A Brief History of Time

He didn’t know how much time had passed, but when he awoke he found he had no arms or legs. He couldn’t lift anything, couldn’t stretch anything, and then he began to feel pain. He opened his eyes and realized with a shock that something rough was pressed up close to his face. . . . Did I drink up an earthquake? he wondered.

He didn’t know how much time had passed, but when he awoke he found he had no arms or legs.

From Flickr via 发课 吴.

The following story appeared in Issue 8 of Chutzpah! 天南. Translated by Eric Abrahamsen.

My friend Qingzhou went to Sichuan on a business trip, and on May 12, 2008, he was buried under a small four-story building. Before he realized he was in an earthquake, he assumed the building was swaying because he’d drunk too much. He’d downed nearly a litre at noon, but it was worth it—he’d closed the deal. He felt himself collapsing drunkenly, his body listing to one side, all his movements in slow motion. It wasn’t the way the news described it later, the whole world transformed—bang!—in an instant. His last thoughts before he blacked out were: This is some booze. When it puts you down, the whole world comes rattling down with you. I’ve never had anything like it. Over a decade working in sales he must have drunk a thousand kinds of alcohol: baijiu, red wine, yellow wine, black rice wine, green fruit liquors, domestic-made, imported, name-brand, hand-crafted, and bathtub-brewed. He’d been drunk so often he had early-stage liver disease and a duodenal ulcer, and had experienced light stomach bleeding nearly a dozen times, heavy bleeding four times—they’d had to remove a third of his stomach. Yet none of that could compare to what he’d drunk today. It was an odd brand, he didn’t know where the client had gotten it. It was good stuff, mellow in the mouth but with plenty of kick, and what a sense of accomplishment it produced: when you went down, the world went down with you. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but when he awoke he found he had no arms or legs. He couldn’t lift anything, couldn’t stretch anything, and then he began to feel pain. He opened his eyes and realized with a shock that something rough was pressed up close to his face. If his eyelashes were any longer they would have brushed against it. It was covering him from his head to down below his stomach. He couldn’t see it, only feel it—when he inhaled, his belly, whose size testified to his prosperity over the past few years, pressed against something flat and solid. Qingzhou was in pain. He smelled dust and concrete and the world was still rattling, the sounds muted as though they were passing through mountains of stone. Did I drink up an earthquake? he wondered. According to video materials from the rescue operation, and to Qingzhou’s own memories, he had been trapped under a section of flooring. He owed a lot to that rough chunk of flooring: the whole building had collapsed like kindling, and they only saved five from the wreckage. When the flooring fell, it landed propped up on bricks to either side of him, leaving him a little breathing space, and saving his life. —Were you afraid? —I was. —Of what? Qingzhou emerged from the hospital three months later, enclosed in plaster and splints. Eventually he regained his old toughness and started answering his friends’ questions. His face was blank and his eyes distant as he described his brush with death. Only someone who’d died and come back again could reach that place. —What was I frightened of? Sure, I’ll tell you everything. There’s no reason to keep silent. At first I was frightened of the earthquake itself. No one told me there’d be an earthquake. I was only five when the big Tangshan earthquake happened; all a five-year-old cares about is his dinner. I knew an earthquake was a terrible thing, but I didn’t really know what one was like. Now I was in one, and I had no chance to react, I wasn’t even sober. Of course I was afraid. After that it was fear of pain, and death. The pain alone was enough to kill you. Look at my hands and feet. There’s nothing to see, of course. They were so pulverized that you could have rolled what was left into dumplings. I was afraid of death—scared to death of death. Since then I’ve thought, if I’m going to die let me die in an instant, with a whump. Don’t tell me first, don’t make me wait around. Under that piece of flooring I felt at first like I was just waiting for death, and I was afraid. Later, though, I stopped being afraid. The world went quiet, like everything would be taken care of. It was all up to fate whether I’d live or die. If it had been you, you’d have accepted it too. I was afraid of other things: solitude, loneliness, and time—endless time. Before then, I’d never realized how long a minute, or an hour, or a day could be. As long as a lifetime. I was in a hole, in the dark, and though I could strain my eyes until they popped all I’d see was that dim, rough flooring, nothing but concrete. I was far away from everyone, a world apart from them all, so distant I seemed to be the only person in the whole universe. You remember what that Russian cosmonaut said when he landed on the moon? He called it “bone-deep loneliness.” That’s a good phrase. All your bones frozen in complete loneliness. I thought: Just let me die. I hoped the flooring wouldn’t hold up, that it would come down neat and clean, and put an end to time and darkness. To me, death would have been a deliverance from that world of darkness. —You didn’t die. —I didn’t die. Well, I basically died. —Can you tell us about it? —Of course. Like I said, so long as you survive, then pain, death, loneliness, and time are no longer frightening—of course you can talk about it. I’m saying later on I got hungry and thirsty, mostly thirsty; later the hunger sort of went away. After drinking all that alcohol, water was taking its revenge on me. There was no water to drink and I had no way of drinking my piss, and after a day . . . maybe less than a day, my only sense of time was of its length, unending and unchanging, nothing else; day and night no longer existed for me. I’d lost a lot of blood through my hands and feet, and I was utterly exhausted. I slept and woke, woke and slept, my body stiff as if it were rusted in place. In my dreams I felt like I would catch fire, like my whole body was smoking: the corners of my eyes, my lips, throat, guts, and hair, even my soul. Do you believe in the soul? —No. —I do. I saw it with my own eyes, shriveling from thirst, smoking from thirst. The soul itself is like smoke, and half-awake I saw it streaming out from my smoldering hair, coalescing into a second self within the narrow space under the flooring. I watched that self slowly seep out from under the concrete, and re-form once again outside the wreckage. I saw him leave the ruins and the earthquake behind, and head for the train station. —What was he doing? —Retracing my steps. He was going back by the road I’d come on. To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about. —When your soul leaves your body, that means death. When I thought I was going to die I relaxed all at once, as if I’d been released, and I lay as languidly as if I were floating on summer waves. Haven’t you heard that when a person dies their soul retraces the entire course of their life? I hadn’t heard it before, either. I’ll tell you about it. That day, the soul of my friend Qingzhou passed through the ruins. It knew the way through the ruins. The soul of thirty-seven-year-old Huang Qingzhou arrived at the train station, meaning to take the train back to Beijing. When Qingzhou went on these business trips he always set out from Beijing, flying like a bullet to destinations around the country. The way his job worked, if he wasn’t asleep in bed then he was on a train or a plane, or else he was at the negotiating table or the dinner table—more often the latter, as we Chinese prefer to do our negotiating over drinks. As Huang Qingzhou’s soul rode the train, the buildings, trees, fields, wilds, and the distant horizon all rushed continually backwards. The trip was so long that Huang Qingzhou was thirty-five by the time he arrived in Beijing. Little worth mentioning had taken place during those two years, apart from work and travel. But his thirty-fifth year deserved a visit because that was the year he’d gone bankrupt. In 2006, as the wallets of many individual shareholders were swelling, Huang Qingzhou lost his shirt. He himself wasn’t sure how it had happened, but several years of savings went up in smoke, just like his soul, and when the wind began to blow that smoke vanished in wisps, never to coalesce again. Huang Qingzhou’s soul took the subway back to his house in 2006. His wife had had it all figured out and abandoned him the instant disaster loomed. The divorce papers lay on the pale-green glass tea table in the living room. Huang Qingzhou signed them. His wife was eight years his junior and luckily they hadn’t had children yet. He sat on the sofa they’d recently bought—this was before they’d divided the property, and he hadn’t known whether it would go to her or him. They’d been happy on the way to buy furniture at Lanjinglijia, an honest-to-goodness pair of newlyweds. Huang Qingzhou’s soul smoked a cigarette on the sofa, then left. Unless he was mistaken, he’d bought that pack of cigarettes at the 7-Eleven outside the gate to their compound. He walked out to the road and found it nearly deserted. The few people he met were wearing face masks, hurrying along and avoiding each other as though they were afraid of being robbed. The bus was entirely empty except for the driver and conductor. He slapped his forehead—this was 2003, the year of SARS. He looked down at his belly. In 2003 they’d stayed in their apartment for three months without going out, and besides eating he’d done nothing but watch movies and play games, as a result of which he’d gained several pounds. He’d found every movie with Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Steven Chow in it and watched them all; he’d also mastered Three Kingdoms and Empire in the shortest time possible. Huang Qingzhou began to run towards his office, fast enough to outrun SARS. In the lobby of the office building, as he was entering the elevator, he collided with the vice president of his company, spattering his coffee on the man’s coffee-colored suit. The vice president’s beetle brows drew together. —Robbing a bank, are we? —I’m sorry, I’m late for an interview at Baolonghua, I’m very sorry. He’d seen Baolonghua’s job advertisement in the paper. To a twenty-seven-year-old man who had only just thought to seek his fortune in Beijing, the positions and salaries advertised looked pretty good. He’d worked at a different company previously, pulling in clients. Never mind the exhaustion, it paid almost nothing, and what had he come to Beijing for if not to make money? In the interview, he sat across the table from the vice president, whose coffee-colored suit gave off a strong coffee odor. Despite his limited experience, he guessed from the smell that the coffee came from Starbucks. The vice president hired him. Before handing him the contract that detailed his healthy compensation, the vice president asked him a question on behalf of the president: —In your two years in Beijing, what experiences have you had that are worth relating? Huang Qingzhou thought for a bit, and answered: —I had a job I didn’t like, and it was running me ragged. People were always scowling at me, and I felt like a sucker for being so enthusiastic. I took part in the anti-US protests after the bombing of the embassy in Belgrade, but before I’d gone two blocks I met someone from my hometown who’d just arrived in Beijing. He was nearly faint from hunger and I thought saving him was the more pressing task, so I treated him to donkey-meat sandwiches. You can’t let a comrade starve to death, right? Also, once, I went back to my hometown—it was flooding there, and water was everywhere. It was the worst flood in a century, and I nearly drowned working on the dikes. When he’d finished the vice-president laughed and said, alright, welcome aboard. In fact he could have said much more. Now Huang Qingzhou’s soul was returning the way it had come. As he passed a bank on Zhongguancun Street he glanced inside. A group of familiar-looking people were lined up at the counter. He went in to withdraw some money. It was early 1998; he’d just come from a small town and didn’t know how to use his bank card yet and instead went to the counter with his bank book each time. There was hardly anything in the account. He got in line behind a young woman, and the two began chatting out of boredom. The line was long, and frustratingly slow. —What are you here to do? he asked. —Make a deposit. —How much? —A thousand. I just got a bonus. —What a coincidence, I was going to withdraw a thousand. Look, you’re going to deposit, I’m going to withdraw—why don’t you just give the money to me. We can cut out the middleman and skip this line. The woman blinked at him, then actually handed over the money. He took it, thanked her, then headed out the door and started running. He had to admit that the joke had been a half-hopeful con to begin with . . . but he’d succeeded! She hadn’t yet learned to think on her feet. He needed that 1000 yuan: he only had 800 left in his own account. He ran straight from the bank back to his flophouse, where the three-story, 110-square-meter building was crammed with a total of forty-two beds. He’d rented one of them five days ago. It was near the door, which was usually left ajar, and he liked being able to get a little fresh air. Inside the building, the reek of socks, flatulence, bad breath, and long-unwashed bodies was so dense you could set it alight with a match. When he’d asked around the area about this building he’d been advised not to rent there—they’d said that with that many people packed together like swine, the stink could kill you. He’d rented anyway; it was cheap. The soul of my friend Qingzhou emerged from the flophouse into the night, and went into a pedestrian tunnel. He’d spent his very first night in Beijing in this tunnel. He put his bag down and sat on the ground, then curled up against the ice cold wall and was just drifting off when a city management officer ran up shouting. Huang Qingzhou knew nothing good would come of this, and he snatched up his bag and fled, the officer in pursuit. After twenty meters the officer gave up the chase, but Qingzhou kept running, for five kilometers at least. He tasted the pleasure of running as his body warmed. On the very first day of his life in Beijing, Huang Qingzhou felt the pleasure of warmth. Before he knew it, he had run straight out of Beijing. In a little southern town, a thousand kilometers away, he was a bespectacled middle-school teacher. He’d had a few failed love affairs and been involved in a few failed business deals. You can’t help being unlucky in love: no one wants their heart broken, but who can avoid it? But his business failures, as Qingzhou had seen it back then, were purely due to the dastardliness of his students’ parents. Why, while the students were still in his class, were his business deals with their parents so profitable, while the moment the students graduated or transferred, he began to lose money? He promised himself then that if he ever had children and entered into a business relationship with their teachers, he would do what was right and proper, and not inflict losses on the teachers just because his children had moved on. He would never burn his bridges. Huang Qingzhou’s soul entered the run-down moon gate of the middle school’s employee residential area, and saw himself sitting idly in his fifteen-square-meter dormitory. A thick journal lay before him, and on it a Hero-brand fountain pen that had drunk its fill of Hero-brand ink. His unexceptional life as a teacher left him with nothing much to write about. —You don’t believe I kept a journal? Qingzhou said as I helped him lift his plaster-wrapped arm. —it was a kind of exercise. I kept a journal before I came to Beijing. Good habit, you say? I was forced. My parents forced me to keep it, starting when I was a child; after a while I got used to it and it bothered me not to keep it. My parents were hoping I would become a great writer, if not a Dostoevsky then at least a Gorky. I stopped after I got to Beijing. Twenty million people all heaped together like ants—what was so special about me, that I needed to keep a journal? I was up to my eyebrows in work, talking my jaw off with clients, why would I go home and continue talking to my journal? But the stuff I wrote while I was still teaching is pretty interesting, I’ll show it to you some day. Where was I? Right, my soul. He went into the school campus and looked at the journal I’d opened. He went back through it, step by step, until he knew everything . . . 1997: In accordance with the directives of the Department of Education and my school, I took my students to watch the entire live broadcast of the return of Hong Kong to the Motherland. A student who’d never seen one of the nation’s leaders pointed at the TV and said: “Who’s that fat guy in the black-framed glasses?” 1995: Thank god I was finally transferred from my township middle school to the county number-two middle school. I wasn’t vain about the township-to-county promotion, but there was a river in front of the county-level school, and after class I could go swimming. I had a girlfriend who was also a teacher. She taught English and, though her pronunciation was even worse than mine, I decided to be with her for a while. What else did I have to do out there? I played basketball on the school courts every evening—all the younger teachers did, we had energy to spare. Once we were too tired to run any more and we’d had a rest, our loins were practically on fire. Let’s find something else to do, we said. So I did. I agreed to be her boyfriend. Though I was wriggling with excitement down there, I managed to control myself, and after making out we’d always go back to sleep in our own dormitories. But then one day she said she was pregnant, and wanted me to marry her. What the hell? Where was this coming from? I hadn’t even used all of my equipment yet. Believe me, I was in a bad state. There wasn’t any point in keeping myself pure, so I visited a “henhouse” on a little alleyway at the edge of town. I gave the lady 20 yuan, and she showed me what a woman really was. —Underneath that piece of flooring, said Qingzhou, before my soul made it out of my body, the faces of both that woman and my English-teacher girlfriend flashed through my mind. I’m not saying I was a saint, Pingyang, but at the time I truly wished I’d married her all those years ago. At least I would have saved her some grief. Later she married a man who beat her when he was happy and beat her when he was angry, all because of “that brat she’d squeezed out.” And if I could meet that lady from the henhouse again, I’d give her some extra money so she could go home and take care of herself—though, given her age, I doubt she walks this earth anymore. 1992: I graduated from the Chinese department of the teacher’s school, but then ended up teaching politics at the township middle school—they were short on politics teachers. My grandmother passed away on the same day I returned home with all my belongings. (Huang Qingzhou’s soul heard the earth-shattering wails from the mouth of his alley, and saw the neighbors milling around the door of his house. Qian Dongfang’s mother saw him standing there woodenly and snapped at him: “Hurry home now, your grandmother’s dead!”) 1989: Before the college entrance exams he played hookey and rode the train to Beijing for free with the older boy next door. It was the first time he’d ever seen a big city. In Beijing everyone thought the two of them were college students, and they were given free food and drink everywhere they went. One evening, sitting on the square with the neighbor boy, he was so exhausted he fell asleep, only to be awakened by a roar like thunder and lightning. Before he had even opened his eyes, the neighbor boy was dragging him up and pushing him along a broad street. He seemed to be in a dream, or thrust into the midst of a war film. They ran, breathless, with the thunder still sounding in their ears. When they reached an intersection he said to the other boy, This place is terrible. Going home there were no free trains, and they had to hitch rides from one place to another—it took them a full week to get back. 1986: He entered a county-level middle school. Only five people in the township were admitted (three others who had better grades went to a technical school). Wearing leather shoes, a gift from an uncle (they were of very poor quality), he began to play basketball, heard tell of chocolate (though it was 1991 before he actually got to taste it, and then he didn’t like the bitter flavor), and of coffee (the first Sunday after he arrived at college he finally had the chance to visit the only cafe in the whole city and buy his first cup). Taking a cue from the oldest student in the dorms, he began a long career of masturbation. Huang Qingzhou’s soul sped up, traveling back against the flow of time. He saw old Qiu the trash collector sitting on a bit of newspaper on the bridge outside the gate of the township middle school, where he liked to exchange a few words with everyone who went by. He saw Teacher Dong, the director of his year, lingering outside the classroom: during study hall the teacher would sneak over to the door and windows of the classrooms and watch what the students were doing. Huang Qingzhou’s soul walked along the dirt track that led back to his village from the school and saw the young Qingzhou trying to borrow a copy of A Girl’s Heart from a third-grader in his village, and failing. All he’d gotten was a copy of a martial-arts novel called The Golden Palm and the Day-and-Night Sword, by whom he couldn’t remember. At the entrance to the village, Huang Qingzhou’s soul happened upon the tofu-maker out for a stroll with his hands behind his back. As he passed the village elementary school, Huang Qingzhou saw himself as a fourth-grade elementary student, in class reciting Huang Xiguang for his English teacher. He hadn’t been asked to recite, the teacher had only wanted a volunteer to summarize the story, but no one had raised a hand to volunteer and the teacher, who played both flute and erhu, flew into a pique and demanded that all the students recite the text from memory the next day. As a member of the study committee, Qingzhou was naturally obliged to recite first. In another class, he was whipped by the science teacher. The whip, made of indigo-bush switches, broke on his back, and he felt as though a swarm of bees were flying out through his eyes. Past the elementary school was the threshing field. In 1980, following directives from the very top, the local military leaders had announced the end of collectivism and the beginning of a new age of “going it alone.” They drew lots to share out the communally owned property, and his father told Qingzhou to draw for their family, saying that a child’s luck would be good. Huang Qingzhou watched himself squeezing in among the legs of the adults and plucking a paper strip, on which was written: One haycutter. Continuing on. An enormous slogan is painted in red on the wall of the army headquarters: Long Live Chairman Mao! Five-year-old Qingzhou squats on the ground, eyes open wide, and listens to an adult say that, a thousand kilometers away, Tangshan had been struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, the whole city reduced to ruins in twenty-three seconds. How many thousands of their class brethren, gone! After delivering the news, the speaker breaks down in tears, and those listening weep as well. Qingzhou thinks he should be crying too, so he twists up his face, and does. The soul of my friend Huang Qingzhou now walks with a lurching, unsteady gait, his steps smaller and smaller, his body increasingly awkward. He appears ever smaller and weaker, and finally can’t walk at all—he has become an infant. He begins crawling on the ground, bawling and naked, and the farther he crawls the softer his skin becomes, the more tender his body grows. He sees a warm, damp cave ahead of him, beckoning to him like the Bermuda Triangle, and before he can even consider avoiding it, he’s gone in with a plunk. Though incapable of thought, he knows it is his mother’s womb, warm and welcoming—the same adjectives used each year by the hosts of the Spring Festival Gala TV program. It’s a warm and welcoming world! Then he hears torturous panting, witnesses a battle of the flesh, full of revolutionary spirit and critical will, empty of physical desire. The man who will become his father has just left the stage where he was struggled against, his face bruised and swollen from stones, bricks and slaps. The woman who will become his mother has just removed a broken pair of shoes, their laces tied together, from around her neck and placed them carefully in a basket behind the door, so she can find them when she needs them. No one has new shoes, and even old ones are hard to come by. Tomorrow, between five o’clock and dinnertime, she must hang them around her neck and parade through the village from east to west, three circuits in all, to give the revolutionary masses an appetite for their dinner. As the two bodies thrash haphazardly, Huang Qingzhou hears the clamor of the world, sees a great illumination. The illumination of darkness. And then he, my friend Qingzhou, hears a distant voice saying: —Quick, cover his eyes! He’s still alive!

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