This morning, as every morning this summer in Beijing, Liu Hulan woke before dawn to the deafening sounds of drums, cymbals, gongs, and, worst of all, the horrible squeals of a suo-na, a many-piped wind instrument that resounded for blocks, maybe even miles. Competing to be heard over the instruments were the exuberant voices, cheers and yelps of the Shisha Hutong Yang Ge Folk Dance and Music Troupe. This was the beginning of what would be a three-hour session and this morning it appeared to be taking place directly outside Hulan’s family compound.
Hulan hurriedly wrapped her silk robe around her, slipped on a pair of tennis shoes and stepped outside onto the covered veranda outside her bedroom. Though it was only four, the air was already thick as custard with heat, humidity and smog. Once the summer solstice passed, Beijingers prepared for the arrival of Xiao Shu or Slight Heat Days. But this year, Da Shu, Great Heat, had come early. This past week had seen five straight days with temperatures over forty-two degrees centigrade and humidity hovering at about ninety-eight percent.
Hulan quickly crossed the innermost courtyard, passing the other pavilions where in the old days the different branches of her extended family had lived. On the steps of one of these, her mother’s nurse — already dressed in simple cotton trousers and a short-sleeved white blouse — waited for her. “Hurry, Hulan. Make them stop. Your mother is bad this morning.” Hulan didn’t respond, she didn’t need to. She and the nurse had followed this routine now for the past three weeks.
Hulan reached the first courtyard, pushed open the gate and stepped into the alleyway that ran before her family compound. There were perhaps seventy people here, all of them senior citizens. Most were dressed in pink silk tunics, while a few wore electric green. The latter, Hulan had learned a week ago, had come from the Heavenly Gate Dance Brigade after an argument about who would lead the dancing in their own neighborhood. The people looked colorful and — Hulan had to admit it — rather sweet in their costumes: sequins decorated their fans, while glittering tinsel and tufts of white fluff fluttered in time to the music. The bodies of the old people happily gyrated to the drums and cymbals in a dance that was a cross between the bunny hop and the stroll.
“Friends, neighbors,” Hulan called out, trying to be heard, “please, I must ask you to move.” Of course no one paid her any attention. Hulan stepped into the dancers just as they began marching out of their circle and into rows.
“Oh, Inspector! Beautiful morning!” This greeting came from Ri Lihan, a woman in her eighties who lived five compounds away. Before Hulan could respond, Madame Ri twirled away.
Hulan tried to stop first one then another dancer, but always they slipped past, laughing, their wrinkled cheeks flushed and sweaty. Hulan made her way through the dancers to the musicians. The cheeks of the man blowing on the suo-na were puffed out and red. The sound emanating from that instrument was high, loud, and discordant. Speech was impossible, but when the musicians saw Hulan pat at the pockets of her robe, they exchanged knowing glances. They had seen their neighbor, Liu Hulan, do this before. She was looking for her Ministry of Public Security identification, but, as was so often the case on these early morning excursions, she had left it behind. The musicians beamed and nodded agreeably to the inspector.
Still clanking, drumming and blowing, the musicians slowly set off down the alley. Following this cue, the old folks — continuing their dancing rhythm — filed past Hulan. She waited for Madame Zhang to pirouette by, but when she didn’t Hulan walked to the old woman’s home, silently cursing this current wave of nostalgia to sweep the city. One month it was restaurants celebrating “the long-past good days” of the Cultural Revolution; the next month there was a run on collectible Mao buttons. One month there was a craze for western-style white wine mixed with Coca-Cola and ice, the next month old people were bringing their rumpled yang ge costumes and instruments out of trunks and closets and taking to the streets like a bunch of teenagers.
Yang ge music had originated among the peasants of China’s northeast and had been brought to Beijing by the People’s Liberation Army in 1949. Now, after years of deprivations and political upheavals, the old people had resurrected twin passions — dancing and singing. The only problems — and they were big ones as far as Hulan was concerned – were the time of day and the noise. China, although a large country, operated on one time zone. While in the far west farmers might not go to their fields until the sun came up at nine, in Beijing the day started unconscionably early. Psychologically Hulan hated waking up before six, let alone four in the morning, to the ungodly racket of the yang ge troupe.
This constant clamoring had also been extremely upsetting to Hulan’s mother. Rather than filling Liu Jinli with sentimental longings or carefree memories, these raucous sounds made the older woman quite querulous. Since the Cultural Revolution, Jinli had been confined to a wheelchair and still suffered from bouts of catatonia. During the first weeks that she’d come back to the quiet of the hutong, her health had improved considerably. But with the yang ge music stirring up the past, Jinli’s condition had once again spiraled downward. Hulan had gone several times already this summer to Neighborhood Committee Director Zhang to register complaints. But the old woman, whose duty it was to keep tabs on the comings and goings of the residents of this Beijing neighborhood, had joined the troupe herself and for once seemed completely immune to Hulan’s imprecations.
“Huanying, huanying,” Madame Zhang Junying said automatically, opening the door to Hulan. Then, seeing how her neighbor was dressed, the older woman quickly pulled Hulan inside. “Where are your day clothes? You are trying to scare the neighbors?”
“There’s nothing to see that they haven’t seen before,” Hulan said, pulling her robe more tightly around her.
Madame Zhang considered these words, then said, “For most people this is true. After all, what surprises can any of us have? But with you…” The Committee director shook her head in a maternal show of disapproval. “Come sit down. Will you drink tea?”
Hulan, as custom dictated, politely refused.
But Madame Zhang would have none of it. “Sit down here. You pour. I’ll put these papers away.” As Hulan did as she was told, the old woman continued, “Today no fun for me. I have to file my report. So much paperwork, right, Hulan?”
“I have something for you to add to your report.”
“Don’t worry,” the Committee director chortled. “I have already put in your complaints. Formal, as you requested.”
“Then why isn’t anything done?”
“You think you are the only one to complain? Remember that hot line the government set up for people to call? They got almost two thousand calls the first day. Then they turned off the phone!” Madame Zhang clapped her hands on her knees.
“The musicians are not supposed to be near residences…”
“Or hospitals. I know. You don’t have to tell me. But you must look on the positive side. We are together maybe sixty thousand old people in different dance troupes. We are going outside the house and giving young people time at home alone. Daughters-in-law are happy. Sons are happy. Maybe next year we get a grandchild or great-grandchild–”
“Auntie,” Hulan cut in sternly.
At her tone Madame Zhang finally turned serious. “I remember when your mother returned to our neighborhood from the countryside all those years ago,” she said. “She’s the one who taught us these songs. She’s the one who taught us these dances. Now you tell me she doesn’t want us to make noise? Ha!”
“But do they have to do it so early in the morning?”
At this Madame Zhang put her head back and laughed and laughed. “This is summer, Hulan. We are in Beijing. What is the temperature at this hour? Thirty-eight degrees centigrade? The people want to practice early before it gets too hot.”
The old woman watched Hulan’s face as she struggled to come up with another argument. Finally Madame Zhang leaned over and put a hand on Hulan’s knee. “I know this must be hard for your mother. But she is just one person and the people want to have fun.” Her voice changed, becoming gruffer, deeper. “We all went through so much. We just want to enjoy the rest of our lives.”
Later, as Hulan walked back to her compound, she thought over Madame Zhang’s words. It was true, they’d all been through so much, too much really. In China the past would always be a part of the present. But unlike her neighbors, Hulan had the money and connections to make sure her family could escape it on occasion. When she reached the Liu compound she went directly to her mother’s quarters. The nurse had dressed Jinli, who now sat in her wheelchair. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying. Hulan tried to speak to her, but Jinli had retreated into silence. Hulan sat on the bed, dialed the phone, and made arrangements to send her mother and her nurse to the seaside resort of Beidaihe. They would be cooler there and away from the disturbing sounds of the yang ge troupes.
When she was done, Hulan carefully explained everything to Jinli, knowing that she might not understand anything that was said. Then Hulan kissed her mother, gave a few last instructions to the nurse, and made her way back to her own quarters.
At seven, Liu Hulan, dressed in a cream-colored silk dress, once again stepped through the gate of her hutong home to a waiting black Mercedes. A young man leaned against the back passenger door. “Good morning, Inspector,” he said as he opened the door and motioned for her to get in. “Step inside quickly. I have kept the car running. The air conditioning is good.”
Hulan sank into the soft leather cushions. Her driver, Investigator Lo, stepped on the gas and began heading toward Tiananmen Square and the Ministry of Public Security compound. Lo was a compact man — short, muscular and prudent with his thoughts and emotions. From reading his secret personal file, Hulan knew that he was from Fujian Province, single, and an expert at several martial arts disciplines.
Several times during the last two months since Investigator Lo had been assigned to her, Hulan had tried to include him in the analytical aspects of her investigations but he’d seemed circumspect, preferring to concern himself only with his chauffeuring duties. She’d invited him out for drinks, hoping that over a beer they might begin a friendship, but Lo had politely refused these offers as well. All of this was odd. Who would turn down an offer to climb the ladder at the ministry? It was through the successful conclusion of cases, recommendations from superiors, or political activities that investigators usually earned promotions. Investigator Lo appeared to have either no inkling of these rules or no aptitude for accomplishing any of these things, but Hulan was not surprised.
Her old driver, Peter, had been assigned to spy on her. Despite his lack of personal loyalty, Hulan had learned to depend on his judgment and instincts. She had hoped to build a similar relationship with Lo, but he seemed focused solely on his instructions from Vice Minister Zai, which apparently were limited to keeping tabs on her and working as some sort of bodyguard — a moving block of muscle with her protection as his goal. More than once she had needed to restrain Investigator Lo, who took it upon himself to physically bully witnesses who did not respond quickly enough to Hulan’s questions.
When she had gone to Vice Minister Zai to request that Lo be transferred, he had shaken his head and said, “This is how it will be, Inspector.” His manner — the way he dismissed her complaints and concerns — was new to her. But he, like all of them, was still trying to adjust and adapt to the changes that the last few months had brought. As the saying went, the blade of grass points where the wind blows. The only problem was that the wind was blowing in so many directions these days no one could completely protect himself.
These past months had been especially strange for Hulan. Her family had literally been ripped apart when she had had to expose her father as a smuggler, conspirator, and killer. The press — regulated as it was by the government — had made the story of his suicide headline news. There had been features about Hulan’s parents, her grandparents, even her great-grandparents — all of them shown in a bad light. But for a time the government had seen in Hulan’s own story a politically advantageous message, so her life had also been examined. Photographs had been dredged out of newspaper files as well as government records showing Hulan at various crime scenes, at political rallies from her youth, even as the baby daughter of one of Beijing’s then-most promising couples. Hulan had been compared time and again to her namesake — Liu Hulan, martyr for the Revolution.
Hulan had thought that this interest would pass. But instead of dwindling, the coverage had swung in another direction thanks to Bi Peng, a reporter for the People’s Daily. In a country that loved puns, Bi Peng was well known for his name. Bi was just a family name, but the tone sounded like bi, the word for pen. What he wrote about soon spread across the country. Now, to Hulan’s growing embarrassment and anger, several newspapers and magazines had run photographs of her as one of Beijing’s elite class — a Red Princess. Here was Hulan in a grainy photograph copied from a security tape dressed in a fuschia silk cheongsam and dancing at the Rumours nightclub with an American. This showed her decadence as clearly as if she’d been caught buying silk lingerie at one of Beijing’s new department stores.
But all this was just propaganda. Hulan had not been at the nightclub for fun, but rather to investigate a case. The American in the photo was David Stark, an assistant U.S. attorney, who had come to China to help solve a crime that had linked murders in America and China. The two of them had been successful and had been hailed as heroes. But it wasn’t safe for anyone in China to climb too high. Bi and other reporters had turned her relationship with David into a national scandal. Could the same Liu Hulan who had been treated as a brave woman now have succumbed to the depravity of the West in the form of this American man? Couldn’t she say bai bai — a mutant Mandarin-English phrase meaning to say “bye-bye” to lovers — to this foreign attorney? Hadn’t Inspector Liu read China Can Say No, the book that stressed the importance of just saying no to American imperialism, materialism, and sexism?
None of this should have surprised Hulan. All the world over, the press liked to build people up, then bring them down, then build them up again. The only difference between the rest of the world and China was that here the government helped to color what was said.
At the iron gates to the Ministry of Public Security compound, Investigator Lo flashed his identification and the car was waved through. Lo dropped Hulan as close to the entrance as possible, then drove away to find a parking spot in the shade. Hulan hurried inside, walked across the lobby, and climbed the back stairs to her office.
Like most public buildings in Beijing, this one had neither heat nor air conditioning to protect the inhabitants from the vicissitudes of the weather. In winter she worked with her coat on. In summer she wore simple silk dresses or linen shifts and used old-fashioned methods of conserving cool air. She kept her windows open at night so that the room would cool down, then closed them first thing in the morning to keep the hot air out for as long as possible. In the late afternoons, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she cracked the windows again. On the very hottest days she draped wet cloths on the window openings and hoped for a breeze.
Hulan settled in at her desk, opened a file and tried to concentrate, but she found her mind wandering. Her caseload was, to her mind at least, uninteresting. During these last months she’d been assigned to several murder cases. They’d been easy to solve, with nothing for her to do but fill out the paper work, deposit the prisoners at the jail, and turn up in court when the prosecutor called. That she knew all this was Vice Minister Zai’s plan to keep her safe didn’t make her feel any better about it.
* * *
A few hours later, the mailboy came by with a stack of envelopes. She went through them quickly. One held an inter-office report from Pathologist Fong. She didn’t need to read it as the entry wound on the body at the temple pretty much told the story on that case. There were a couple of forms to be signed and sent back to the prosecutor’s office. Again, nothing interesting on cases she could barely remember. But when she saw the return address on the last envelope her breath caught. She set it down on her desk and swung around to look out the window. Memories flooded back. A destitute village on a scorched plain. Pigs crying at slaughter. The smell of the red soil. The searing brightness of a brutal sun. And then other images — girls in pigtails berating a man until he broke down and confessed. People being beaten. Blood running as freely as sweat. Her heart pounding, Hulan picked up the envelope and tore it open.
Inspector Liu Hulan, Hulan read, I am Ling Suchee. I hope you remember me from your days at the Red Soil Farm. Hulan remembered. How could she not remember? In 1970, aged twelve, Hulan had been sent to the countryside to “learn from the peasants.” Now, sitting in her stifling office, Hulan was transported back across the years to when she was that young girl. Suchee had been her best friend. In those days of severity they had built a teasing relationship. With great affection Hulan had called Suchee her maor ye or country bumpkin. Suchee had called Hulan bei kuan, literally meaning “north-wealth.” Suchee had been funny, strong, and honest, where Hulan had been somber, had covered her city ways with false courage, and had already learned the political advantages of not always telling the truth. But for all of Hulan’s so-called sophistication, Suchee had gotten them out of trouble more than once.
Hulan looked back at the characters on the page. Today, on June 29 of the Western calendar, my daughter Ling Miaoshan died. Reading the circumstances of the girl’s death, Hulan’s hand instinctively went down to the early swell of her own pregnancy. My daughter worked for an American company. It is called — and here the crude characters gave way to even cruder print letters — Knight International. I see and know things, but no one will listen to me. My daughter is dead. My daughter is gone from me. You once said you would help me if I ever needed it. I need your help now. Please come quickly.
Hulan ran a finger over the characters of Ling Suchee’s name. Then she checked the date and realized that Miaoshan had died only five days ago. Taking a deep breath, she put away the letter, left her office and went up a flight of stairs to Vice Minister Zai’s office. He smiled when she came in and motioned for her to sit.
“I have sent Mama to Beidaihe,” she said.
“This is good. I will go and see her on the weekend.”
“I will also be leaving the city.”
Vice Minister Zai cocked an eye.
“I am going to Da Shui Village.”
Hulan saw a flicker of worry cross her mentor’s face as he realized this would be a personal conversation. It was said that there was no such thing as a wind-proof wall in China and that no one could ever be sure who was listening or not. People also said that things had relaxed, that there was too much going on – meaning that everyone, including the generals in the army, were trying to get rich – for so much time and effort to be given over to observation. But only a fool would take the risk that this was so. Even assuming the unlikely possibility that there was no electronic surveillance in the building, any of Vice Minister Zai’s assistants or tea girls could be made to repeat conversations they’d heard if push came to shove. Knowing this and knowing that their private lives had long been a matter of government record, Hulan and Zai attempted to continue their conversation. There was no mistaking the concern in Zai’s voice as he asked, “Do you think that is wise?”
“Do you think I have a choice?” Her tone was sharp.
“You of all people have choice,” he reminded her.
She chose to ignore this, saying, “The daughter of Ling Suchee has died. She is skeptical of the local police bureau’s official version of the case. Her suspicions are probably just her grief speaking, but I can go to her as a friend.”
“Hulan, the past is behind you. Forget about it.”
She sighed. “You have read my personal file. You know what happened out there. If Ling Suchee asks for my help, then I must go.”
“And if I forbid you?” he asked gently.
“Then I will use my vacation time,” she said.
She held up a hand to stop him from continuing. “I will come back as soon as I can.” She stood, crossed the room, then hesitated at the door. “Don’t worry, uncle,” she said, ironing the tension out of her voice. “Everything will be fine. It may even do me good to get out of the city for a while.” She paused, thinking he might add something, but they both knew her words had many meanings and some of them might even be right. “And please, do visit Mama. Your companionship helps her.”
A few minutes later she stepped out into the ministry’s courtyard. Heat radiated up from the asphalt. Investigator Lo started the car and as he pulled out of the compound she felt sweat trickle between her breasts down to her stomach where her child grew. She brushed her palm across her brow and thought of what Uncle Zai had said. “The past is behind you.” But he was so wrong. The past was never far from her. It was with her every day in the crippled form of her mother. It was in the joyous voices and rhythmic drums of the yang ge troupe. It was in the blurry photographs that she saw in the newspapers. It was in the scratchy writing on a cheap paper envelope. She carried within her the future, but what kind of a future would any of them have if she couldn’t drive the past away?