Note: Below is an extract from a novel in progress, which retells one of the bestloved myths in the Chinese canon: Wang Zhaojun, who lived in the Han Dynasty roughly 2000 years ago, was a maid-in-waiting before the emperor married her to the king of the Huns as a peace offering. Throughout history she has been used as a yardstick of female virtues. This novel gives her a modern voice and re-examines her life not only as a historical figure but also as a cultural image in today’s world.
Sometimes she presses her ears against the wall, to listen to the giggling or the muffled, rhythmic groaning on the other side. She has met her neighbours, of course, the new ones as well as the old. They always come and go, depending on looks or age. But the noises stay the same.
She has good ears, she knows. Only she knows this. Good eyes and mouths are harder to hide, and therefore mean more trouble. But good ears are a secret that she can indulge in. Not that she intends to be deceptive. Not at all. She simply needs to know where she stands, or where she would stand in her own absence.
Imagine all the stench and squalor!
Do you know they eat their prisoners and slaves? I’d rather die first …
He will jolly her up. At least she now has something real between her legs.
Of late she has been spending a lot of time listening, behind wooden screens and closed doors. Broken sentences, missing names, conspiratorial simpers. Dabs of colour she has used to build a picture of him, or rather, of her future in light of him. It is to these rumours that she listens most avidly, her body tense with the thrill. That Hun, they will say. Not ever his name, or his title. For them it is accurate. She is marrying a species, an inferior life form that thrives on plundering and raw meat. Why name a rat?
She refers to him as the Hun, too, when there is an expectant audience. But this is because she can’t decide her feelings. She is angry with him for her confusion, and with herself for allowing it.
When they swarm to her door, gift-bearing and chests puffed up with spurious envies and congratulations, she subtracts herself, lets her mind wander. Some offer her dainty little souvenirs of sisterhood: an embroidered silk fan or purse. What do they expect her to do with a fan in the freezing steppe? Maybe it is their idea of a joke. Or she can probably use it to drive away the flies and mosquitoes and all sorts of vermin that are sure to abound in that barbaric land. She will not throw them away, yet.
More than once she has wondered if they made these presents themselves, cursing her under their breath for the trouble. They might have sent some eunuchs to make the purchase in the West Market. From some poor malnourished girl with chapped hands and grubby nails. Such a thing is entirely possible. Or is it the East Market that sells these gewgaws? It has been so long, and she has lost her bearings. She is being mean and cynical, she realises. But it is reassuring to know that she can still afford it. What they really want is to see her dissolving in a pool of tears, like a snowman in the sun. She will not give them that satisfaction.
There are girls who are genuinely sorry to see her go, but she avoids them as well. Compassionate sighs are more ruinous. Look at the bright side, they say sadly, their painted brows knotted up in a frown, their mouths trembling. This annoys her. You will be waited on hand and foot. Such luxury! Think of that! She doesn’t think she will, not without disgruntled silence or contemptuous glances at least. But there is no point in contradicting them. They mean well, she tells herself.
The eunuchs are her only hope. Especially the younger ones, with their guileless smiles and loose lips. She will drag one by the sleeve behind a bush, pry him open with a handful of coins. Being in close quarters with them always fills her with unease. They have an untouchable air about them, the eunuchs. A perennial odour of urine encircling them like a cage. Animals stake out their territories in the same way, she thinks.
That Hun is quite a wise man for a barbarian – one informs her, jingling the coins – he has the brain to see that battling against us mighty Han will do him no good. He is a traitor to his own people – says another – who has sworn allegiance to the Emperor and drunk blood from a hollowed-out human head. There is talk of internecine strife, the death of a brother. In her mind she has expected thin sinister lips, bulgy eyes. Forehead riddled with blue veins.
She tries to summon up all the ghosts she has created for him, willing them not to inhabit the man sitting on the dais. Slow yet sure-footed, she moves forward. The music engulfs her like water. Come closer, the Hun says uncertainly. Words tumbling out of his mouth like dice.
She stops in front of a flight of marble steps. At her eye level there is a low jade table, maroon brocade draped over it. Someone’s fingers have embroidered a dragon on it, expertly, with meticulous stitches. It is an art she has taken pains to master herself. She resents the display of effort. This is what I will always remember, she tells herself. But why such lugubrious thoughts? Surely there is silk and thread in the barbarian land. Maybe there will be fur-embroidery. She will be able to occupy her time.
Two men are sitting on the dais. The Emperor is barricaded right behind the table, dressed in a black satin robe with a dragon pattern on it, she knows without looking. Over to the side, in the subordinate seat, is a pair of furry knees. His knees. She pictures them knobbed, pachydermous, legs bowed from too much horse-riding. What does he expect to see on her face? Joy? Or is it shyness? Flushed cheeks, rigid jaws, a bashful fluttering of eyelids. She can bring that into effect. She has seen others at work. Or perhaps it is fear that he desires, the tremulous tension in the muscles. There is nothing like a hint of terror to encourage conquest.
The music stops. A sudden heaviness falls on her body, as if she was coming out of a river.
The Hun scrambles to his feet clumsily, stretching his legs as if unfamiliar with the movement. She watches him lurching, limping a few steps, knocking over a bronze drinking vessel. A trail of spilled liquid.
She wonders, only briefly, who will wipe it clean later, all fours on the ground. He is not used to sitting on his heels, she realises with dismay. Steadying himself, he brushes down his baggy fur robe apologetically, as if caught naked, descends the stairs. She kneels. A sharp crack from her defiant bones. She lowers her head, hoping no one has noticed. The guardians have taught her etiquette in a sympathetic undertone. They have sat her down, almost solicitously, cradled her hands with their coarse palms as if to protect her. As if her hands were the only thing that needed protection. They rubbed her fingers while they talked, until her skin turned red. They explained the pains and unmentionables that would follow the wedding, thrust a scroll of inscribed bamboo slips under her nose. Isn’t this for the wedding night? she asked. Well, better to be prepared earlier in your case. They said this with the self-satisfied air of fortune tellers, their eyes on her, maliciously curious. They anticipated that she would writhe, wail, tear her hair and make a scene. They would be disappointed if she didn’t.
He picks her up, his hands strong as clamps. She tries not to recoil. She wonders if there will be red imprints left on her arms, the seal of ownership, like those on cattle or horses. She can almost feel her skin burning in his grip, under layers of silk. Still not knowing how she will adjust her face, she lifts her head slowly. It is an act, the deliberate slowness, the lethargic grace. She has acquired it unconsciously, the way one picks up the local accent. It is not an unhandsome face, she thinks, but wrinkled and darkly tanned.
Through the grizzled thicket of whisker she can see his mouth cracking into a smile. A row of ragged, yellow teeth. Without releasing her arms, the Hun turns to his entourage. Voices brush past her like foliage. A volley of foreign words. What are they saying? She feels a sudden surge of anxiety. Comments about her inadequacies perhaps. The flatness of her chest, for instance. Or maybe it’s not her flaws that they are talking about. Maybe it’s her strangeness, her sheltered, delicate skin, which is equally dispiriting. She catches a glimpse of a patch of pale skin amidst the nest of greying hair.
Something contracts in the pit of her stomach, as if she had just swallowed a mouthful of icy water. Then, abruptly, they fall silent. They all turn to look at her. She wants to say something. She feels it is called for. Some words she has learned, her tongue groping desperately as if to pick at scraps of food caught between her teeth.
Chenli Gutu Chanyu, she murmurs. Heaven. Son. Vast. Son of the vast Heaven. Or is it son chosen by the Heaven? The word is slippery, skittering away from her mouth like a knocked-out tooth.
The man laughs. A gust of stale, alcohol-reeking breath unfurls from his mouth. She can feel the softness of her own skin in his grasp, his thumb rubbing hers reassuringly. She will need to wash her hands later, she thinks. She watches him swivelling around, waddling back up the steps. With an ostentatious reluctance, he lowers his haunches onto his heels.
All the Huns join in the laughter as if on cue. So do the huddle of Han officials on the other side of her, though with less vigour. These are her people, she thinks. A shot of something sour goes up her nose. The eunuch is still hovering at the entrance, a dark figure against a background of fading light. She imagines him watching her standing alone in a valley of men, surrounded by echoes not of her own voice.
She clenches her fists. A dribble of blood snakes down her fingers, vanishes into the dark red sea of her robe.