Issue #81

Winter 2022

The Wise Emperor

by Zhu Yue

Translated from Chinese by Jianan Qian and Alyssa Asquith

The royal palace sits at the center of the world. When measured from the earth, it sits at the point where the two diagonals of an infinitely large square would meet; when measured from the sky, it sits at the center of an infinitely large circle. The Emperor's dragon seat is at the center of the palace. The baihui acupoint on top of His Majesty's head must connect with both the sky and the earth. The eunuchs must adjust the Emperor's position from time to time.

The Emperor sits in his dragon chair, head in position, eyes closed for a rest. Around him are four despicable eunuchs, whose eyes dart about swiftly. Every so often, they stop to wipe the sweat from their heads.

Eunuch Jia is tasked with waking the Emperor: or, more precisely, lifting his eyelids. His task is extremely difficult, and he must be patient and observant. If his timing is wrong, the Emperor will cry out "Sha." The royal guard will run in, drag the eunuch outside, and behead him. Jia's trick is to examine the Emperor's eyelashes. If they are too damp, His Majesty is likely yawning invisible yawns or dreaming of sad memories. In that moment, Jia cannot open His Majesty's eyes. If the eyelashes are too dry, however, the Emperor is likely attempting a yawn or slipping into a nostalgic dream. This timing is even worse. Not only must Jia keep his distance, but he must also signal the other eunuchs, so that they know to hold their breath. It is only when the moisture in His Majesty's eyelashes aligns with the moisture in the air that Jia can lift the Emperor's eyelids.

When Jia came to serve the Emperor, he brought with him two letters, both of which are to be read in the event of his death: one letter professes his loyalty to His Majesty, and the other letter instructs his nephew—who is away in another province—to come and serve in the palace.

Eunuch Yi adjusts the Emperor's head. After the Emperor opens his eyes—or, more precisely, after his eyelids have been opened—His Majesty likes to look all around, overexcited. Yi needs to be very careful when turning His Majesty's head: if he points His Majesty's head in the wrong direction, the Emperor will say "Sha." Secretly, Yi has written a manual, detailing the precise procedures for handling His Majesty's head. Although he has learnt the content by heart, Yi always checks with the manual before touching the Emperor. He turns His Majesty's head slowly, murmuring the following rules: when Imperial Concubine Zhao walks by, turn the Emperor's head 20.31 degrees towards the window; when Imperial Concubine Qian appears, turn it 13.75 degrees; 39 degrees sharp for Imperial Concubine Sun; 27 degrees for Imperial Concubine Li; when Imperial Concubine Zhou arrives, turn His Majesty's head towards the window until a click is heard; when the Empress passes by, turn His Majesty's head 50 degrees towards the wall…

Eunuch Bing arranges the Emperor's flowers. Every morning, Bing goes to the royal garden to collect the flowers, while they are still fresh with dew. He plants them on His Majesty's body. The Emperor is a lover of flowers. Sitting all year long in the dragon chair, His Majesty has a thick layer of dirt gathering on his skin. With rain and dew, the dirt turns into soft soil. Bing thrusts peonies onto His Majesty's head, dianthuses into his ears, rhododendrons into his nostrils, wild pansies into his mouth, touch-me-nots around his neck, roses onto his shoulders, Indian shots onto his chest, agave leaves onto his back, geraniums into his armpits, cactuses into his bellybutton, Persian cyclamens onto his knees, and winter Daphnes onto the backs of his feet. After Bing is finished, he will stand still, filled with admiration. After a while, he will exclaim, "Beautiful!" Except under very special circumstances, the Emperor wouldn't think of killing Bing. His Majesty likes hearing others praise him as "beautiful." Nevertheless, Bing's work is not easy. Every time he returns from the royal garden, he arrives with wounds all over his body and his clothes torn to pieces, as if he has just fought a beast. When the other eunuchs ask him what happened, he gives no reply. The royal garden seems to them both mysterious and perilous.

Eunuch Ding is the head of the eunuchs. As the royal interpreter, he can understand ventriloquism, a private skill practiced and inherited by the royal family. Every day, a swarm of visitors come to the palace to present themselves to His Majesty: the wicked officers who hide fresh tea leaves in their headwear, the Western spies whose red, glassy eyeballs dart around the room, the crafty businessmen who stammer and show mouths of emerald teeth, the robbers from the desert who kill for justice, the learned but naïve scholars who don't own a set of fine clothes, the half-drunk, half-conscious Taoist priests who travel through the clouds, one pregnant and still flirtatious actress… Ding must confirm their identities one by one. He carefully parts the cactus needles, then places his ear on the Emperor's bellybutton. He listens with full attention, thinks for a moment, then translates the Emperor's speech for the visitors, measuring every word. If he misinterprets the Emperor's words, even slightly, he will hear a "Sha" from behind him. Ding must also coordinate with Jia, Yi, and Bing, so that their activities reach a quiet harmony.

After many years, the eunuchs feel they have learnt all there is to know about the Emperor's body and soul. Over time, they grow less vigilant.But how can they fathom the great wisdom of the Emperor? On a rainy autumn night, the Emperor gives a new order, which Ding translates: each of them must tell a story: he who fails to tell a good story will be killed.

According to convention, Jia speaks first. He thinks for a while, then begins:

"Once there was a man who had the skill to move lightly, without leaving a trace. He could open any lock in the world. Every day, he snuck into somebody's home. He was neither a thief nor a detective. He would change the positions of small items—he hid them in a corner, under the bed, or in the depths of a drawer—but he never took anything. When he left, he always locked the door. Later, when the homeowner found his possessions missing, he would hit his forehead and say, 'I've met realer ghosts.' The traceless man had no fingerprints and never dreamt. He visited the homes so that he could feel what it was like to dream."

Jia finishes the story: he waits and looks at the Emperor, legs trembling. "Sha," the Emperor cries. The royal guards storm in and drag him out. Yi pretends to be confident. He kneels down and bows. "Long live Your Majesty," he says. "A Dream in Red Mansions is a book without an ending. Your humble servant has been studying it, and has come up with two endings for your entertainment. Here is the first:

"When Jia Baoyu first heard about Daiyu's death, he broke out crying. Suddenly, he felt someone nudging him. He jerked awake and saw Xiren by his bed side. He rubbed his eyes and saw 'Chinese Flowering Crabapple in Spring,' a scroll of a painting, on the wall. He realized that he was still in Qin Keqin's bedroom. He had fallen into a dream in his dream.

"Now, for the second ending: After Jia Baoyu had attained self-realization, he retired to a Buddhist temple and became a monk. One day, when he was reciting the scripture, he heard that Daiyu was still alive, and that she had been hidden away by someone in his family."

Yi worries that the Emperor may not have read the book, and will not understood the depth of his endings. He wants to explain further, but as soon as he opens his mouth, he hears "Sha-Sha."

After Yi is bundled out, Bing cracks a smile. He dances around the Emperor, repeating "Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful!" His Majesty seems nonchalant. Bing dances for such a long time that it seems a joss incense could have been lit and burned all the way out. Finally, Bing calms down and begins his story:

"There was once a philosopher who believed that a man would return to his place of departure if he walked for long enough in a straight line. The philosopher decided to prove his theory. On a rainy autumn night, he saw a large, black stele. As he began to walk towards it, he saw an old man coming towards the stele, from the opposite direction. The old man collapsed shortly before reaching it, but he kept waving his arms at the philosopher, as if he wanted to say something, until he lost consciousness. The philosopher had no time for the old man. He marked the stele as his starting point, turned around, and set out on his journey. He walked straight ahead, his steps neither heavy nor light. To keep his route straight, he underwent great danger and hardship. He climbed over mountains and swum across seas. On the way, he marveled at wonderful sights. Years passed, and the philosopher came to another rainy autumn night. He eventually caught sight of the large stele where he had begun his trip. By now, he was ancient, and wouldn't live long. He saw a middle-aged man coming towards the stele. This, he realized, was his younger self. He was so excited that he collapsed, waving his arms with all his strength. But his efforts were futile."

"Sha-sha-sha," the Emperor says, with indifference. Bing walks to the execution ground with the pride and regrets of a victor.

Ding shakes his head and speaks, his tone very calm. "Once, there was an emperor with unparalleled wisdom. He had four eunuchs. On a rainy autumn night, he asked each of the four to tell him a good story. Whoever failed, he said, would be killed. The first three were dragged away by the royal guards. Then it was the fourth eunuch's turn. He was very loyal to the Emperor. He began, ‘Once there was an emperor with unparalleled wisdom…'"

"Sha-sha-sha! Shashashashashasha!" The Emperor interrupts Ding angrily, all the flowers on his body shaking, the rhododendrons spurting out from his nostrils. "I am not finished," Ding cries. "Your Majesty! Your Majesty!" But his voice gradually fades away, until it disappears altogether.

Now the royal palace is empty. The Emperor sits in his dragon chair. Tired, he closes his eyelids. He knows that no one will return to lift them. The wise Emperor yawns invisible yawns, dreams unfathomable dreams, and never wakes again.

Author Bio

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Zhu Yue, viewed by many as Borges in China, has published three collections: The Blindfolded Traveler, Masters of Sleep, and Chaos of Fiction. In English translation, his works appear in The Washington Square Review, The Portland Review, The Margins, Litro Magazine, among others.

Jianan Qian and Alyssa Asquith are both recent graduates of Iowa Writers' Workshop with an MFA degree in fiction. Jianan is a staff writer at The Millions, and her works have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, Guernica, among others. Alyssa is originally from Massachusetts. Now she works and lives in Iowa City. Alyssa’s stories have appeared in Hobart, X-R-A-Y, The Atticus Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere.