His story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were born. For dynasties, our town provided the imperial families their most reliable servants. Eunuchs they are called, though out of reverence we call them Great Papas. None of us is a direct descendant of a Great Papa, but traveling upstream in the river of our blood, we find uncles, brothers, and cousins who gave up their maleness so that our names would not vanish in history. Generations of boys, at the age of seven or eight, were chosen and castrated—cleaned as it was called—and sent into the palace as apprentices, learning to perform domestic tasks for the emperor and his family. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, they started to earn their allowances, silver coins that they saved and sent home to their parents. The coins were kept in a trunk, along with a small silk sack in which the severed male root was preserved with herbs. When the brothers of Great Papas reached the marriage age, their parents unlocked the trunk and brought out the silver coins. The money allowed the brothers to marry their wives; the wives gave birth to their sons; the sons grew up to carry on the family name, either by giving birth to more sons, or by going into the palace as cleaned boys. Years went by.
When Great Papas could no longer serve the imperial masters on their wobbled knees, they were released from the palace and taken in by their nephews, who respected them as their own fathers. Nothing left for them to worry about, they sat all day in the sun and stroked the cats they had brought home from the palace, fat and slow as they themselves were, and watched the male dogs chasing the females in the alleys. In time death came for them. Their funerals were the most spectacular events in our town: sixty-four Buddhist monks in golden and red robes chanted prayers for forty-nine days to lead their souls into heaven; sixty-four Tao masters in blue and gray robes danced for forty-nine days to drive away any evils that dared to attach to their bodies. The divine moment came at the end of the forty-nine days, when the silk sacks containing their withered male roots were placed in the coffins.
Now that the missing part had rejoined the body, the soul could leave without regret, to a place better than our town.
This was the story of every one of our Great Papas. For dynasties they were the most trustworthy members of the imperial family. They tended to the princesses' and the emperor's concubines' most personal tasks without tainting the noble blood with the low and dirty desires of men; they served the emperor and the princes with delicacy, yet, unlike those young handmaids who dreamed of seducing the emperor and his sons with their cheap beauties. Great Papas posed no threat to the imperial wives. There were wild rumors, though, about them serving as playthings for the princes before they reached the legal age to take concubines; and unfortunate tales of Great Papas being drowned, burned, bludgeoned, beheaded for the smallest mistakes—but such stories, as we all know, were made up to attack the good name of our town. What we believe is what we have seen—the exquisitely carved tombstones in our cemetery, the elegantly embroidered portraits in our family books. Great Papas filled our hearts with pride and gratitude. If not for them, who were we, the small people born into this no-name town?
The glory of our town has faded in the past century. But may I tell you one boy's story, before I reach the falling of Great Papas in history? As a tradition, the boys sent to the palace were not to be the only sons, who held the even more sacred duty of siring more boys. But the greatest among our Great Papas was an only son of his family. His father, also an only son, died young before he had the chance to plant more seeds in his wife's belly. With no uncle or brother to send them money from the palace, the boy and his widowed mother lived in poverty. At ten years old, after a fight with the neighbors' boys who had bragged about their brothers accepting gold bricks from the emperor's hands, the boy went into the cowshed and cleaned himself, with a rope and a sickle. According to the legend, the boy walked across the town, his male root dripping blood in his hand, and shouted to the people watching on with pity in their eyes, "Wait until I become the best servant of His Majesty!" Unable to endure the shame and the despair of living under a son-less and grandson-less roof, his mother threw herself into a well.
Twenty years later the son became the master eunuch in the palace, taking under his charge 2,800 eunuchs and 3,200 handmaids. With no brothers to send his money to, he saved every coin and retired as the richest man in the region. He hired men to dig out his poor mother's coffin and gave her a second funeral, the most extravagant one ever to take place in our town. It was in the ninth month of 1904, and to this day our old people haven't stopped talking about every detail of the funeral: the huge coffin carved out of a sandalwood tree, stacks of gold bricks, trunks of silk clothes, and cases of jade bowls for her to use in the next life. Even more impressive were the four young girls the son had purchased from the poor peasants in the mountain, all of them twelve years old.
They were put into satin dresses they would have never dreamed of wearing, and were each fed a cup of mercury.
The mercury killed them instantly, so their peachy complexions were preserved when they were paraded in sedan chairs before the coffin. With burning incense planted in their curled fingers, the four girls accompanied the mother to the other world as her loyal handmaids.
This Great Papa's story was the brightest page in our history, like that one most splendid firework streaking the sky before darkness floods in. Soon the last dynasty was overthrown.
The emperor was driven out of the Forbidden City; so were his most loyal servants, the last generation of our Great Papas.
By the 1930s most of them lived in poverty in the temples around the Forbidden City. Only the smartest ones earned a fair living by showing their bodies to Western reporters and tourists, charging extra for answering questions, even more for having their pictures taken.
We have a short decade of republic; the warlords; two world wars, in both of which we fight on the winning side yet win nothing; the civil war; and finally we see the dawn of communism.
The day the dictator claims the communist victory in our country, a young carpenter in our town comes home to his newly wedded wife.
"It says we are going to have a new life from now on," the young wife tells the husband, pointing to a loudspeaker on their roof.
"New or old, life is the same," the husband replies. He gets his wife into bed and makes love to her, his eyes half-closed in ecstasy while the loudspeaker is broadcasting a new song, with men and women repeating the same lyrics over and over.
This is how the son is conceived, in a chorus of Communism is so great, so great, and so great. The same song is broadcast day after day, and the young mother hums along, touching her growing belly and cutting carefully the dictator's pictures from newspapers. Of course we never call him the dictator.
We call him Our Father, Our Savior, the North Star of Our Lives, the Never Falling Sun of Our Era. Like most women of her generation, the mother is illiterate. Yet unlike others, she likes to look at newspapers, and she saves the pictures of the dictator in a thick notebook. Isn't she the woman with the greatest wisdom in our town? No other woman would ever think of looking at the dictator's face while pregnant with a son. Of course there has always been the saying that the more a pregnant woman studies a face, the greater the possibility of the baby owning that face. Years ago, young mothers in the cities liked to look at one kind of imported doll, all of them having the foreign name of Shirley Temple.
Decades later, movie stars will be the most studied faces among the pregnant mothers. But at this time, the dictator is the only superstar in the media, so the mother has been gazing at the dictator's face for ten months before the baby's birth.
The son is born with the dictator's face, a miracle unnoticed by us at first. For the next ten years, we will avoid looking at him, for fear we will see his dead father in his face. The father was a hardworking man, nice to his neighbors, good to his wife. We would have never imagined that he would be an enemy of our newborn communist nation. Yet there are witnesses, not one, but a whole pub of evening drinkers.
What gets him killed is his comment about heroes and sows. At this time, we respect the communist power above us as our big brother. In our big-brother country, it is said, women are encouraged to produce babies for the communist cause, and those who have given birth to a certain number of babies are granted the title mother hero. Now that we are on the same highway to the same heaven, the dictator decides to adopt the same policy.
The young carpenter is a little drunk when he jokes aloud to his fellow drinkers, "Mother heroes? My sow has given birth to ten babies in a litter. Shouldn't she be granted a title, too?”
That's it, a malicious attack on the dictator's population policy. The carpenter is executed after a public trial. All but his wife attend the meeting, every one of us sticking our fists high and hailing the people's victory, our unanimous voice drowning out his wife's moans from her bed. We shout slogans when the bullet hits the young man's head. We chant revolutionary songs when his body is paraded in the street.
When we finally lose our voices from exhaustion, we hear the boy's first cry, loud and painful, and for a moment, it is difficult for us to look into each other's eyes. What have we done to a mother and a baby? Wasn't the dead young man one of our brothers?
What we do not know, at the time, is that a scholar in the capital has been thrown in jail and tortured to death for predicting a population explosion and calling on the dictator to change the policy. Nor do we know that in a meeting with the leader of the big-brother country in Moscow, the dictator has said that we do not fear another world war or nuclear weapons: Let the Americans drop the atomic bombs on our heads. We have five hundred million people in our nation. Even if half of us are killed, we still have two hundred and fifty million, and these two hundred and fifty million would produce another two hundred and fifty million in no time.
Later, when we read his words in the newspaper, our blood boils. For the years to come, we will live with our eyes turned to the sky, waiting for the American bombs to rain down on us, waiting to prove to the dictator our courage, and our loyalty.
The boy grows up fast like a bamboo shoot. The mother grows old even faster. After the carpenter's death, upon her request, the Revolution Committee in our town gives her a job as our street sweeper. Every dawn, we lie in our beds and listen to the rustling of her bamboo broom. She has become a widow at the age of eighteen, as beautiful as a young widow could be, and naturally some of our bachelors cannot help but fantasize about her in their single beds. Yet none of our young men offers her another marriage. Who wants to marry a counterrevolutionary's widow, and spend the rest of his life worrying about being a sympathizer of the wrong person?
What's more, even though the dictator has said that men and women are equal in our nation, we still believe a widow who wants another husband is a whore inside. Our belief is confirmed when we read in newspapers the dictator's comment about one of his close followers who has become an enemy of the nation: A man cannot conceal his reactionary nature forever, just as a widow cannot hide her desire to be fucked.
So the young mother withers in our eyes. Her face becomes paler each day, and her eyes drier. By the time the boy is ten, the mother looks like a woman of sixty. None of our bachelors bothers to lay his eyes on her face anymore.
The boy turns ten the year the famine starts. Before the famine, for three years, we have been doing nothing except singing of our communist heaven and vowing to liberate the suffering working class around the world. Farmers and workers have stopped toiling, their days spent in the pains and joys of composing yet another poem, competing to be the most productive proletarian poet. We go to the town center every day to discuss the strategy of how to conquer the world under the leadership of the dictator. When the famine catches us unprepared, we listen to the dictator's encouraging words in the loudspeakers. He calls for us to make our belts one notch tighter for our communist future, and we happily punch more holes in them. The second year of the famine, the dictator says in the loudspeakers: Get rid of the sparrows and the rats; they are the thieves who stole our food, and brought hunger to us.
Killing sparrows is the most festive event in the three long years of famine. After months of drinking thin porridges and eating weed roots, on the morning of the sparrow-killing day we each get two steamed buns from the municipal dining room. After breakfast, we climb to the roof of every house, and start to strike gongs and drums at the Revolution Committee's signal. From roof to roof, our arrhythmic playing drives the sparrows into the sky. All morning and all afternoon we play, in different shifts, and whenever a sparrow tries to rest in a treetop, we shoo him away with colorful flags bound to long bamboo poles. In the evening the sparrows start to rain down on us like little bombs, dying in horror and exhaustion. Kids decorated as little scarecrows run around, collecting the dead sparrows from the ground for our dinner.
The boy is trying to sneak a sparrow into his sleeve when a bigger boy snatches his hand, "He is stealing the property of the People," the big boy shouts to the town.
"My mom is sick. She needs to eat something," the boy says, "Hey, boy, what your mom needs is not this kind of bird,”
a man says, and we roar with laughter. The buns in our stomachs and the sparrows in the baskets have put us in a good mood.
The boy stares at the man for a moment and smacks into him with his head, "Son of a bitch," the man says, bending over and covering his crotch with his hands, "Beat the little counterrevolutionary," someone says, and we swarm toward the boy with fists and feet. The famine has made us angrier each day, and we are relieved to have found someone to vent our nameless rage upon.
The mother rushes into the crowd and tries to push us away. Her presence makes us hit the boy even harder. Some of us pick up bricks and boulders, ready to knock him out.
Some of us bare our teeth, ready to eat him alive, "You all look at his face. Whoever dares to touch him one more time, I'll sue him for his disrespect for our greatest leader," the mother yells, charging at us like a crazy woman.
Our bodies freeze. We look at the boy's face. Even with his swollen face and black eyes, we have no problem telling that he has the face of the dictator, young and rebellious, just as in the illustrations in the books about the dictator's heroic childhood. The boy stands up and limps to his mother. We look at his face in awe, not daring to move when he spits bloody phlegm at our feet, "Remember this face," the boy says, "You will have to pay for this one day," He picks up a couple sparrows and walks away with his mother. We watch them supporting each other like husband and wife.
For years we do not know if it is a blessing or a disaster that a boy with the dictator's face lives among us. We treat the boy and his mother as the most precious and fragile treasure we have, never breathing one word about them to an outsider, "It may not be a good thing," our old people warn us, and tell us the story of one of our Great Papas, who happened to have the same nickname as the emperor and was thrown into a well to drown, "There are things that are not allowed to exist in duplicates," the old people say.
Yet none of us dares to say one disrespectful word about the boy's face. As he grows older, he looks more and more like the dictator. Sometimes, walking past him in the street, there is a surge of warmth in our chests, as if the dictator himself were with us. This is the time when the dictator becomes larger than the universe in our nation. Illiterate housewives, who have used old newspapers as wallpaper and who have, accidentally, reversed the titles with the dictator's name in them, are executed. Parents of little first-graders who have misspelled the dictator's name are sent to labor camps.
With the boy living among us, we are constantly walking on a thin layer of ice above deep water. We worry about not paying enough respect to the face, an indication of our hidden hatred of the dictator. We worry about respecting that face too much, which could be interpreted as our inability to tell the false from the true, worshipping the wrong idol. In our school, the teachers never speak one harsh word to him. Whatever games the students play, the side without him is willing to lose. When he graduates from the high school, the Revolution Committee has meetings for weeks, to discuss what is an appropriate job for a young man with a face like his. None of the jobs we have in town is safe enough to be given to him.
Finally we think we have come up with the best solution to the problem—we elect him as the director of the advisory board to the Revolution Committee, The young man prospers. Having nothing to do, and not liking to kill his time over cups of tea with the old board members, he walks around town every day, talking to people who are flattered by his greetings, and watching the female sales assistants in the department store blush at his sight. His mother is in much better shape now, with more color in her face. The only inconvenience is that no girl will date the young man. We have warned our daughters that marrying him would either be the greatest fortune, or the greatest misfortune. Born into a town where gambling is genuinely disapproved of, none of us wants to marry a daughter off to a man like him.
The day the dictator dies, we gather at the town center and cry like orphans. On the only television set our town owns, we watch the whole nation howling with us. For three months, we wear black mourning armbands to work and to sleep. All entertainments are banned for six months. Even a year or two after his death, we still look sideways at those women who are growing bellies, knowing that they have been insincere in their mourning. Fathers of those children never receive respect from us again.
It is a difficult time for the young man. Upon seeing his face, some of us break into uncontrollable wails, and he himself has to spend hours crying with us. It must have tired him. For a year he stays in his own room, and the next time we see him, walking toward the town center with a small suitcase, he looks much older than his age of twenty-eight, "Is there anything wrong?" we greet him with concern, "Don't let too much grief drag you down,”
"Thank you, but I am in a fine state," the young man replies, "Are you leaving for somewhere?”
"Yes, I am leaving,”
"Where to?" We feel a pang of panic. Losing him at this time seems as unbearable as losing the dictator one year ago, "It's a political assignment," the young man says with a mysterious smile, "Classified,”
Only after he is driven away in a well-curtained luxury car (the only car most of us have ever seen in our life), do we catch the news that he is going to the capital for an audition as the dictator's impersonator. It takes us days of discussion among ourselves to figure out what words like audition and impersonator mean. In the end the only agreement we come to is that he is going to become a great man.
Now that he has disappeared from our sights, his mother becomes the only source for his stories. She is a proud mother.
and every time we inquire her of his whereabouts she repeats the story of how she gazed at the late dictator's face day and night when her son was growing inside her. "You know, it's like he is the son of our great leader," she says.
"Yes, all of us are sons of our great leader," we nod and say. "But sure he is the best son.”
The mother sighs with great satisfaction. She remembers how in the first few years after her son was born, women of her age produced baby after baby, putting framed certificates of mother heroes on their walls and walking past her with their eyes turned to the sky. Let time prove who is the real hero, she would think, and smile to herself.
Then she tells us about her son, every bit of information opening a new door to the world. He rode in the first-class car in a train to the capital, where he and other candidates have settled down in a luxury hotel, and are taken to the dictator's memorial museum every day, studying for the competition.
“Are there other candidates?" we gasp, shocked that she may not be the only woman to have studied the dictator's face during pregnancy.
“I am sure he is the one they want," the mother says. "He says he has total confidence, when he looks at the leader's face, that he is going to be the chosen one.”