Henry Holt & Co., 1996

abridged audiotape version: Audio Literature, 1997  


four beginnings from MANCHU PALACES


            This is not a story: today I learned of a secret text. It tells how once upon a time the blessed Guan-yin, who regards our world with love and pity, descended to the underwater palace of the Dragon Monarch. It does not tell all that happened afterward…


            In the cool of the Purple Bamboo Grove, Guan-yin sits at royal ease on her island home in the Southern Sea. (Though the bodhisattva takes on many forms, it might as well be “her.” It might as well be radiant Mount Potalaka, called in Chinese “Pu-tuo Island,” though it could be anywhere.) Rising full out of the ocean, the moon inscribes a halo around Guan-yin’s graceful figure, and casts its own reflection on her lotus pond.

            But look! A huge, bewhiskered carp shatters the surface of the water. It snaps at a fly, it swirls, it plunges down. Crisscross ripples, all at odds with one another, set the tranquil water rocking, reeling, gone awry…


            I can’t forget her. I mustn’t. I only want to stop remembering for a little while.

            Again today, a few flakes of snow mix with the dust on the sharp wind. Nurse complains that spring is coming late this year; she wants me to close the papered window and huddle with her near the charcoal burner. But I sit alone up on the warm brick platform of my bed, pretending to embroider, looking out at the white petals of the early-blooming plum. When the wind tears them off, they scatter, lost on a sweep of air come south from the steppes. And again I wonder, will my father come home soon?…


            Sixteen forty-four is as good a date as any to mark the start of the Manchus’ rule of China. But if their empire, the Great Qing, still lives, it lives only in bright scenes laid out on silk and paper by visionary artists or hungry hacks. In maps of the vanished. In sad ruins, seductive reconstructions, conflicting histories.

            This story of the Qing is one of them. This is where…