexpected.

"Is this some trick? Fine, then. You can have your cup. I'll win without any effort on my part, simply with your mind," the demon proclaims, striding up to the table and tossing the cup over its shoulder casually, which Xiaodi catches. The demon instantly recreates the miniature city, complete with the palace and the grounds and every bit of it exquisitely detailed. "Who would vote for you, with this wonderous creation here? What a good job you did with your mind, human. What an excellent job, indeed; I will enjoy feasting on you."

But Xiaodi, far from looking concerned, simply smiles. "I, too, once thought that the way to win was to know everything that could be known, to know how every piece of the world worked and be able to predict every action. But the world is too complicated for such things — no matter how much you can keep in your mind, demon, you can not predict everything, and so this miniature is only a poor attempt at capturing something uncapturable."

"Instead, I simply created something simple, something that any person who will walk through this door will know and understand — the beauty of something that is made for you by your father and given to you by your mother, and will stay with you from your first days until your last. That, demon, is a perfection that a clockwork city will never be able to match."
talonkarrde: (Default)
In the august days of China past, when carp passed through a gate to become dragons and mischievous fox spirits roamed the land, there was a young man called Zai Kan.

Kan was an obedient boy who respected his elders and paid tribute to his ancestors. The ghosts of the Zai family watched in delight as he burned money for them to have in the next life and applauded the way he obeyed his parents' every command — even when they told him that he had to scrub the floor until it was as bright as the sun, as the floors of the Forbidden City itself did. He did not question how floors could produce their light; he simply set about scrubbing until it did indeed shine with even the tiniest slivers of the moon shining upon it.

As a young man, he was quiet and did not ask for much. He finished every grain of rice in his bowl and was not greedy enough to ask for more; he seemed perfectly content with the hand-me-downs from his cousins, telling his parents it was a good thing to save money. He bowed to them and he called them by their titles and he never disrespected his elders.

"This is a good boy," his grandmother's ghost said to his grandfather's ghost, looking over the boy's respectful actions. "Perhaps we should reward him, somehow."

His grandfather's younger brothers and older sisters and his grandmother's older brothers and younger sisters (which all, by the way, have different titles) all approved — as they should, for they were also profiting from the money being sacrificed — and went to the head of the family — The Old Zai, or 'Lao' Zai.

No one really knew what relation Lao Zai was to the rest of the ancestors, but they all knew that he was old — very old — and stayed around even when the other ghosts moved on, their vengeances or guardianships complete. And so they had a family council and asked him: "What, Most August of us all, Ancestor of Ancestors, can we do to reward this especially considerate young man, who brings honor to our family name?"

And the old man, standing tall and proud, stroked his long white beard around his fingers and nodded.

"Yes," he said. "I will pay a visit to Shen Long and see what gift he may grant our cherished son."

In the august days of China past, even revered ancestors are not able to travel without encountering yao guais — evil spirits — and other spirits of chaos and trickery. But the story of his journey to the west is another one, for another night. Suffice to say that he made it there, and he pled his family's case to the Dragon of Dragons, who was translucent and opaque at the same time, whose displeased rolls in the air created tremendous storms and whose gentle breath brought forth the rain.

Shen Long listened to Lao Zai's words and a whirling storm suddenly disappeared as the dragon stopped focusing on it to consider this request, one that it had never gotten before. The dragon understood humans, he thought — but then again, perhaps not.

With an simple, opening gesture of the Dragon's claw, Lao Zai found himself back in his ancestral graveyard, unsure if his request was granted and his journey eased... or his request denied and his banishment just that.

Such is the way of dragons.


Zai Kan first understood that something was different when he was taking his civil service exam, the one single test that would determine his future. Like a good son and a good student, he had studied for the majority of his academic career for this, and had remembered to give thanks to every ancestor and pray to all the benevolent spirits that might be listening to give him luck.

That day, though, it seemed that only evil spirits were listening, for he knew he had failed the exam. Question after question was on a topic of civil service that he had forgotten, even though he knew he studied everything there was. At first, he had hope that he would still secure a job as a clerk in a less central province; in the end, he knew that he would never be accepted into the government at all.

And in his disappointment — not at his parents, or the exam, of course, but at himself — he thought, if only I could do it again.

And in an instant, he was staring at the blank, unopened first page of the test booklet, with his ink brush neatly by his side, as the rows and rows of other students opened their booklets and started reading the test questions.

Zai Kan was a bright boy — he quickly realized that he still didn't know the answers to the questions in that booklet. And then he thought, if only I could go back—

And in an instant, he was kneeling in his family's ancestral temple, giving them thanks and asking them for blessing for tomorrow. He took twice as long as he had before, asking for guidance and praying for protection from the evil spirits that would distort men's perceptions, and then took himself back to redo the last week.

When the it became time to take the test again, he graduated second in his province, and was very quickly taken to the Forbidden City for training as an official. One of the best they had ever seen, his instructors commented, someone that was prepared for everything.

It was there that he fell in love with a beautiful maiden from the Li family, who was becoming a powerful woman in imperial politics. She was not an official, of course, but she didn't need to be. Word had spread — in whispers, always — that she was a force to be respected; she had removed in power, apparently, two officials who had been known to abuse their power, simply by whispering the right things in the right ears.

It was a perfect courtship.

They were married a year later, in a grand and excellent celebration that was held in the Forbidden City, in front of the Emperor himself. Everything was perfect, people said, and every detail accounted for — except, perhaps, a small storm in his home province, though it really only lasted only a few minutes.

If he could control the weather, people joked, Zai Kan would be able to do everything.

Dragons have long memories, and long lifespans. They are patient, and they are curious.


It was only in his elder years that people noticed that Kan was not always cheerful, goodhearted, and prepared for any eventuality. Perhaps it was the death of his loving wife, the one person who he had never, ever disappointed. Perhaps it was watching his eldest child disgrace his family by being caught with a terrible gambling habit, one that cost his family much money, but much more honor.

But only one voice heard Kan mutter to himself about the pointlessness of his achievements compared to others', who only had one chance; only one eye saw the time he had devoted to studying his personal past, every day, searching for every possibility he could improve and knowing, with despair, he had truly achieved his potential. Only one being heard his last thought, as he passed into the spirit world — if only I could go — back to the beginning of it all, and reject this.

And thus, Shen Long learned something about humanity, and he did not interfere again.

Such is the way of dragons.
talonkarrde: (Default)
 The first time someone asked me the question, it was an old man with a long white beard, his hand folded in his sleeves, and he was one of my grandfather's mahjong partners. He stopped me as I was on the way to the market and asked me, “小孩, 你觉着中国怎么样?” Little child, what do you think of China?

And I was ten, I think, and definitely not the most polite kid.

"Grandpa (because that's how the honorific for an elder translates), I think that China is very dirty and boring and I would rather be back in America right now, playing with my friends."

The old man looked at me for a second and then slowly shuffled away, and thinking back on it, I was kind of a dick.


The second time someone asked me the question, it was my grandpa directly, and I was fourteen; I had gained some wisdom into the world by that time and I knew my grandpa, a Chinese Communist Party hardliner, would not take well to me dissing his (and my) homeland. “晟然, 你喜欢中国吗?” Sean, do you like China?

And I tried to be fairly diplomatic and responded, "Well, Grandpa (my actual one, this time), although it is in some aspects not as advanced as America, it does have a unique culture that America could never hope to attain."

I think what I actually said was, "Well, you don't have a computer that can play Starcraft, but I've seen some pretty fun things, like the Terra Cotta Army, and those old towers, and stuff. Oh, and I love the food. Can we get 小笼包 now?" But really, it equates to about the same thing, and my grandpa was pleased enough and started rambling on about how America was a bully and China was good because it was only concerned about itself and I just sat there and nodded.


The third time someone asked me the question, it was the summer of 2006, and it was posed by my students during the communal dinners we had. I was teaching a 'total immersion' summer camp of students between the ages of twelve and twenty, which was a bit awkward because I myself was only eighteen. Thankfully, the older students seemed to like me, or enjoyed the fact that I wasn't as uptight, I suppose, as the other teachers they had.

Anyway, I had sort of been waiting for the question because we had been discussing America and lifestyles and music and whatnot, and finally it came:

"So, how do you like China?" It was from one of the younger children, demonstrating his proud grasp of about forty percent of his total vocabulary.

"Uh," I think I got out, before realizing all other conversation at the table had died and fourteen pairs of eyes and ears were focused on me, including the camp counselor's.

Diplomacy, I told myself, diplomacy.

"The one thing I really like about China is that it's changing to become modern while still maintaining the proud heritage that it's come from. It's really stepping up and flexing its weight as a powerhouse both economically and politically, but you can still visit temples and palaces that are thousands of years old. Beijing is this weird mishmosh of ancient structure and modern bureaucracy — a bit like Washington D.C., I suppose, except with a couple thousand more years of history behind it. And Shanghai — analogous to New York — is so modern that it doesn't really taste like China anymore, from what I know. A city closer to the center, like Zhengzhou, gives this mix of modern lifestyles and millennia old family culture."

...And then, looking around the table and nodding at my excellent speech, I realized that I lost them all somewhere around 'maintaining the proud heritage'.

So I tried to express most of what I said in Chinese, and it seemed to satisfy most of them, and that was that.


In retrospect, I think all of the opinions I've expressed are true, whether or not they're politically correct. The cities are still incredibly dirty and polluted where skies are rarely, if ever blue — but that's at least partially because of the population pressure, with more than four times as many people per square mile. It's certainly not as advanced as the United States, but it does have a hell of a longer history — and a most excellent cuisine. And it is modernizing amazingly fast, but still retaining much of its cultures and traditions, and the fusion that has resulted is really interesting.

Take my cousin's wedding last September for example, which was a fusion of a traditional Chinese wedding and a Western style church one. It is impossible to describe, and probably not as fluid as either one by itself would have been. But it was a lot of fun, and that's what's important. Every time I go back, I learn a bit more about this old civilization coming into a modern age, and each time I'm asked the question of how I feel about China, I think I can answer it a bit more fully. Eventually, I feel, I might actually understand it as well as my grandparents do.


talonkarrde: (Default)

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