Miscellaneous

The Peasant Emperor and the Retired Official

Liao Yiwu

In 1985, a peasant named Zeng Yinglong declared his hometown in Sichuan Province an independent kingdom and proclaimed himself emperor. As a result, Zeng was charged with multiple counterrevolutionary crimes, including leading subversive activities against the local government. He was sentenced to death, but in consideration of his lack of education the court commuted his penalty to life imprisonment, and Zeng was assigned to a maximum-security prison in the northeastern part of Sichuan Province. Despite his rebellious spirit, he abided by the prison rules. He was an optimist by nature; the prison guards and his fellow inmates liked him and humored his wish to be addressed as an emperor.

I interviewed Zeng in 1998, a week after the Chinese New Year. This “son of heaven,” as we Chinese used to refer to our real emperors, was forty-eight years old at the time. He was going bald, but his narrow eyes still shone with authority and vigor. He wore an old pair of army boots and a short blue jacket over his blue prison uniform. After rolling up his sleeves, he talked virtually nonstop for two hours, issuing one “edict” after another.

 

LIAO YIWU

 

Are you the well-known emperor that people talk about in this jail?

 

ZENG YINGLONG

 

You should address me as “Your Majesty.”

 

LIAO

 

OK, Your Majesty. When did you assume your role as emperor?

 

ZENG

 

Your Majesty didn’t want to be emperor. It was his ten thousand subjects who crowned him. Let me tell you how it all got started. About ten years ago, a giant salamander climbed out of the river and hid inside a huge rock in the middle of the Wu River. This mysterious salamander could talk like a human being. Each night when the moon was out, the villagers heard it singing a ballad. The ballad went like this: “The fake dragon sinks, and the real dragon surfaces. On the south side of the river, peace and happiness reign.” Later on, the story of the singing salamander spread across the region. Even small children learned the ballad. A local feng shui master named Ma Xing became curious and decided to trace its source.

Ma led a group of villagers to the bank of the Wu River one day, and sure enough, when evening fell, the lizard started to sing. Ma and the other villagers jumped on a boat and followed the sound to the rock, where they saw the salamander. It wasn’t afraid at all but simply wagged its tail, as if showing off for the crowd. Ma picked up a wooden stick and prodded its mouth open. Guess what he pulled out? A three-inch-long yellow silk ribbon. The ballad was written on the ribbon. Ma looked up and saw the full moon high in the sky. With his face toward heaven and his eyes closed, he began chanting like a monk. Holding the yellow ribbon above his head, he knelt on the ground and kowtowed three times. After he stood up, he turned to his fellow villagers and said that he had just communicated with the spirit in heaven and had officially accepted divine instructions from above.

At that time, Your Majesty didn’t know anything about that legendary singing salamander. Your Majesty was on the run from the law. The local officials had implemented the one-child policy, and they severely punished anyone who tried to disobey. They would go around the village with doctors, and if a woman was found to be pregnant with her second child, she would be forced to pay a heavy fine and sent to an abortion clinic. Your Majesty had two daughters but very much wanted to have a son to carry on the family name. To escape punishment, Your Majesty joined other villagers and secretly moved with his pregnant wife to another province. Your Majesty ended up in the northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang, where he worked at a construction site. With God’s blessing, Your Majesty did have a son, who was named Yan-ze, meaning “continued benevolence.”

 

LIAO

 

What does your son have to do with the singing lizard?

 

ZENG

 

Well, if you remember the ballad, it says “Zhen-sheng-long,” or “real dragon surfaces.” This sounds like my name, Zeng Yinglong. Moreover, the ballad says that south of the river, happiness and peace reign. I was living in Henan Province, which means “south of the river.”

A couple of days after his encounter with the salamander, Ma gathered together a group of peasants. They walked hundreds of kilometers to Henan to meet with Your Majesty and beg him to come home and be their master. Ma and his followers presented Your Majesty with a dragon robe, and they knelt down and chanted, Ten thousand years to the emperor. Your Majesty couldn’t turn his back on the will of his subjects and he certainly couldn’t disobey the will of heaven. So Your Majesty returned to his hometown as the people’s emperor, established a new dynasty, and selected 1985 as year one of his reign.

 

LIAO

 

What was the name of your dynasty?

 

ZENG

 

It was called Dayou, which means “we share everything.” After Your Majesty was crowned, he promulgated the first imperial edict: we farm the land together, share wealth, and can bear as many children as we wish. The edict was greeted with great excitement by my subjects.

 

LIAO

 

How large was Your Majesty’s kingdom?

 

ZENG

 

Your Majesty only ruled three counties near the borders of Hunan, Guizhou, and Sichuan provinces. Niu Daquan, my chief of staff, organized a special committee soon after the dynasty was founded, with the task of measuring every inch of my kingdom for the drafting of a map. We then delivered the map to the capital, Beijing.

 

LIAO

 

Allow me to be frank with you. According to the court document, you reenacted an ancient story mentioned in Records of the Grand Historian, written by the famous historian Sima Qian. In that tale, Chen Sheng, a peasant rebel in the Qin Dynasty, tried to rally public support against the Qin emperor and justify his claim to the throne by inserting a yellow ribbon inside a fish. The cooks “accidentally” discovered the fish and the ribbon, which said “King Chen Sheng.” Believing it was a message from God, many people joined Chen’s uprising, which eventually led to the downfall of the Qin Dynasty. It’s hard to believe that after two thousand years, the ancient trick still worked. Did the local villagers really believe the yellow ribbon was a manifestation from God?

 

ZENG

 

Shut up. It’s awfully rude of you to talk to Your Majesty this way. Your Majesty knows that you are a journalist in disguise and have been sent from the hostile kingdom of China. You have attempted to conspire with prison authorities to lure me into giving you incriminating evidence. Your Majesty refutes all your slanderous remarks.

 

LIAO

 

I’m not a journalist, I’m just an ordinary researcher and writer. If Your Majesty doesn’t want to talk with me, I don’t think the opportunity to tell your story to people outside this jail will present itself again. Based on my observations, you are a pretty smart guy, well versed in Chinese history. You went a little too far with your ambitions, but that’s understandable. You don’t want to be a laughingstock for future generations, do you?

 

ZENG

 

Throughout history it has been common for emperors to face defeat. What’s there to laugh about? Can you promise to record faithfully what Your Majesty tells you?

 

LIAO

 

I solemnly promise, Your Majesty.

 

ZENG

 

Let’s say the singing salamander was taken from an ancient Chinese story. But the rest is true. My subjects were old-fashioned people living in a remote mountainous region, bound by thousands of years of ancestral tradition. The concept of big families with many male descendents was deeply rooted in their minds, and China’s one-child policy had triggered regional protests. Married women had run off to the mountains to hide in caves and live like barbarians. They’d rather eat wild vegetables and drink stream water than endure forced abortions and sterilization. Ma, whom I named my prime minister, urged all Your Majesty’s staff to visit people at home and propagate the belief that giving birth to children is an inalienable right bestowed upon us by our ancestors. Raising children can be hard, but people in this kingdom are used to poverty and hard life. It won’t make too much of a difference whether you raise one kid or eight. Every additional child gives one more glimpse of hope to our kingdom. We will fight to the end anyone who wants to crush our hopes.

By rallying support among the masses for more than six months, Your Majesty laid a firm foundation for the Dayou kingdom. He issued a series of imperial edicts urging all of his subjects to have big families. Your Majesty also promised to give the title Royal Mother to any woman who gave birth to more than ten children.

 

LIAO

 

Was that all it took to attract followers?

 

ZENG

 

There’s something else. During this time, a prestigious villager passed away. He had lived past one hundred. In my region, if a person lives to an advanced age, he is treated with great respect. When he dies, the funeral is a big deal. People travel from afar to attend in the hope that some of the deceased’s luck might rub off on them. Prime Minister Ma realized that this villager’s funeral would be an ideal occasion on which to celebrate the birth of the Dayou kingdom. He spent a lot of time and energy preparing for the ceremony, climbing hills and crossing rivers to find an auspicious site for the grave. Then we had a wake with an open coffin for a week so every mourner around the region could have a chance to pay tribute. Monks from a nearby temple chanted sutras day and night.

Under Prime Minister Ma’s direction, the funeral procession, with the participation of several thousand mourners, started around midnight. A local brass band led the way. More than a hundred of Your Majesty’s supporters joined the procession, which snaked along the mountain path and looked spectacular. As the line of mourners proceeded up the narrow path around the mountain, their glittering torches mixing with the stars, Ma turned to me and said, Your Majesty, look at this grand spectacle. God is on our side.

The lead mourner, who was hired to howl and chant, had a truly resonant voice. He would howl a line, and the crowd would respond with another. The echo of howling and chanting was so loud that the mountain seemed to be vibrating: “Go, go, do not tarry; heaven’s gate awaits the morn. You rest awhile and arise reborn. To beget a male child, and marry.”

 

LIAO

 

Interesting. The chanting about reincarnation even rhymed.

 

ZENG

 

The true reincarnation had not even manifested itself yet. Finally we arrived at the burial site. Niu, my chief of staff, gathered ten of the royal guards from my kingdom. Together, they began to perform a dance to the rising sun. As the beat of the drums quickened, the people couldn’t resist and joined in the dancing. Prime Minister Ma suddenly stripped off his shirt and started waving the Dayou kingdom dragon flag. He stomped his feet and shook his head in ecstasy. He then took a handful of peas from his pocket and scattered them into the sky, chanting, Change, we need change. Dark clouds, accompanied by loud thunder and lightning, rose from behind the hill. Heavy rain poured down, as if God had dispatched thousands of soldiers to earth.

 

LIAO

 

You guys reenacted an episode from another ancient Chinese fable. In this story, a general cornered by the enemy seeks help from God, who instructs him to scatter thousands of peas into the air. The sky turns dark, and amid a heavy thunderstorm the peas turn into soldiers. According to court papers, you reenacted this fable to bilk the uneducated people in your region. Your friend Ma had checked the weather forecast beforehand and timed the burial ceremony to coincide with the arrival of a thunderstorm.

 

ZENG

 

Don’t interrupt. Please allow Your Majesty to continue. The crowd was stunned by the downpour and dashed for cover. Many knelt in front of Prime Minister Ma, asking him to take back his magic spell. Your Majesty granted their plea. Half an hour later, the sky cleared up. After the mourners completed the funeral ceremony, they followed Your Majesty down the mountain and joined the Dayou royal army. The story of Ma’s magic power spread fast, and within two weeks Your Majesty had recruited over ten thousand subjects.

 

LIAO

 

You’re such a liar. Again, the court papers say that fewer than two thousand people joined your army.

 

ZENG

 

Your Majesty doesn’t lie or joke with you. Following the funeral ceremony, Your Majesty led his troops to take over the county hospital. We stormed the building, kicked out the hospital administrator, and threw out all the contraceptives. We piled them up outside the building and set them on fire. Thousands of people cheered us on. Your Majesty then converted the hospital building into his palace. With this accomplished, the prime minister and the other officials donned traditional official garb that they had made, gathered inside the royal palace, and bowed collectively to Your Majesty to show their gratitude.

 

LIAO

 

I heard that Your Majesty took more than forty concubines, and housed them in your various “royal chambers.”

 

ZENG

 

That was Prime Minister Ma’s fault. Initially, Your Majesty declined the offer, saying that the kingdom was still in its infancy and hard work lay ahead. How could he enjoy the company of concubines when he had not yet accomplished anything for the kingdom? But Ma and Niu wouldn’t give up, and begged Your Majesty to reconsider. They argued that throughout history, in every dynasty, the emperor owned concubines. If traditions were not followed, the rule of law would fail, and Your Majesty would lose credibility. They said, We appreciate your determination to serve your subjects first and not indulge in sexual pleasures, but you must follow the royal tradition.

 

LIAO

 

Where did Your Majesty acquire the concubines?

 

ZENG

 

Every one of the nurses who used to work at the county hospital was selected. Several of my cabinet members recommended their daughters. Your Majesty, however, was busy handling the day-to-day court business. He barely had time to shower love over the queen, who had spent half of her life with Your Majesty, let alone all those concubines. 

 

LIAO

 

Now I understand why you chose the county hospital as your palace. First, lots of women worked there. Second, the mobs of your Dayou kingdom didn’t have the capability to take over the actual seat of the county government, because that building was guarded by police.

 

ZENG

 

Your Majesty attacked the hospital first because burning the evil contraceptives was an effective way to gain support from the villagers, many of whom were victims of the one-child policy. But Your Majesty was a little too preoccupied with the hospital, and he neglected the threat posed by the county police. Later on, the Chinese army was summoned and they surrounded the royal palace. Your Majesty led his troops to fight back. Unfortunately, Your Majesty was captured in the initial battle.

My chief of staff moved all the concubines to the back of the royal palace and ordered them to jump into a pond there. He told them to commit suicide and die as martyrs. But the pond was too shallow. Though the women were pushed into the water, they could not drown. So my chief of staff became desperate. He took out his sword and chopped the heads off of two concubines. He had really lost his mind. I guess the pain of losing the kingdom was too hard to swallow.

 

LIAO

 

I thought your chief of staff and your prime minister possessed the magic power to manipulate wind and rain. Why couldn’t they just throw a few peas in the air and summon enough soldiers to fight the government troops?

 

ZENG

 

My prime minister straightened the dragon flag and was planning to perform his magic when a bullet hit his stomach. He was a hero. With a loud howl, he managed to stand up and move a few steps forward before plopping down to the ground.

 

LIAO

 

Your kingdom collapsed a little too easily, don’t you think?

 

ZENG

 

It was not Your Majesty’s fault. It was the will of heaven. Since my chief of staff killed two people, he was given the death penalty by the Chinese government. Your Majesty and several cabinet members in the kingdom were charged with the crime of overthrowing the Chinese government and were thrown in jail. But Your Majesty finds it hard to accept the verdict. The kingdom of China is so huge. Why did it need to crush such a tiny country as the Dayou kingdom?

 

LIAO

 

You’ve been locked in this jail for ten years. How are you treated here?

 

ZENG

 

In many ways, it’s been a heavenly blessing. Your Majesty is fairly knowledgeable about Chinese herbal medicine, so Your Majesty was assigned to oversee the prison clinic. The Dayou kingdom was very backward and isolated. When Your Majesty was in power, he didn’t even have access to a newspaper. Now Your Majesty gets to read the newspapers every day, and is informed of what’s going on outside. He has just been enrolled at a correspondence college. Your Majesty hopes to work hard while in jail and obtain a reduced sentence so he can go back to serve his subjects soon.

 

LIAO

 

I heard that Your Majesty tried to get permission to attend this correspondence college. You wrote an imperial edict to prison officials. In your letter, you addressed them as “ministers of my royal cabinet.”

 

ZENG

 

Your Majesty wrote that edict to commend the two prison officials for their good work. At the same time, he hoped to ask for financial help with tuition. Little did Your Majesty know that his well-intentioned letter was misunderstood. The officials came to his cell and scolded him harshly.

 

LIAO

 

Has the queen ever visited here?

 

ZENG

 

Your Majesty has already banished her from the royal family.

 

LIAO

 

You’re divorced, in other words. Have your children changed their names?

 

ZENG

 

It’s a long story. Your Majesty is in a sour mood now, and cannot continue.

 

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