Joan of Sichuan

First: an apology. This is the longest I’ve gone without publishing a newsletter post since the inception of The Cleaver and the Butterfly. Shameful! Disgusting!

My excuses:

1) I am working on a epic politics & history of mapo doufu post that has either gotten completely out of control or is proof that I have been on the right path all along, but only now am beginning to figure out what I’m really writing about. Readers will get the chance to make their own judgment in March.

2) I have become intoxicatingly distracted and enthralled by an extraordinary opportunity to write a story that connects my uncle, the Free Speech Movement, LSD, schizophrenia, Berkeley in the 1960s and 2020s, the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter and the insurrection, fathers and sons, and the importance of an epistolary historical record. It’s good stuff, it has nothing to do with Sichuan, and yet it also part of my path.

3) In a desperate bid to pay for unexpected tree removal costs I had to become convincingly knowledgeable about “open source cloud-native container technology” in a very short period of time. Don’t ask.

4) The insurrection. The pandemic. And, yeah, a tree tried to kill me. 2021 has been no joke.

Anyway, I was just going to post an apology to my patient paying subscribers, but then, yesterday, as part of my mapo doufu research, I stumbled across a story about female Boxer Rebellion revolutionaries in Sichuan that seemed worth sharing with everybody.

I was reading what I’m pretty sure is the only book-length English-language critical appraisal of my favorite Sichuanese writer/dinner party host/restaurant entrepreneur/Flaubert-and Balzac-translator Li Jieren, by Kenny Kwok-kwan Ng, The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren: The Crisis of Writing Chengdu in Revolutionary China.

I have spent the last year slowly working my way through Li’s masterpiece Great Wave, a War-and-Peace like saga of how Sichuanese discontent set off the final unraveling of the Qing dynasty. (Somewhere in this epic, I learned a while back, there is a scene in which Li recounts the creation story of mapo doufu.) Great Wave is the third novel of a trilogy that tells a comprehensive story of Sichuan from the late 19th century through the 1911 revolution. In the passage I read yesterday, Ng discusses Li’s treatment, in the second novel, Before the Tempest, of an incident that occurred shortly after the end of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), involving a local leader of the Red Lanterns.

Historians have described the formation of the Red Lanterns as a regional offshoot of female Boxers. Comprised mostly of teenage girls and young unmarried women between the ages of twelve and eighteen, the Red Lantern members shunned the traditional dress code and the custom of foot binding. The women radicals were clad entirely in red and trained in wielding swords and waving fans as weapons. They were believed to possess supernatural powers: they could walk on water, fly through the air, and even leap up to heaven by a wave of their fans and so reach the heartland of the imperialists to take back their country’s stolen land. It was said they could render themselves invisible, cross rivers without boats, and live without food: they were quite invincible. Many Chinese troops were overawed by these alleged magical powers. Female Boxers were regarded as a potent opponent against corrupt governments and foreign, imperial powers.”

(If anyone at Netflix would like to hire me as a consultant for the obvious slam-dunk anime production set in an alternate world in which the Sichuanese Red Lanterns defeat their foes, well, you know where to find me.)

“One charismatic leader was the sixteen-year-old ‘Liao Guanyin,’ (Goddess of Mercy Liao) known for her legendary beauty, magical power, and martial skills. She commanded thousands of supporters in fighting against provincial troops. Born in 1886 to a poor peasant family in rural Sichuan, Liao was their ninth child and nicknamed Liao Jiumei (Ninth Sister Liao). As a teenager, Liao followed the local Red Lantern practitioner, Zeng Aiyi, to practice boxing, swordsmanship, and Red Lantern doctrines. By sixteen, Liao had become a more accomplished and versatile leader than her teacher. Local chroniclers and historians alike have claimed that Liao rose on a wave of collective aspiration rooted in deep despair to strike a blow at some of the local manifestations of social oppression. ... Her charm also drew thousands of local protesters and Boxers to strike at foreigners and elite officials. Liao and her local rebels shouted the slogan, ‘Destroy the Qing, Expel the Foreigner.’ Official troops finally crushed the Red Lanterns in late 1902. Liao was caught and beheaded in a public execution held in Chengdu on 5 January 1903.”

I have been studying Sichuanese history intensively for the last five years, but, in yet another example of how history tends to render invisible all women (even those miraculously capable of invisibility) this was the first time I encountered the remarkable Liao Guanyin.

We have Li Jieren to thank for preserving the memory of her death, writes Ng. “[His] fictional treatment remains the only written record of cultural history on this cruel incident in Chengdu, mixing history, legend, and imagination.”

In Before the Tempest, the narrator tells us, the execution became a spectacle, drawing huge crowds. For Chengdu natives, watching the execution of Goddess-of-Mercy Liao also became a monumental event in their lived memories and in the history of Chengdu social life. Liao’s beheading indeed had a dark side of vicious cruelty to it: the woman was first stripped and paraded naked from the waist up around the town before being executed. No latter-day ethnographical accounts or local legends have dwelled on this event in so much lively detail and with such a critical lens as Before the Tempest. The novel not only depicts the barbaric act of showing off the woman’s naked body before killing her, but also pokes fun at the enthralled local crowds who attend the decapitation with untold nasty wishes and violent drives. Liao’s gory execution scene becomes another thread woven into Li Jieren’s satirical reminiscences on a heightened moment of primitive violence in local histories.”

One of the striking aspects of Li’s fiction is the strength and diversity -- as well as independent volition -- of his female characters, something that Ng speculates was influenced by his immersion in the novels of the French social realists he studied and translated during his time in Paris in the 1920s. (Madame Bovary being the prime example.) It is, of course, bittersweet to make the acquaintance of an extraordinary force-of-nature such as Goddess-of-Mercy Liao only to learn immediately of how horribly she died. But history has never been for the meek.