Two Years of Tiny Data

I was a girl for seventeen years and a boy for twelve years more.

A thousand glances took me in, which one saw the truth?

Only now do I know for sure,

You can’t trust your eyes to tell girl from boy.

         Xu Wei, “Maid Mulan”

I encountered the work of Xu Wei for the first time this morning while reading Judith T. Zeitlin’s “Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale.” The words resonated instantly. A few weeks ago I spent an evening hanging out with a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. We’d both raised children to adulthood, and we were both having some pronoun trouble. His oldest had recently started transitioning to female; my youngest declared their non-binary-ness earlier this year. When you are trying to catch someone else up on everything that’s happened in a couple of decades, it can be a challenge to get every switch from “son” to “daughter” or “he” to “they” right every time. But we gave it our best shot.

I wasn’t sure then if our stumbles constituted anything more than a first-world problem or were simply a sign of our ever-more-gender-fluid times, but here was Xu Wei, a poet, playwright, painter, and calligrapher who flourished in the 16th century, reminding me that gender dislocation is nothing new.

Serendipitous intersection alert! This is the stuff my dreams are made of. I knew immediately that this mash-up of Ming dynasty poetry and my life in Berkeley would be the perfect anecdote to lead off a commemoration of the two-year-anniversary of The Cleaver and the Butterfly.

On October 17, 2019, I launched this newsletter with The Road to Shu is Hard. How hard, exactly? Well, it would be unseemly to go into too much detail about how a global pandemic that has killed 700,000 Americans screwed up my travel plans, messed with my freelance career, and obliterated my calendar of Sichuan dinner parties, but wow. What a fucking mess this has been, for everyone.

In the midst of all this carnage, I remain thankful I created The Cleaver and the Butterfly. This newsletter is my lifeline. Xu Wei expressed his artistic being in his calligraphy and painting and play-writing and poetry. My outlet is this newsletter; the purest expression of myself as a writer I’ve ever enjoyed.

So: two years! Here are the gross numbers. 414 total subscribers; 50 paid subscribers; annual revenue: $3500. Yes, I know, this not big data. It is tiny data. But I am nonetheless heartened by something I discovered as I pored over the stats. Consider the following graph, which records total subscriber growth over time.

After launch I signed up a hundred people in the first week. In the next year, I added another 150. And in the year after that, another 164 --  although that number includes a hefty one-time boost in March when Substack featured me in a promotion.

The important thing is the consistency of the slope. Steady as she goes! And that correlates with another utterly unexceptional data insight. Publishing more content results in increased subscriber growth! My two most favorite recent examples: I wrote about a stoned insight I had about a refrigerator while making dinner and got two new paid subscriptions the next day. I wrote about the deliciousness of spatchcocked doubanjiang grilled chicken, and two more paid subscriptions arrived within hours.

The market mandate is clear: more cannabis consumption and hybrid fusion recipes!

So, thank you very much everyone, and I must warn you: a higher frequency of emails will land in your inbox in the next year, because I can’t ignore the incentives at play here: It’s publish or perish!

But now, back to our regular programming: After encountering Xu Wei’s poem and reading his Wikipedia page, I looked up his entry in one of my prized possessions, a pirated edition of the Dictionary of Ming Biography that I bought from Taiwan’s legendary Cave bookstore in the 1980s.

Here are some of the, uh, highlights.

There was that time he murdered his wife:

When, in 1565, [his superior] lost his high post wand was thrown into prison, Xu became terrified, fearing that he too might be implicated. He attempted suicide and confesses, in an unusually frank “obituary,” that he was pretending madness. In this mood anything could upset him. His wife aroused his suspicions. Perhaps it was his own fault, for he had destroyed his testicles. In any event, he beat her to death, and consequently was imprisoned.

But the play he wrote about Mulan makes him a proto-feminist?

Two of these plays, frequently performed ever since, strike a very modern note; they show that Xu believed in “women’s rights”; a girl could become a great general or the top scholar of the empire.

Sage or demon? From an appraisal of his painting and calligraphy by Tseng Yu-ho Ecke:

“He bursts out; his words are replete with feverish impetus. Even rational aesthetic theories are handled by him in a totally irrational way. His paintings are turbulence itself.” And she quotes with approval one remark of Hu T’ing, the writer of a preface, dated 1617, to Xu’s I-chih-t’ang-i-kao, “Out of ten units in Hsu Wei, nine are uninhibited personality, only one part luck; yet he moved between the two, a sage perhaps, a saint, a demon, or a devil.

So. A mixed bag!

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