My imperial life began with a smell. A rotten smell that came from my
father's coffinhe had been dead for two months and we were still carrying
him, trying to reach Peking, his birthplace, for burial. My mother was
frustrated. "My husband was the governor of Wuhu," she said to the footmen
whom we had hired to bear the coffin. "Yes, madam," the head footman
answered humbly, "and we sincerely wish the governor a good journey home."
In my memory, my father was not a happy man. He had been
repeatedly demoted because of his poor performance in the suppression of
the Taiping peasant uprisings. Not until later did I learn that my father was
not totally to blame. For years China had been dogged by famine and foreign
aggression. Anyone who tried on my father's shoes would understand that
carrying out the Emperor's order to restore peace in the countryside was
impossiblepeasants saw their lives as no better than death.
I witnessed my father's struggles and sufferings at a young age. I
was born and raised in Anhwei, the poorest province in China. We didn't live
in poverty, but I was aware that my neighbors had eaten earthworms for
dinner and had sold their children to pay off debts. My father's slow journey
to hell and my mother's effort to fight it occupied my childhood. Like a long-armed cricket my mother tried to block a carriage from running over her
The summer heat baked the path. The coffin was carried in a tilted
position because the footmen were of different heights. Mother imagined how
uncomfortable my father must be lying inside. We walked in silence and
listened to the sound of our broken shoes tapping the dirt. Swarms of flies
chased the coffin. Each time the footmen paused for a break the flies covered
the lid like a blanket. Mother asked my sister Rong, my brother Kuei Hsiang
and me to keep the flies away. But we were too exhausted to lift our arms.
We had been traveling north along the Grand Canal on foot because we had
no money to hire a boat. My feet were covered with blisters. The landscape
on both sides of the path was bleak. The water in the canal was low and dirt-
brown. Beyond it were barren hills, which extended mile after mile. There
were fewer inns to be seen. The ones that we did come upon were infested
"You'd better pay us," the head footman said to Mother when he
heard her complaint that her wallet was near empty, "or you will have to carry
the coffin yourselves, madam." Mother began to sob again and said that her
husband didn't deserve this. She gained no sympathy. The next dawn the
footmen abandoned the coffin.
Mother sat down on a rock by the road. She had a ring of sores
sprouting around her mouth. Rong and Kuei Hsiang discussed burying our
father where he was. I didn't have the heart to leave him in a place without a
tree in sight. Although I was not my father's favorite at first he was
disappointed that I, his firstborn, was not a sonhe did his best in raising
me. It was he who insisted that I learn to read. I had no formal schooling, but
I developed enough of a vocabulary to figure out the stories of the Ming and
At the age of five I thought that being born in the Year of the
Sheep was bad luck. I told my father that my friends in the village said that
my birth sign was an inauspicious one. It meant that I would be slaughtered.
Father disagreed. "The sheep is a most adorable creature," he
said. "It is a symbol of modesty, harmony and devotion." He explained that
my birth sign was in fact strong. "You have a double ten in the numbers. You
were born on the tenth day of the tenth moon, which fell on the twenty-ninth of
November 1835. You can't be luckier!"
Also having doubts regarding my being a sheep, Mother brought in
a local astrologer to consult. The astrologer believed that double ten was too
strong. "Too full," the old hag said, which meant "too easily spilled." "Your
daughter will grow up to be a stubborn sheep, which means a miserable end!"
The astrologer talked excitedly as white spittle gathered at the corners of her
mouth. "Even an emperor would avoid ten, in fear of its fullness!"
Finally, at the suggestion of the astrologer, my parents gave me a
name that promised I would "bend."
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