It was the only photograph of them he had.
The image was oval, sepia-tinted, set at the centre of a rectangular print, the outer details bleeding into the white of the photographic paper. The couple stood on a dirt plain lined with wide shallow furrows. In the distance to the right was the outline of a low stone building, its roof tiled perhaps in traditional blue ceramic at the eaves.
He had shown the photograph to his aunt, his father’s elder sister, producing it over dinner at New Year in his final year at university in 1981, three years after his mother had died and left it to him. His aunt held it close to her face for a few seconds, seeming quietly engrossed, only to then toss it on to the table in front of him.
‘These are your great-great-grandparents. I think that’s his third wife . . . she was the political one. The smart one.’ She picked up some turnip cake and dropped it into her bowl together with a little fish in soy.
‘What did he do?’
‘Hee-hee!’ His aunt was fat and round, and tucked herself into a chinless ball when she laughed. ‘Your great-great-grandfather was a farmer, a guard, a robber . . . until he became a fighter and a killer. He did nothing and everything.’
He was dissatisfied with her answer and opened his mouth to ask questions, but she directed her gaze above his head.
‘Xiaojie! Waitress, waitress . . . one more bowl of white rice,’ she demanded.
The girl standing behind his seat nodded.
‘Did you think we were from Imperial stock?’ his aunt demanded, then, seeing his crestfallen expression: ‘We’re big rice eaters. We belong in those northern fields, working the soil.’ Her chin disappeared once more as she shook with laughter.
‘So, how did we get here?’ he asked, a little embarrassed that he didn’t know more of his own family’s history.
‘Like many others did . . . with an army, as bandits or refugees. This was over eighty years ago. These people’ – she flicked her head in the direction of the photograph – ‘knew nothing. They’d spent too much of their lives fighting. They were tough and crazy, believed in the power of magic and all sorts of ancient rituals.’ She laughed again. ‘And they brought us to Guangzhou and Hong Kong because they’d heard of Wong Fei-hung’s heroic fight against the colonials, and wanted to join him. Fools!’
‘The journey must have been hard for them?’
‘Who knows? It was probably very boring . . . apart from the hunger and the fighting.’ His aunt looked down at her bowl again and eyed a fish fin. Popping it into her mouth, she started to suck the juices like a happy plump cat.
He sat without speaking. Her thumb had left a small brown smudge of soy on a bottom corner of the photograph. He rubbed it with his finger; though the smudge faded he could still see it. He looked up at his aunt, who continued eating the next fin unperturbed.
Ignoring her and his own food, he held the photo below the table and stared down at the man and woman.
That night in his room at his parents’ old home near the squatters’ town of Diamond Hill on Fung Tak Road in north-east Kowloon, an apartment as small and mean as the countless others surrounding it, he lay on his bed. Even under the heavy breeze of the electric fan, he was sweating, he dreamed of dark brown earth reduced to dust. Bad luck had penetrated China’s heartland, brought by foreigners. With their strange religion and fearsome machines, powerful and impossible, they had defeated its people. Now the Chinese viewed themselves as weak and defenceless. They felt the piss run down their legs in front of mightier men and women from the other side of the world, which until then China had believed it ruled from the centre. Yet the foreign devils preached of deliverance and humility; quoted the compassion of their god as they left Chinese children fearful and hungry.
He dreamed of the arid sepia landscape of the photograph; of distant scrub-covered hills and hard lumpy soil on the plains, unblessed by rain for a year. He found himself standing next to the man and woman, his unknown ancestors. He could smell the stink of their unwashed bodies, the powerful acidity of sweat and mould in their clothes. He could see that the man’s hands were rough and sinewy, forged into fists of iron from farming and fighting.
Both his ancestors were small in stature, but stood up straight and proud. She was the first to look at him directly, and to speak. He did not recognize the dialect. To him the words sounded like barking as she snapped at him, telling him something urgently. The barrage of harsh sounds propelled him backwards and down into the dirt. He felt the rough baked earth under his hands and knees as he landed, cutting through his clothes to the skin. Though the blaze of the sun he could make out her silhouette, hard and dark, like a wet hide laid out in snow. The man stepped forward then. From down in the dust he saw thick calves and flat feet pace slowly round him, then one foot was raised to roll him over. He looked up again, his head pushed down into the dry brown dirt, underneath the coarse sole, and saw the moving shadow of the man’s long queue, the long woven pigtail hanging to his waist from his shaved scalp, as he turned back to consult his wife. They shouted at each other, and then the pressure from the foot eased and he was released. Side by side, his ancestors walked away into the distance.
After the dream he spent many hours studying the photograph. The man was young, maybe in his late twenties, and wore his hair Manchurian-style, though he did not come from the far north. This man was from the north-east of China, now a place of little account. He’d belonged to a village built from mud taken from the endless banks of the Yellow River, a place long since returned to the once-fertile brown earth. Without rain the farmland had grown dry and hard, and starvation followed.
In that era, the long drawn-back queue and shaved upper scalp were a sign that the man had been charged to work for the Qing government in some way, and had been awarded the right to wear his hair like that. Perhaps he had even been there at the end, fighting against the foreign powers at Tianjin, breaking up railway track and defying the Western allies. His tight queue pulled back his skin, accentuating a hard bony forehead and the narrowness of his eyes. Fierce pupils commanded the attention of his young descendant. He wore a jacket and trousers of a rough dark material that hung loose from his shoulders and round his waist, and left bare his powerful forearms and chest.
There was a sash of a lighter-coloured material swathed in a band from the man’s left shoulder to right hip, which his descendant mentally pictured as being bright red.
The woman stood slightly behind her husband’s shoulder, her hair caught back and up, revealing the effects on her skin of years of exposure to the elements and harsh sunlight. Her mouth was part-open, an expression of bewilderment at the photographer’s work, but her eyes were hard and bright. She held a staff in her hand, perhaps for walking or tending livestock, perhaps for fighting. Her shirt was traditional and black, clearly of finer quality than the simple clothes worn by her husband, and her head was wound with cloth, which in his mind’s eye her descendant saw as deep red also.
He found images of similarly dressed individuals in the university library’s collection of historical photographs, and identified the couple as coming from Shandong, high up China’s coast dividing the southerly Yellow Sea and the Bohai Sea to the north. According to legend, Shandong was earth and soil, a place for nurturing and growth. It was the origin of the Chinese people.
Shandong was the birthplace of all that was good and worthy about the Chinese, the young man recognized; all that had now been forgotten and betrayed. Jen and li, goodness and order; only its inhabitants and their faithful descendants would know and understand this.
Throughout his years of legal training with a firm on Hong Kong Island he kept the photograph in his wallet for safety.Then, at the age of twenty-five, he was promoted at work and gained access to the new photocopying machine. At first he was wary of using his employer’s expensive equipment and made only a single copy of his sacred image while working late at night. Then, when he was repeatedly asked to stay late in the evening – to prepare instructions to counsel, document bundles or just to complete administrative tasks – he began to make more. In time he was promoted to research and given special access to the copier, allowing him to make hundreds, until he could no longer remember how many he had taken. At home he cut out shapes and single images, arranging them on pages of a notebook around which he rewrote the private histories he’d read and researched. He traced a timeline through wars and revolutions, victorious bandits and fallen warlords. Yet he was drawn most of all to the stories of the millions of poor and dispossessed, who over the centuries repeatedly rose from the yellow earth of his homeland to make their voices heard and change China’s course. Urged on by the images in the photograph, he privately researched, collected and recorded their history.
Now, over thirty years later, the original photograph of his ancestors lay on the desk in front of him. He stared down at it, tracing the outline of the man’s face, and then closed his eyes.
He sat back in the old wooden office chair he had been given after his father had died, and rested his tired eyes. His father’s employer had not wanted the taint of being associated with a traitor, and had given it to him and his mother as a ‘commemorative gift’. The old man had sat in this chair for over ten years, supervising the production line and managing the factory teams, until the afternoon he tried to prevent them from demonstrating with their fellow workers. His widow had put the chair in his, their son’s, bedroom. Though at first he had refused to accept it and sit in it, had not even been able to look at it, he could not discard it either. In this moment, forty- eight years after his father’s death, it was as important to him as the photograph was.
He opened his eyes. He was completely surrounded by heavy iron shelves arranged to form branching passageways spreading from his desk at the centre. Rising two and a half metres from the floor and each filled with journals, folders, encyclopedias, books re-bound, books decrepit with age, diaries, DVDs, video cassettes, spent laptops, maps and dozens of document boxes – all the records he had amassed over his decades of research and writing, since first beginning with the photograph.
They had given him the responsibility of researching and documenting everything, and he had done it better than anyone had ever anticipated.
He lowered his head. The solitary light above him cast a yellow circle around the photograph sealed in its protective bag. In the surface of the plastic he could see a distorted image of his own face, a ghostly simulacrum superimposed over that of his ancestor. He looked closer and picked up the photograph in cotton-gloved fingers. At last he put it back into the small red-lacquered box where he stored it these days, closed the lid and locked it. He got up from the desk, pushing the chair back behind him, and as he did so looked up at the nine flat-screen televisions suspended from the ceiling above the labyrinthine shelves. They showed different news programmes, blogs and forums, all of them silent until he adjusted the audio feed to the earpieces he wore.
The cavernous space was over ten metres high, the ceiling painted a dark red, though flecks of paint had chipped off it, leaving small patches of white undercoat visible. In the narrow passages between the shelves there was room for only one person. His desk stood at the centre of the labyrinth; the entrances to eight passages surrounded it, two in front and two behind, two to his left and two his right. He stood up and placed his left hand between the short legs of the lacquered box and raised it to his chest, letting his right hang by his side, deliberately unused. He looked towards a passageway to his right. It went straight for eight metres, then split into two further passages; each of which ran for two metres. The two passages split into four further passages that continued for four metres. They in turn split into eight passages, each of which ran for eight metres. He walked to the entrance of the passageway and entered.
One of two
Three of four.
Six of eight.
At the end of the last passage was a large iron floor safe. It had a simple lock and key with a heavy brass handle to help open the door. He put the lacquered box on top of the safe, turned the handle and opened the door, then placed the box on the top shelf inside. He pushed the door closed, twisted the handle round and down, and then inserted a key and locked the safe. He straightened up in front of the safe and bowed slightly in prayer.
Opening his eyes, he looked at the safe again, then retraced his footsteps to the desk at the centre. Once there, he stood for a moment following the news feed in silence, then reached down for his briefcase and placed it gently on top of the desk. He opened it to retrieve a paper bag which he held respectfully and then turned and walked down one of the two passages at his back. Again the passages split as he reached their end.
Two of two
Four of four
Eight of eight.
Here a shrine hung on the wall, veiled in a thin red light from an electric bulb that seemed to be struggling for life. A copy of the photo was displayed at the back of the red platform in a plain black- lacquered frame. Four oranges were stacked in a simple gold bowl before it, under a red roof trimmed with gilt; the whole shrine was as big as a tea chest. He picked up each piece of fruit and examined it for imperfections.
He adjusted his earpieces as he went about the task, connecting to the audio channels from the televisions, and heard an economic analyst from CNN confirm in plaintive tones the current situation. ‘That’s right, Susan, China’s growth forecast has been revised down even further. Over the last six years, we have seen it fall from double digits to a very modest single-digit figure. Now at 3.8 per cent, it means China is no longer the economic powerhouse it was supposed to be. Like Japan, it burst on the scene and then has flagged. And just as Japan made US investment, the Chinese bought Europe. They pretty much saved it from bankruptcy. Now it needs to concentrate on saving itself and not the world.’
The anchorwoman’s confident Chinese-American tones slid smoothly into the conversation. ‘Europe needed a bailout, like Greece and Spain seven years before, and the Chinese said to Europe, get yourself together, hit the agreed economic targets, and we’ll buy the bonds. But the Europeans have dithered and it now has been five days since the European Union countries defaulted. In four days we have the key meeting of the G8 in Hong Kong to sort this out, otherwise this situation is going to get much worse.’
After looking closely at all four oranges, he took out a brown paper bag and placed three of them inside before resting it on the fl or. He picked up the bag containing replacements and, using his left hand, positioned three new oranges on the gold dish, with the one unblemished fruit placed on top. Next he lit eight sticks of incense and, holding them in both hands, thumbs facing up, genuflect four times in front of the shrine. Each time the incense was brought close to his face and then down to an angle of forty- five degrees. He inserted the sticks into the pot to the left of the fruit. Finally he closed his eyes and stood in front of the shrine to pray.
Back at his desk, he picked up the remote control and channel-hopped.
He looked round at the screens, different faces telling the same story to the world, but in different versions to suit different eyes. Western channels still pursued the illusion of perfection . . . beautiful hair and glossy lips, well-dressed men and women explaining the mechanics of so much misery under meticulous lighting . . . while the Chinese channels were artless and blunt, piping down raw propaganda and incomprehensible streams of data.
He reached down to the fourth drawer of his desk and retrieved a thick notebook. Placing it square in front of him, he opened it and turned the pages. The characters were mostly small and neat except for certain specific strokes, which were lavish and wide. Small dian, the tiny flicks that Westerners always mistake for commas, were impressed hard and dark, each a deep black hole in the paper. He put on the glasses that hung around his neck; started to flick through the pages.
Photos of one person, at different ages, from child to man. His entire life story to date, written in characters spread over the pages, both in traditional columns and set across it Western banner-style. Delicate footnotes and bold pronouncements of intent for his future.
Senior Inspector Alex Soong.
Excerpted from Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson. Copyright © 2014 by Duncan Jepson.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.