Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The Solitary Singer
“Not there. Still not there. Come on. Where are you hiding? Take a step. Just one step.” His voice is edged with anger and frustration. He scans the bleak landscape through his binoculars, sliding across a carefully calculated arc from right to left watching for something to betray the presence of someone hiding on the grassy plateau that unfolds all around us.
After several more tense minutes he lowers the binoculars, drops to his knees beside me and shakes his head. “It’s no use,” he sighs.
I pull myself to my knees and peer over the low stone wall, shading my eyes with my hand. Nothing moves. From the wall to the distant row upon row of majestic mountain peaks the landscape is still as a photograph.
“See her?” he asks.
“No.” I answer.
“She has magical powers,” he says and gives me a guileless smile. “And she’s clever. Very clever. They say she commands the wind to conceal her when someone comes looking for her. And the wind obeys, flinging swirls of dust or snow to blind them. It’s one of her tricks. Oh, she’s just full of them.”
He waits for my reaction to these words. I smile and nod. But I say nothing.
He seems bothered by my silence. “What is it?” he asks. “What’s wrong with you?”
My response is to turn my gaze back to the grassland.
“Maybe you don’t believe me?”
I slowly sink to the ground next to the soldier, our backs pressed tightly against the low cold wall. He shakes a cigarette loose from a pack stuffed in his tunic pocket and lights it behind a cupped hand. “Or is it that you’re too young?” he asks and inhales deeply, holding the smoke for a moment and exhaling slowly. “But she’s not like you or your friends,” he motions toward the tight circle of green-uniformed girls huddled together drinking tea from little cups and giggling next to the nearby barracks. “As a matter of fact, she is not like any of us.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “That she is not Chinese? That she is Tibetan?”
“No…not that. What I mean is that she is not human.”
He lowers his voice. “She is not flesh and blood. She’s a spirit. A goddess.”
His tone reveals reverence and fear, as if describing a deeply personal religious experience that bothers him because he can’t quite explain it.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“I know because I know. Everyone posted up here on the roof of the world knows. We are closer to heaven here, and she’s sent down from heaven to tease us. Before long you’ll know. After that you will not ask such a question. You’ll hear for yourself,” he tells me before turning his face to the pallid late-afternoon sky as if he’d not noticed it before.
The sun is sinking behind the mountains and the last light of the day is fading fast. “Don’t take my word for it,” he continues. “In a few hours you’ll hear -- if you’re lucky.”
Shortly after our arrival at the post, lonely soldiers encircle us and excitedly share their stories of the singing goddess of grasslands and the mountains. Some are obsessed. Most appear convinced absolutely of her divinity.
The members of our company murmur to each other that these soldiers suffer from a mass delusion. They are dizzy with desire. Perhaps it’s the thin air. We laugh at them behind their backs.
The soldier sitting with me rises and shuffles down past the women seated on the ground nearby and assures them that they’ll hear the voice of the solitary singer after darkness falls.
“Is she a goddess, like they say?” one girl asks derisively. “You are quite sure of it?” The others titter.
“Quite sure,” he responds and retreats directly to his quarters.
Some soldiers confide sheepishly that they build fantasies around her when they see her in their dreams. They lie on their beds listening and her ghostly melodies elicit vivid memories of home, of faraway wives or lovers or children, of buried romance and passion, and a deep disconcerting awareness of their current utter solitude as well as of the life they long to live.
The songs of the solitary singer are soft soliloquies of desire. The listening soldiers muse, “If only I could see her. If I could approach her and reach out one time and touch her. Speak to her. If I might tell her what I feel in my heart when she sings. If she spoke to me. What then?”
But they know this will not happen. She lives in the shadows. She keeps her
distance and laughs at them when they stumble from posts to pursue her.
When she stops singing they are frustrated and melancholy. In the morning when the soldiers wash their clothing, we listen to them sing:
Here I sit washing
Day after day
While millions of my sons
Go floating away.
A few of the most brazen try to make eye contact with us, but we blush and turn away. We know the meaning of their hungry look, their words, their frustration and their unrequited and dangerous yearnings. Their faces are red with passion, ours with embarrassment.
Other travelers on the mountain road also hear the soldiers’ stories. Even the most skeptical, we are assured, become believers. They sit outside smoking and sipping warm tea and then, as the first stars flicker in the evening, they hear that voice. That voice!
How difficult to describe. “You must experience it!” they insist. It startles at first. There is usually a single lingering note, a faint deep moan, and a sound that might easily be mistaken for the cry of a wolf lost faraway in the mountains. That’s a common term used in attempting to describe it – like a wolf. It is vulpine and vaporous. Each individual note after that seems to tumble independently over the flat grasslands. Listeners prick up their ears and hold their breath. The note fades. Another rises, falters and evaporates. Slowly the melody emerges and expands. It beckons and startles simultaneously, dancing down from heaven like a divine zephyr, cascading down the spiked spine of the Himalayas, and moments later flaring up from the rolling steppe, almost diabolical. At times it floats on the light night air like the fragrance of a flower from home. Listeners soon sense that only a trained exquisite voice could navigate so gracefully through such an expressive range. And it is the voice of a woman.
Some nights, driven to desperation by her song, soldiers saddle their horses and race into the darkness in pursuit of the singer. In the winter they search for telltale footprints in the snow. In the spring and summer they follow the sound of the singing or laughing – since she laughs loudly as her pursuers emerge from their compounds – and end up chasing moon shadows.
Stories are told of some soldiers who never return and their fate is unknown. Those who come back ride with heads bowed, worn down by their quest. Frustrated and fatigued, they later listen for her lullaby. If there is no song that night, –if they have frightened her away –they sometimes shut their eyes and cry.
I heard the legend of this woman during my first journey to Tibet in 1970 with my PLA unit. I was 15 years old.
I was in middle school four years earlier when the Cultural Revolution began. With several of my school friends I joined the Red Guards, the unforgiving youthful fists of the movement. I traveled to Beijing, saw Chairman Mao and received his blessing along with the millions of others who assembled in Tiananmen Square. From there I traveled around the country with detachments of Red Guards uncovering and punishing active counterrevolutionaries and other suspected enemies of the revolution.
By the time I returned to Nanjing, classes had been suspended. With other Red Guards, I spent most of my time breaking into the homes of teachers, professors, intellectuals, public officials and other once-respected people who had suddenly fallen into political disfavor. We ransacked their homes, burned their books, photographs and scrapbooks along with other remnants of their bourgeois life style while they cowered in the corners of their rooms. Chairman Mao legitimized unmitigated hatred of our enemies and we learned to love to hate. I found it a surprisingly fulfilling emotional experience.
We were as powerful as emperors. The adults who recently ordered us around suddenly lived in fear of us. We held rallies, built bonfires, recited quotations from Chairman Mao, waved our Little Red Books over our heads and pounded the sky with our fists. We paraded up and down the streets and identified enemies and planned the best time to storm their living quarters.
We seized whatever we wanted from those we hated. Money, bicycles, clothing, books – anything – was ours for the taking. We usually burned the books we found and kept useful tools for making revolution like bicycles or phonographs. On any street we could detain people, accuse them of having an anti-revolutionary haircut or bourgeois clothing, cut off their braids or bangs, slice open the sleeves of their jackets or shirts, and send them scurrying. If we wanted money we inspected the contents of a purse or bag and confiscated the cash. It was a wonderful time to be young.
I performed patriotic skits on the street with my Red Guard comrades. We melodramatically acted out the pursuit and punishment of landlords, spies and counter-revolutionaries. We bellowed songs praising Chairman Mao and the Revolution and commanded the crowds around us to join in the singing. They were afraid not to.
Because we were the authorized agents of Mao and his revolution and because he made all of this possible and we could not exist without him, we worshipped him as our creator, one true god and imagined him as the sun rising in the East.
During one of our performances we were closely watched by a female soldier. She pulled me and my best friend aside later and told us she was recruiting for a unit of singing and dancing soldiers. She liked our enthusiasm and patriotism, she said, and felt we might be taught to dance and our voices trained so that we’d fit right in with her group. The next day we auditioned for her privately. My friend was dismissed but I was selected for induction into the PLA. The next day I found myself on a train to Beijing where several more soldiers watched me sing and dance. Shortly after that I was dispatched to the regional PLA headquarters in Chengdu.
Military life was not what I expected. It was all joyless drills and rehearsals. I missed my friends and my family in Nanjing. And most disappointing to me at that time, I was forbidden from confronting or intimidating people on the street and taking whatever I wanted from them. I had become a servant of the people, I was taught. The good days were gone. There were nights when I thought of running away and returning to Nanjing. But my parents had been proud and happy to see me selected for the PLA at such a young age and I feared disappointing them. I was also uncertain how my former Red Guard comrades might treat me if they found I was a deserter. So I stayed.
Following several months of instruction I was assigned to one of the units that entertained soldiers stationed on the road to Lhasa. Each group of about 15 performers and officers traveled the precipitous serpentine route in a caravan of four trucks. We brought our own costumes, sets and sound equipment on our journey. We departed from Chengdu at the end of June each summer when the weather was most favorable and spent the next several months performing.
The military posts we visited were staffed by men only. They went for months without seeing a woman. Our unit consisted of women as well as men and for that reason alone we were warmly welcomed wherever we stopped and encamped.
On my first trek to Lhasa I learned of the mysterious singer. A soldier accompanied me to the wall encircling the post where we encamped and searched for some sign of her with his field glasses. He failed. My comrades and I were skeptical. Following our performance that evening we removed our makeup and changed from our costumes back into our uniforms and sat on the ground under the stars talking and waiting to hear the voice.
And a few hours later we heard it.
She seemed close. We tried to see her in the dark. Some soldiers shined flashlights back and forth searching for her. But we saw no one out there.
The following morning we questioned Tibetan herdsmen camped nearby. They said they’d sometimes heard singing too but had never seen the singer. Every Tibetan we spoke to in the region, in fact, said he had heard her but never seen her. Who she was and where she lived were mysteries within a mystery.
On my second journey to Lhasa the following June, the PLA dispatched two special emissaries with my group to find the girl and bring her back to Chengdu.
Some higher ups in the PLA, having heard the legend of this solitary singer, concluded that if she really existed she might make a popular performer with one of our units. But someone had to find her before they could recruit her.
Orders were issued.
The designated emissaries were experienced recruiters. Over the years they had auditioned hundreds of young performers who – if they were good enough – were inducted into the army.
One of them, Teacher Xu, was director of the singing department at the regional military headquarters in Chengdu. He had once been an accomplished performer and was celebrated throughout the province for his high leaps, dramatic pirouettes and a voice strong and deep as a large temple bell.
He’d starred in scores of popular patriotic productions. But the Cultural Revolution did not appreciate his talents. The Red Guards at the school where he taught discovered he had an older brother who fled to Taiwan in 1949 just before Liberation. They stormed Teacher Xu’s second floor studio and confronted him with the grim fact of his family history and demanded an explanation. When he tried to point out that there had been a mistake, the Red Guards seized him in mid sentence and threw him out the window, screaming and laughing, “Fly, song bird! Fly!”
His students, who watched in terror, were beaten and chased from the studio.
Teacher Xu suffered severe fractures of both arms and legs and a broken jaw. He also lost all of his front teeth.
He never performed publicly again.
A short time after the incident, however, it was learned that Teacher Xu’s older brother had not defected to Taiwan. He was alive and well and living in Shanghai and was a good citizen and a Party member. Teacher Xu was consequently partially rehabilitated. The PLA recruited him as a dancing and singing instructor and shipped him to Chengdu.
The Red Guard responsible for ordering Teacher Xu thrown from the window was Wang Ping. She was a much-feared and merciless leader of a particularly brutal faction of the local Red Guard. Teacher Xu was not the only suspect she had thrown out a window. There were others, we learned.
Before she became a Red Guard, Wang had been a popular performer with the opera in Shanghai where she met Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao, several times.
Later there were rumors about a romantic connection between Xu and Wang. It was whispered that Wang had a crush on Teacher Xu and had approached him repeatedly but each time had been rebuffed. Students learned of her futile efforts and ridiculed her. The Cultural Revolution, however, suddenly empowered her. She became a prominent outspoken Red Guard and sought revenge against anyone she felt had wronged her.
Wang became a Communist party member and was inducted into the PLA, where she served as a political commissar. She was assigned to a unit in provincial military headquarters in Chengdu along with Teacher Xu.
Commissar Wang was picked to accompany Teacher Xu in the search for the solitary singer. It was an odd pairing, to be sure, but officials of the Party and the PLA seemed to delight in forcing an awkward companionship on former adversaries. Wang was also charged with monitoring the policies and behavior of soldier-performers and guaranteeing the political correctness of our productions. She presided over the political study sessions we were required to attend on a regular basis. As a leading Communist party cadre she reported her findings to higher Party officials. Through her reports she had the power to make or break any performer or supervisor.
The teacher and the commissar spent weeks searching for the solitary singer. Wherever we performed, they ventured onto the nearby plateaus and into the mountains seeking information on her. They always came back empty handed.
They posted messages in Tibetan villages asking for help in finding the woman. They hinted at a reward for anyone who provided relevant information. Scores of Tibetan herdsmen were asked if they had seen the woman. “Do you know where we can find the singer?” they were asked. “Where should we look for her during the day? You should assist us. It is your duty.”
The herdsmen replied that Yes she passed by yesterday or last full moon but I don’t know where she went or where she lives. They said that they’d heard – never revealing where they heard it -- that she was here or there. Some reported that they’d glimpsed her in the distance and listened to her singing and pointed out locations on a map. But none knew her name or had any more information about her.
On the other hand, they cautioned, they might have heard a wolf or a crane. In fact the sound they heard was similar to that of a wild animal.
After saying that, they moved on.
Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang kept insisting that someone among the Tibetans must know more about this woman. Someone knew where she lived, knew her name and where to find her. Yet they could locate no one to volunteer this information to them.
The searchers followed every lead and traveled by truck and horse far beyond the military posts. But to no avail.
They spent their last quiet night in Tibet, six-day’s drive from Lhasa. Early the next morning they were awakened by singing – a low hushed voice beckoned them from somewhere nearby. The voice was beautiful and rich, not like any they’d heard before.
Commissar Wang leaped from her bunk, pulled on her tunic and hurried into the hall. Teacher Xu was waiting for her. As they raced toward the stairs – thinking the singer was outside –their route was suddenly blocked by a dark obstruction.
They stopped, curious and cautious, several feet from what seemed to be an enormous fetid pile of soiled clothes.
“What is this?” Teacher Xu asked the commissar as they fumbled in the darkness.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “Perhaps it’s someone’s idea of a prank.”
“Why would anyone block the hall with dirty clothes?” Teacher Xu asked.
They approached the mass cautiously. When Commissar Wang reached out to remove it, the clothes sprang to life. The teacher and the commissar shouted, “Ahhhhh” and jumped back stumbling over each other and pressing themselves side by side against the wall.
The pile of clothing appeared to erupt, disgorging more and more stinking garments from within until it was as tall as Commissar Wang. Then it parted to reveal a hideous face and long wildly flapping sleeves. Teeth flashed. A musical note rang out like a siren and was followed by a blast of laughter. This was a nightmare come to life.
Standing before them was a woman. But her appearance was like no other woman they had ever seen before.
She wore many layers of worn jackets, vests, skirts and trousers. Her black hair was long and bushed out wildly in every direction like a bristling ball of wire. Her eyes were narrow slices above broad cheekbones and glowed from within like embers under ashes. She opened them wider as she leered at the two cowering Chinese.
Most terrifying of all was the woman’s skin – dappled in shades of reddish brown and black – her face resembled a chunk of rotting liver with eyes and teeth. In places the flesh seemed to have peeled away and hung down in long strips giving her the appearance of someone who had just crawled from the grave. Her pervasive pungent scent was that of a feral animal.
She stepped toward them waving her long sleeves up and down like the wings of a bat, as if, they thought, she was trying to terrify them. If so, she was successful. The teacher and the commissar trembled beside each other, utterly tongue-tied.
She took another step and her heavy boots clomped hard on the concrete floor. Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang inched backward, stumbling over each other, hugging the wall, their eyes locked on her.
Finally, she blinked several times, shook her head, glowered and growled and burst into hysterical laughter.
Others, hearing the commotion, climbed from their beds and peered sleepily into the hall. When the woman heard footsteps and saw faces at the doors, she retreated toward the stairs. She was unusually nimble given her cumbersome layers of clothing. As figures emerged into the hallway, she spun around and ran to the head of the stairs. She paused there, grinning broadly back at Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang, baring her teeth. Then she flew down the stairs and out the barracks door. She darted across the small parade ground and through the front gate.
The sentries saw her approach and moved at first as if to block her way – but when they saw the dappled face close up and when they heard the low growl they stepped aside. Their mouths fell open, their knees weakened and they could do nothing but stand transfixed as she raced out the gate and ran away. They watched her disappear in the dark, their hearts racing.
Once she was a safe distance from the post, she resumed singing and the sentries immediately recognized the voice – it was the solitary singer.
Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang regained their composure, pulled on their shoes and pursued her. But by the time they left the post, she was nowhere in sight. They stopped on a slight rise in the midst of a forest of snapping Tibetan prayer flags and shouted repeatedly into the slanting rays of the morning sun, asking her to return, telling her they meant no harm. They patrolled the area around the post for the remainder of the morning, but found no trace of her.
Late that afternoon she returned. She came galloping over the steppe on a short-legged gray horse, leaning forward in the saddle, leaving a light trail of dust behind her. The sentries spotted her first in the distance. Outside the gate she pulled up suddenly and leaped from the animal’s back. She whispered in the animal’s ear and released the reigns. The horse took a few steps and quietly began nibbling on the short grass. The woman strode boldly through the front gate and waited outside the barracks to meet the teacher and the commissar. A soldier informed them they had a visitor.
She spoke some Mandarin – a surprise to everyone – and so the teacher and the commissar were able to communicate directly with her. They explained why they’d come looking for her. They said they’d almost given up hope of finding her.
“Here I am,” she said. “You have found me. What now?”
“Well,” Teacher Xu began. “What I want to know is…what happened to your face? Were you burned?”
The woman laughed and told them she lathered her face each morning with fresh yak blood. She never intended to frighten anyone, she insisted. Yak blood was good for the skin and Tibetans wore it on their faces and arms to protect them from the bright sun and the harsh cold winds. She wore it like cream, yet more lavishly, as a herding girl in the mountains. It kept her skin beautiful and soft, she claimed.
When Teacher Xu asked about her parents or siblings she said she was an orphan and all alone in the world. She had been herding the yaks in the region for as long as she could remember. Years earlier when she saw the bright lights and heard singing from the military post she crept near them and watched and listened to the performances of the singing and dancing soldiers. Later, out of earshot, she tried to sing their songs. She wanted to perform for the soldiers too, she said, but was afraid of them. She knew they had been listening to her and pursuing her for years.
Finally, Teacher Xu asked if she might sing for them now to prove she was the really the woman who serenaded lonely soldiers from the grasslands.
She agreed and said she would perform a song she’d composed. Then, strangely, she walked away several steps as if she was about to depart. She kept her back to the soldiers and stood facing the distant Himalayas. She started to sing, as if to the mountains alone. This close, her voice had incredible clarity and power. “There was that familiar wildness to it,” Teacher Xu said later, “something totally natural and untamed and so infused with passion and life. So pure as to be …” and here he seemed at a loss for words. “So pure,” he repeated. “A wild bird. But about to be caged.”
No one moved while she sang verse after verse of her song. The words of her song were Tibetan. Her voice had the heartbreaking tone of one mourning the loss of a parent or a child or a lover. Who could not identify with that? Her gentle lilting melody caressed and kissed the soul of every listener. One of the soldiers burst into tears and covered his face.
When she’d finished there was silence. She waited several minutes before turning to face her audience. No one moved. No one breathed. All were stunned. They stood in silence gaping at her.
“This is a voice you could find nowhere else in the world,” Teacher Xu exclaimed, at last, breaking the silence. “Only in Tibet! Only in Tibet!”
The woman cocked her head to one side, as if awaiting further comment. “This is…so unexpected,” Teacher Xu muttered at last. “I’ve never heard anything like it before. Never.”
“I know,” the woman replied.
“And yet,” he continued, “your voice is not quite suitable for the kinds of songs performed by my group. You will need intensive training from me to learn to perform traditional Chinese music.”
“Are you willing to undertake such study with us?” Commissar Wang asked.
“I am,” the woman answered.
Finally, Commissar Wang asked simply, “So will you join the PLA performing group?”
“It is my dream,” she said.
“And what shall we call you?” Commissar Wang asked. “What is your name?”
“I am…” and then she spoke her name in Tibetan. In Chinese it sounded like Yeying, our word for or nightingale. And when asked her to repeat it, she giggled and said the same word.
“Yeying,” Teacher Xu said. “But of course.”
And the girl smiled and nodded.
So, to us from that day on she was Yeying the nightingale.
Commissar Wang asked where she lived and she said she lived with her yaks in the hills. Wang said they were departing soon for Chengdu and asked if she could gather her belongings and join them. She said she’d return the next day. She needed to visit friends in the nearby villages to say goodbye.
She giggled when she talked. The soldiers stared at her and sometimes she stared back at them, scowling, widening her eyes, until the men turned away and then she burst into laughter. There was something unquestionably sensual about her, it seemed, yet everyone also sensed her utter and total innocence. She was a wild child with unexpected standards and manners that were at once repulsive and compelling to us.
She returned the next afternoon lugging extra clothing rolled up in a tight bundle and slung over her shoulder. Some of the herdsmen who previously denied knowing who she was accompanied her to the gate and bade her goodbye, tearfully. She cried at first but then giggled and laughed and her laughter caused those with her to burst out laughing. Then she sang a song for them and they stood very still and listened and when she was finished they returned to their homes and their herds and she came inside the post.
Later that day, Teacher Xu radioed the good news to Chengdu that he was returning with the Solitary Singer. Yeying was helped into the back of a military truck – a marvel to her that she had seen only at a distance and could not quite comprehend where the horses were concealed that pulled it. Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang accompanied her. The rest of our group traveled in another truck.
In Chengdu she was assigned a room in my dormitory. In a short time Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang successfully altered her appearance. The yak blood was gone from her face and her hair was washed and trimmed and trained. She had two long braids and tucked them under a standard military cap. She was issued a green uniform and her Tibetan clothing and boots were stored with Teacher Xu.
The change from the first time we’d seen her was dramatic. She looked something like us except for her height, her dark skin and her extremely narrow eyes. In the past Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang favored performers with large round eyes. She was an exception. But her behavior remained unusual in the extreme. We found her to be a strange bird indeed.
At first she was constantly laughing at us, amused by the sound of our voices and by the sound of our Mandarin itself, by our questions and our uniforms, by her own uniform, by our hair and skin as well as by our stares.
“You look so funny” and “you sound so funny” were her most common observations of us. When we asked her a question, her first response was to giggle saying she thought Chinese words sounded hilarious. Then she’d mutter something in Tibetan, as if speaking to an invisible fellow Tibetan nearby, shut her eyes and laugh until tears streamed down her face. Trying to calm her or stop her by saying anything more produced only louder laughter. We could do nothing but wait several minutes and then speak very slowly while she smiled broadly and kept her mouth open as if in astonishment at our peculiar way of expression.
We asked her what her age was and she answered, “I’m 15.” That was hard to believe. She looked older. Much older. We thought, “My God, she is at least 30.” Some girls said that her life outside in the thin air and the brilliant sun had aged and wrinkled her skin despite the yak blood, and she therefore appeared to be much older than she was. They had seen this, they said, in other Tibetans.
She was several inches taller than the other female soldiers and even stood taller than many of the boys. She was straight and strong with thick, muscular arms and legs, rough hands and broad shoulders. She was a bit bow-legged as a result, we thought, of spending so much time on the back of a horse. And while we had learned to walk gracefully and delicately on the balls of our feet, she swaggered about flat footed. She took long deliberate strides and swung her arms from side to front as if she were perpetually scaling an incline.
Within a short time of arriving in Chengdu she announced that she’d made a mistake in leaving Tibet and she wanted to go home. She complained that she had a bad headache and could neither think nor sing. Teacher Xu was worried and asked what was wrong. “There are too many people here,” she complained. “I can’t breathe. There are more people here than there are yaks in Tibet. There is not enough air. I’ll suffocate if I stay here.”
Finally she refused to get out of bed because, she said, “of all the people.”
Teacher Xu assured her that there was enough air in Chengdu for everyone to breathe. We would not run out. And the many people, he said, would be her appreciative audience some day. Then he left her alone to her unhappiness. He allowed her to stay in bed. After four days, however, she miraculously recovered. The crowds no longer bothered her, she said. And she could breathe, at last.
After she decided to stay she demonstrated an enthusiastic fascination with the conveniences we enjoyed in Chengdu. The first thing she loved was running water. She’d never seen plumbing before. She’d never showered with hot water or brushed her teeth. She at first pronounced these practices to be hilarious and unnecessary then she adopted them with alacrity. She remained in the shower twice as long as the rest of us and she brushed her teeth so vigorously we feared she’d make them all fall out. Then in turn she was enthralled by cosmetics, soap, toothpaste, clothing, underwear, musical instruments – especially the piano – cars and bicycles and trucks, electric lights, and the street markets.
She was of two minds. She wanted to try everything new and fit in and be like us. She really wanted to learn to perform as Teacher Xu tried to train her to perform. But on the other hand, she also wished to remain a Tibetan – both outside and inside. She was a curious contradiction, an eager student but fiercely protective of everything Tibetan.
As she comprehended how different she was from us, her skin and her hair and her eyes and her heart and her voice she became sensitive about these things. Many times she mocked us and said she was superior to us in every way. Yet in time she carefully copied our behavior and our speech patterns and even our dress. She felt in some way that she was alienated by her own looks. Every night she lingered in the bathroom and scrubbed her skin with a harsh brush, a brush that we used to clean our clothes. She seemed to be trying to wash away the darkness and become light like us. She used the brush until it burned and scratched her skin. Her arms and legs showed patches of pink and red. We assured her that we found her dark skin and wild hair lovely. She agreed with us at first and told us we didn’t have to tell her these things and that she knew she was beautiful. Yet she continued to attempt to erase her differences.
She could not dance and she had trouble learning. In our dance classes, which were mandatory for all members of the singing-and-dancing soldiers, she clomped about the floor while we leaped and twirled around her. “Yeying,” the dance instructor called out repeatedly. “What is the matter with you? Some people have two left feet. But you have two left hoofs. Step lightly. Be graceful. Try to float. Don’t move like a yak. Move like a rabbit.”
Yeying responded to the criticism by cursing under her breath and continuing to move as she had moved before. She was incapable of dancing the way we did. Sometimes the instructor had us practice running out onto the floor in a long line as we did at the start and completion of each of our performances. Yeying could never stop in time. She crashed into the dancers in front of her, often knocking them down. They complained to the instructor and said they feared Yeying might injure them. Finally, to protect us, the instructor gave Yeying private lessons. But she just could not dance.
A few of the girls made fun of her habits. She ate yogurt that she purchased from Tibetan traders she’d met at the street market. She was excited about finding familiar food from her homeland. She offered each of us a spoonful. Back then we didn’t know what yogurt was. It was completely new to us. We took turns tasting it, and one of the female dancers spit it out and exclaimed, “This is terrible. The smell is sickening. How can you eat this garbage, Yeying?”
Yeying had an explosive temper. And when she lost her temper she cursed loudly and made threatening gestures. No sooner had the words come from the girl’s mouth than Yeying went for her. She shouted, “I am going to kill you. I’m going to strangle you. I am going to throttle you one of these days.” Her face grew flushed and her teeth flashed. She grabbed the front of the girl’s tunic and began shaking her. We separated the two girls. Yeying released the other girl, but she still made hostile gestures with her hands, as though wringing the girl’s neck.
When we’d calmed her, she resumed her normal demeanor almost as if nothing had happened and continued eating her yogurt. “Yak shit would be too good for you,” she shot at the girl who didn’t like yogurt. The girl was terrified and left the room and remained jumpy and afraid for the next few days.
We learned to accept Yeying’s mercurial temper. Almost anything could set her off. One morning in the bathroom one of the girls sniffed the air, leaned toward Yeying and said she smelled like rancid yak butter. Yeying seized her around the waist and carried her out of the shower and down the hallway and threw her naked and screaming out the front door of the barracks and then shut and locked the door behind her. The fact that Yeying was naked also seemed not to bother her at all. Soldiers passing by outside stopped to stare at the spectacle of the two naked girls wrestling to get through the door. Once Yeying succeeded in throwing the other girl out she looked directly at the wide-eyed male spectators and shouted, “What are you looking at?” Intimidated by this shamelessness, they turned their gaze to the other girl who was frantically trying to cover her bare body with her hands.
Another girl said that when we went to Tibet she used the local money and it was transparent because of the oil from Tibetans’ bodies. Yeying exploded and jumped up and down and screamed, “Are you insulting me?” She shook her fist in the girl’s face and threatened, “I will smash your face in, you filthy little Chinese.” She continued issuing vows and threats until the girl left the barracks.
She had many peculiar threatening gestures, and vows. Over time we learned to take them in stride. She was forever threatening to kill or strangle or beat or mutilate this or that girl and always after we’d calmed her down, she seemed to forget about it in a few minutes. She seldom bore a grudge for more than a week. But if memory serves me right, at one time or another she threatened to kill every girl and every instructor in our platoon. “I’m going to kill you,” was a phrase we heard nearly every day. Several girls learned to mimic Yeying and when she was not present they shouted “I am going to kill you” or “I am going to wring your neck” if they dropped a comb or couldn’t find an article of clothing.
Among the things that Yeying did not like was Chinese food. She was constantly complaining about the meals we were provided. “Why isn’t yogurt served?” She asked. “Why isn’t there butter tea?” or, “Why isn’t there more meat?”
Our cooking staff cut our meat into very small pieces. Yeying didn’t eat with chopsticks – she refused to and said it was stupid. She ate with a knife and with her bare hands and she couldn’t pick up the small pieces of meat. She became so angry she left the table and went into the kitchen to get herself “real” meat.
The cooks told her, “We gave you real meat. Stop complaining.”
“You call this meat?” she shouted. She held out a sliver of the meat they’d given her. “This is not pig,” she said. “This is the fart of the pig. You are serving me pig farts.”
The cooks, who took pride in their work, were insulted and shocked. “Get out of here, you crazy Tibetan,” one of them yelled.
“Crazy Tibetan,” Yeying cried. “I’ll kill you for that.” She attacked the entire kitchen staff. She climbed onto one of their counters, grabbed a huge iron pot that contained the day’s soup and threw it on them. Then she held the handle and began swinging it over her head and chased the cooks around the kitchen.
Those of us who had been eating in the mess hall heard this tremendous clatter, screaming and shouting and we wondered what was happening. We went to the kitchen and found Yeying chasing the cooks with the large iron pot. The cooks tried to stay out of her reach and waved cleavers in the air in an effort to intimidate her.
The cooks were covered with noodles and spinach and everyone was slipping on the wet floor. And to add to the confusion Yeying continued to threaten to kill every one of the cooks while they threatened to kill her.
Yet we soon saw that all of them – Yeying and the cooks – were laughing and having a good time, too. Their anger had dissipated and their threats were empty by the time we arrived on the scene. The cooks knew Yeying could not catch them and that she really didn’t want to hurt them nor did they want to hurt her. Every insult was followed by a laugh. We succeeded in calming Yeying and before we left, one of the cooks gave her a large slice of pork to take with her to her room.
While there were many things she said she disliked, Yeying fell completely in love with the bicycle. When she first saw a bicycle she was afraid of it. “Look at the funny horses!” she shouted and pointed as two girls rode past us on the street. We told her they were not horses and she said, “Of course they are. Those are horses with no feet and no legs. And look how fast they can run.” She examined a parked bicycle and exclaimed, “It doesn’t listen to me but I can tell it is alive.” She stroked the seat and the handlebars and whispered to the bicycle while we watched.
Later we taught her to balance herself on a bicycle and to ride. Several of us helped her onto the seat and steadied her and then she peddled around and around the parade ground laughing like a little girl, calling to everyone to look at her. After a few practice sessions she could ride on her own. She peddled furiously and rode endlessly around the parade ground, laughing and giving orders to the bicycle. We had never seen her so happy before.
The problem with her bicycle riding was that she did not know how to mount or dismount or steer. She could only ride in a circle and needed assistance in starting and stopping. When she wished to stop, she shouted to us to grab the bicycle and stop it for her. We tried to show her how the brakes worked but she just couldn’t master stopping. The bicycle remained to her a wild horse that refused to be broken. Sometimes she shouted for it to stop, commanded it to stop, but it never obeyed. She remained intent, nonetheless, on taming the wild bicycle.
Day after day she rode a bicycle around the parade grounds, talking to it, sometimes striking the handlebars with her fist. But one day after riding for nearly an hour, the front gate of the base opened and a truck drove out. Yeying, steered her bicycle from its usual circular course and followed the truck out the gate and rode away down the street. She began screaming, “Hey, where do you think you’re going,” as if the bicycle had a mind of its own. Several of us chased after her and shouted for her to stop but she kept right on going and disappeared in the traffic.
We reported to our leaders that Yeying had gone off the post alone because she didn’t know how to control her bicycle. They worried that she might be injured in the heavy traffic in Chengdu. They organized groups to search for her. Several of us mounted our own bicycles and raced out onto the streets crying out her name and asking people if they’d seen her.
She rode so fast that we thought she must be miles from the base by the time we began looking for her. We asked people if they’d seen her they nodded yes and pointed in this or that direction. Finally, we straggled back to our headquarters frustrated and concerned. Some of our senior leaders criticized us and demanded to know how we could let Yeying leave the post alone on a bicycle. We tried to explain that the bicycle carried her away despite her protests. They looked at us like we’d all lost our minds.
That evening she returned, riding the bicycle into the post, shouting ahead for the sentries to open the gate. When we heard she was back we ran out to find her riding around in circles on the parade ground. She told us to help her stop. We surrounded her and grabbed and stopped the bicycle and told her how happy we were to see her again and asked what had happened.
“The damned beast would not stop. I hung on until finally I fell down on the street,” she said.
“Were you injured?” someone asked.
“Injured?” she laughed. “It was nothing. I sometimes fell off my horses in Tibet. It’s OK.” She showed us that she had scratched her hands and knees on the pavement.
“How did you get on the bicycle again?” I asked her.
“Well,” she answered, “it was easy. I just stood in the middle of the street and shouted, ‘Come here and hold my bicycle for me,’ and people came over and helped me get back on and get started again. I commanded the bicycle to bring me back here and it did.”
When Yeying came to Chengdu she brought with her a bundle of ration coupons for textiles. In Tibet the government provided more textiles to the people than in the rest of China, because the Tibetans required more for their robes and other clothing. The Tibetans were, therefore, provided with twice as many coupons as we were. But the selection of textiles available in Tibet was not always to the people’s satisfaction, so when Yeying’s friends learned she was coming to Chengdu they gave her coupons and money asked her to send textiles back to them.
After she became comfortable with her new quarters she ventured outside and in a short time discovered street markets. She loved the merchandise available there and spent several hours each weekend shopping for colorful material for her fellow Tibetans. When she returned to the post she sputtered about her purchases and unfolded and displayed the gaudily colored silk and cotton cloth for us and described what sort of jackets and skirts and trousers it would be turned into in Tibet. She was bubbling over with enthusiasm as she showed us her purchases, like a little girl with a new toy. She even mimicked the expressions and words of her friends in Tibet when they received the material. We sat in a circle around her laughing and clapping our hands at her excitement and joy.
But the third time she went shopping, her money and coupons were stolen. When she reached into her military shoulder bag she found it had been sliced open by a razor and everything was gone. She could not understand what had happened to her or why.
She was in a daze. “How can this be?” she kept asking and repeatedly peered inside the empty bag as if she expected the missing items to reappear. “How could the Chinese do things like this to other people?”
“Are you sure it was a Chinese robber,” I asked? “It may have been a Tibetan.”
She turned to me and growled, “Never a Tibetan! Never!”
“You should have been more careful, Yeying. Don’t you have thieves in
She snapped, “No, we don’t have thieves in Tibet and we don’t have to guard our purses and we don’t have to lock our tents. Anyone can walk in when they are tired and they can sleep. And they do. The next morning we wake up and find a new person in our tent asleep. We don’t ask what he is doing there. We know what he is doing there. He was tired and he came inside to sleep. And if he is hungry he can get something to eat. He doesn’t need to steal anything.” Stealing was an entirely inexplicable notion to her.
I tried to tell her how thieves targeted shoppers in the market and snatched money and other valuables from them. She listened to me impatiently, all the time with a look of utter incredulity. When I finished she brooded and fumed. I think she was waiting for me to say I had made it up.
After a long silence she muttered a crestfallen and quiet, “OK.”
I asked, “Do you want to go to the police and report this? It was a lot of coupons and all your money and they may help you search for them.”
“No,” she answered. “I’ll take care of this my way.” By her way several of us assumed she meant that she’d return to the street market where she’d been robbed and watch for someone trying to steal and confront him and, no doubt, attack him.
But she had something else in mind. The next morning she took out a small leather bag filled with little bones. She placed them in several different formations on the floor in front of her. She lit a stick of incense. Then she sat on the floor, crossed her legs, back straight, hands resting on her knees, closed her eyes and began murmuring a slow cryptic incantation in a low, ragged and hoarse voice. She continued this for several hours. We’d pass her room and see her sitting there, her eyes shut, chanting her mantra, pausing now and then to rearrange the bones.
Late that night she abruptly terminated the ceremony, put the bones back in the bag, pinched out the remaining incense and announced that she’d accomplished what she intended to do.
She had punished the thief.
“How did you do that?” we asked.
“That thief will use my money only for his medicine. He is going to get cancer. He will suffer and die because he stole from me.” She never mentioned the theft again. As far as she was concerned, justice was served.
There were other problems. Nothing was simple for Yeying. Dancing was impossible for her. And it became clear early on that she had unusual difficulty with her singing lessons also. Teacher Xu remained adamant about taming the voice of this wild child. “What is good for the Himalayas is not necessarily good for the people of Chengdu or our soldiers in their posts,” he said. “There are Tibetan singers in Beijing and Shanghai who sing in the Tibetan style. But not here. Not my students. Not members of my group. Not the PLA.” He struggled day after day and week after week to teach her a new way of singing – the official and canonical Chinese fashion.
Teacher Xu began reforming Yeying by requiring her to sing the simple musical scale. All of the performers sang the scale along with a piano at the start of each daily lesson. It was the standard warming-up exercise. Teacher Xu wanted Yeying to start on the lowest pitch and move steadily to the highest within an octave: Do, re, me, fa, so, la, te, do. But Yeying said she could not do that.
“It gives me a headache!” she protested.
Teacher Xu told her that was nonsense and insisted that she try harder. He played the octave with his left hand and directed her with his right while seated at the piano. After two notes she was completely lost.
“I cannot do this,” she insisted. “It is all wrong. Now my head hurts.”
When Teacher Xu laid his face against the piano keys in frustration, Yeying told him, “I can do it the other way. That does not give me a headache.”
“What do you mean?” Teacher Xu asked.
She showed him by singing the scale perfectly from the high pitch to the low. “That’s easy,” she said. “That’s the right way. But I cannot do it the other way.”
“That’s absurd, Yeying,” Teacher Xu said. “You are being silly. If you can do it one way you can do it the other.”
Yet no matter how he prompted and demanded, she said she just could not do it. She burst into tears. She refused to sing at all or she ran from the room.
It was a war of the wills with Teacher Xu and Yeying was winning.
Whenever confronted with new and strange situations, she developed, a severe headache, she said. Sometimes she got a stomach ache and could not eat. In the final stage of her discomfort she could not sleep. She covered her ears with her hands when she heard someone sing the scale from low to high.
When the notes were not played in “the right order” on the piano she could not sing a melody. She just could not do it she said. She did not know why. “It is not meant to be,” she suggested, in her own peculiar idiom. Eventually when complaining no longer worked, she denounced Teacher Xu or some other pianist and ran to her room.
There were other young women at our headquarters in Chengdu, recruited from among the minority peoples in Yunan province. They, too, were learning our way of singing from Teacher Xu. There was one girl from the Yi people and another from the Mosuo people who very easily made the transition to the official method of singing.
A Chinese girl in our barracks, Tao Xiaoyin, approached Yeying one evening and informed her, “You know there are other girls here who sing like you. Maybe you’d like to meet them.”
“Tibetan girls?” She asked excitedly.
“No, not Tibetan.”
“Then they do not sing like Yeying.”
“We have a girl from the Yi and another from the Mosuo. They grew up in the countryside, like you. Their voices are beautiful.”
Yeying paused for a moment at this news but quickly resumed combing her hair. “If they are Yi and Mosuo, I am sure they do not sing like Yeying.”
“Listen to them tomorrow when they practice,” the girl said. “You’ll see.” Yeying’s curiosity was aroused. The next morning she learned where the two girls were practicing and she stood outside the open door of their classroom to hear them. Twice she peaked inside to see them. After several minutes she pressed her hands to her ears and ran away.
At lunch she approached Xiaoyin menacingly. “I heard your Yi and Mosuo girls,” she said. “They hurt my ears.”
Those of us seated around the table stared up Yeying in apprehensive silence. She was fuming, her eyes narrowed, her face redder than usual and she stared daggers at Xiaoyin who sat as if paralyzed. Yeying made a fist with her hand and waved it high above her head.
“You know what they sound like? They sound like a yak when you slit its throat, that’s what they sound like. And if you ever compare me to them again, ever…I will kill you.”
The blood drained from Xiaoyin’s face as Yeying stood over her. “But I thought…”she began.
Before she could finish Yeying spat out, “Stupid Chinese. You have horse shit in your ears and now after listening to them try to sing I have it in mine. I’m going to go wash my ears.” She spun on her heels and strode from the room.
We finished our lunch in silence.
Yeying sang Tibetan songs easily in her own inimitable style all the time. She sang in the hallway or in her room or when she was in the shower or riding a bicycle. If Teacher Xu heard her singing outside the classroom in her natural voice, he’d pound on the piano or stomp on the floor and shout, “Hey, hey hey, no wild Tibetan singing here. OK, we’re doing some serious training here, we only sing serious music. I know you can do it, Yeying. Haven’t you heard how sweetly the Yi and Mosuo girls sing?”
It was quite clear that if she would not sing in the accepted way he would not allow her to sing in the unaccepted way. He was determined to tame that fabulous voice to sing shrill, patriotic and uplifting Chinese revolutionary songs for the people and the soldiers. “I am going to teach you to be a real singer, a real opera singer. You cannot use that wild voice any more. This is not Tibet. This is NOT Tibet.”
She was perplexed by it all. If the PLA went to all this trouble to get her for her unique singing voice why did they want her to sing in a different and difficult way? Hadn’t Teacher Xu said there were celebrated Tibetan women singing in Beijing or Shanghai? She wondered. She’d also heard about them from other Tibetans at the market in Chengdu. Teacher Xu said that this may be true but there was no need for another Tibetan stylist. He needed professional singers trained in his way.
Some nights, when the teachers were out of earshot, the girls of our troop gathered in Yeying’s room. She told us stories about Tibet, about growing up alone and tending herds of horses and yaks, about how she learned to sing by listening to other herdsmen in the mountains and performers in the towns and villages. When she was a little girl, she told us, an old man and woman took her to see the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Another time, soon after that, she traveled to Kang Rampoche with a group of pilgrims and she’d circled Lake Manasarowar. She described her travels in minute detail as if she’d made them only yesterday. And sometimes she’d sing songs she’d composed about the sites she’d seen and the people she’d met. During one journey, she remembered, she was blessed by a high-ranking lama and told that she had a special destiny. “Someday,” she remembered his words, “you will sing our songs to the whole world.”
But always she returned to tending yaks and horses, she said. She thought that was her only destiny. One evening she heard performers at a military post and drew near to listen and watch. She practiced the songs herself at night after the performers had moved on. Sometimes the soldiers inside the post tried to find her, she said. But she always eluded them. Some of the more determined young men followed her for many hours and she fled into the mountains. On starless nights they often became disoriented and lost, she remembered. Then they forgot about finding her and tried to find their way back to the posts but they could not.
“What happened to them?” we asked.
“If they did not find their way back to their homes, then they are still out there,” she said. “Many times, after they’d chased me for a long time, I remember hearing them crying and calling out for me. But I was afraid of them. I left them there and returned to my horses and yaks.”
She’d end each evening of story telling by singing a lullaby or a love song for us from Tibet, softly, so that none of the teachers could hear. She even composed and performed songs about her missing mother and father and how they must have misplaced her one morning and couldn’t find her again and how sad they must have been to realize someone had carried her away. When she explained the words of these songs to us we all missed our own mothers and fathers and we held hands and cried together.
She was unusually shy and seemed vulnerable, we found, when she sang in Tibetan. She always closed her eyes while singing to us. We didn’t question this, but merely accepted it as yet another of her many idiosyncrasies. We loved those emotional late night gatherings and stories and we loved that heart-filled voice.
Gradually, Yeying softened. All of us noticed the change. Even Teacher Xu commented on this with a wink to us. But this was not to be unexpected. Her angry outbursts never included the kind of mindless viciousness that I had experienced in the Red Guard. Her bite lacked venom. It was primarily effect meant for the short term. I always had the sense, despite her threats, that Yeying was acting when she lost her temper. The episode in the kitchen with the cooks all laughing was a giveaway. And there was also the fact that her sentimental and romantic songs truly came from her heart. That is what gave them power and conviction. The songs were really her. The outbursts were something else, perhaps a defense mechanism she had learned while living alone on the grasslands.
I soon saw that Yeying actually tried desperately to please Teacher Xu. She did not want to be sent back to Tibet in failure. She wanted to fulfill the destiny that the lama said was hers. She slowly came to love the comradeship of her fellow performers in the army and the life and modern conveniences in Chengdu. She nonetheless sought some leverage in threatening Teacher Xu with vows that she was going to run away and return to Tibet. “You are in the army now, Yeying,” he cautioned her. “If you run away it would be a very serious offense. I advise you not to.” After that she moped. She knew he was right.
About one year after Yeying came to Chengdu, Teacher Xu was approached by a top staff member of the military commander of the entire region. He wanted our group to perform several numbers for a public gathering on PLA Day – August 1st. The top military and Communist party dignitaries would be in attendance at the performance along with important public officials and their families and thousands of citizens of Chengdu.
The commander’s representative surprised Teacher Xu by asking, “You have that Tibetan girl with you now, don’t you? The one who sang to our soldiers?”
“Yes, she is here,” Teacher Xu said.
“The commander would like to hear her sing at the gathering,” he said.
“Oh, that is impossible,” Teacher Xu said. “She is far from ready. She is still learning to sing and dance with us.”
“The commander would like to hear her sing some of the songs she sang in Tibet,” the representative said. “He’d like her to sing Tibetan songs.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Teacher Xu stammered. “She really isn’t mature enough to go on stage. She’s never performed on a stage. People will be insulted by her singing. She hasn’t learned to bow or to do proper gestures. She has no stage manner and her voice is untrained, and it is not good enough to give a performance.”
But the representative insisted. “The commander wants her to sing the Tibetan way for the audience. Let the audience decide if she is ready or not.”
Teacher Xu became quite nervous at this. “I really have serious doubts. She will be an embarrassment not only to herself, but to me, to us, to the PLA. She will discredit us all. People will think it is a bad joke. They will think we have lost our minds.”
After listening to his protests, the representative said, “The commander would like it. That settles it.”
Realizing it was impossible to deny the request from a regional commander, Teacher Xu gave in. He spent the next several days wringing his hands and agonizing over Yeying’s appearance at the event.
He spoke with her and with several of our set designers in an effort to put together a simple performance. At the same time he had little confidence in her since he’d forbidden her to sing in her natural style since coming to Chengdu.
He returned the clothing she’d brought with her from Tibet – it had been laundered and stored at the post – so she could wear it when she performed. He introduced Yeying to the director of the orchestra that would play at the event and he asked the man to work out one or two arrangements with Yeying so she might sing with a full orchestral accompaniment.
He supervised the making of a set for Yeying’s number and worked with the rest of us in rehearsing our customary lavish patriotic performances. Yet he worried that no matter how well we did, Yeying would be an embarrassment to him and to our program.
Several thousand people gathered at an outdoor arena for the concert. Singers and dancers from all parts of Chengdu performed. My group did three different numbers and received enthusiastic applause for our work.
Then it was time for Yeying to perform.
She was dressed in her rustic native Tibetan clothes. Teacher Xu huddled with her just offstage, coaching her. “Don’t be too nervous, Yeying,” he said. “Just stand still and face the commander and his entourage and sing your song. When you are finished walk back here to me. I’ll be waiting right here for you. Don’t be afraid. Do you understand?”
“Teacher Xu,” Yeying whispered to him. “I understand. They will love Yeying.”
She marched out onto the huge stage with her characteristic long stride. A voice over the loudspeaker announced that this was Yeying, the famous Goddess of the Grasslands of Tibet who had sung to our brave soldiers.
The military regional commander stood and applauded and the entire audience rose with him. Yeying stopped in the middle of the stage and gazed out over the vast crowd applauding for her.
A few artists and performers in the group had helped arrange the stage setting for Yeying’s performance. They were sure she would be a hit with the Chinese crowd and that Teacher Xu was wrong about her.
They had constructed a huge movie screen by sewing together six bed sheets at the back of the stage, and they projected a series of beautiful scenes of the Tibetan countryside onto it.
The applause died and the audience took their seats again. The orchestra conductor raised his baton and the first few notes of the song Yeying was supposed to sing were played.
But Yeying stood silently facing the audience, utterly frozen. The music stopped and the conductor started over again. Still Yeying was silent. The music stopped again. The conductor called up to Yeying, “Are you ready now, Yeying? May we begin?”
Those of us watching her from the wings became very nervous. We feared she might rush from the stage without singing a note. Teacher Xu kept repeating in a low nervous voice, “Sing, sing, sing…please just sing.”
Suddenly Yeying turned her back to the audience and faced the screen. She stared up at the pictures of Tibet, seemingly captivated by what she saw. Teacher Xu raised his voice, “Turn around, Yeying. Turn around. You can’t do that you country bumpkin. Face the audience. You are insulting the commander. Damn it, turn around.”
But Yeying paid no attention to him. A buzz began in the audience and there was a slight ripple of laughter.
Yeying planted her feet, held out her arms, and fixed her stare on the screen. Then Yeying sang.
Her first notes quieted the audience. The conductor of the orchestra quickly raised his baton and had the musicians race through the first few bars to catch Yeying – which they did almost immediately.
She sang a long sad song with her back to the audience. She was carried away and gestured broadly, sometimes swaying from side to side. The crowd was dumbfounded. The commander watched and listened from the front row, his mouth open, leaning forward in his seat.
Once again her voice rose and fell and enchanted every ear. When she stopped singing the entire audience leaped to its feet applauding and shouting for more. The commander beamed broadly, applauded enthusiastically and called for an encore.
Yeying ran off the stage to Teacher Xu. He took her shoulders and turned her around and told her to sing another song. “And this time please face the commander, Yeying,” he ordered.
But again, Yeying looked once at the audience and seemed terrified. She turned her back on them, faced the sheets and the scenes of Tibet and sang another song. The audience quieted and was transfixed by her voice. When she was finished and she again ran off the stage, the audience once more rose to its feet and gave her a thunderous ovation. She was, without doubt, the star attraction of the show.
The commander came back stage later and congratulated all of us. He was especially effusive in thanking Teacher Xu for bringing Yeying to the program. “You should be very proud of your work,” he said.
At the barracks, late that night, we asked Yeying what had happened on the stage, why she’d turned her back on the audience.
“I’d never seen so many people looking at me before,” she said. “So many heads and so many faces and so many eyes looking at me. More eyes than…stars in heaven. I wanted to run away. I didn’t though. I finished my job. But I could not look at all those people and sing. It reminded me of the stars in Tibet. I was sad. I just could not.” Then she burst into tears.
Teacher Xu congratulated us and specifically thanked Yeying for her performance. “They liked you,” he said but he did not say that he liked her. In fact, he did not. “We’ll make a singer out of you yet, Yeying,” he vowed, before he left.
Several days after the concert the regional commander who so loved Yeying’s performance requested a copy of her lyrics.
Teacher Xu asked Yeying to tell him the words so he could provide them to the commander.
When she told him he nearly collapsed. She had sung very romantic love songs to the audience. “Don’t you know that love songs are forbidden here?” Teacher Xu said. “They are counter-revolutionary. You are going to destroy us, Yeying.”
Back in those days we only sang patriotic songs, rousing numbers praising the country and the people and our leaders. The idea of performing something like a real love song frightened people. It was too bourgeois. When Teacher Xu heard specifically what it was Yeying sang he knew he could never give these words to the commander.
Yeying sang something like, “Your black braid, your long black braid, it coils around my heart and captivates me. I want to hold you now and kiss your braid. I want to rest my head at night on your braid.” In the second song she sang, “There is a peach tree across the river in front of my tent. In my tent there is a candle that I light every night. The peach tree has many hearts while my candle has only one heart. The men beyond the river have so many hearts, but my candle only has one heart. And that heart belongs to you.”
“This is junk,” Teacher Xu shouted. “We can’t have PLA soldiers singing this. This is strictly forbidden. Don’t your realize what they can do to us if they know what you were really singing?” he asked, wringing his hands.
Many of the girls were suddenly so terrified, thinking we would be blamed for letting her sing this. Our leaders were also unusually uneasy when they learned what Yeying had sung. They concealed it from Commissar Wang. Fortunately, nobody in the audience understood the words to Yeiying’s song. Teacher Xu composed entirely different words –patriotic words praising the people and the Army and what it was doing in Tibet – and sent them to the regional commander.
We expected to be forced to make public confessions or to be sentenced to a term of reeducation. Teacher Xu was so distraught he seemed ready to pack his bags and say goodbye to everyone. Whenever Commissar Wang’s flat face appeared at the doorway to his studio he became especially nervous. He was sure his career was over.
But nothing happened.
Teacher Xu told Yeying, “In the future we will write and approve all songs for you. You stop singing all these junk songs. This is bullshit and you cannot continue this kind of counter revolutionary behavior. If you insist on it, you are going to be the death of all of us.”
Yeying was openly contrite for the first time since arriving in Chengdu. She didn’t understand what she had done wrong. But she realized she had made Teacher Xu unhappy and afraid. She apologized. And from that day on – the day of her greatest glory in Chengdu –part of her spirit shriveled.
Teacher Xu continued training her to sing like the rest of us. And Yeying tried harder to make him happy. But the more she trained the less character and singularity there was to her voice. She lost her originality bit by bit with each passing day.
Like the rest of us, Yeying had to give a private recital and take examinations at the end of her second year in order to demonstrate her progress and proficiency. These were used by our leaders to decide if we were still fit to be a member of the troop.
By the time Yeying performed for the staff of teachers she had learned nice manners and she knew how to walk and to bow and to sing in the traditional Chinese style with a high falsetto voice. Since coming to Chengdu her skin had become lighter partly due to the fact that she avoided the sun. She was thinner and less muscular and she spoke in a softer more feminine tone. She learned most of what there was to know about how to be a Chinese woman.
Following Yeying’s recital and examination, Teacher Xu and the rest of the administration and staff were disappointed, worried and puzzled because they didn’t know what to do with her. She could sing, yes, but there were so many girls who could sing like that. There was nothing special about her any more.
So the teachers concluded, “We think we can’t keep Yeying here any longer. There is no place for her. She doesn’t seem to be a good singer any more and she can’t tumble or dance. If we give her one more year perhaps she can develop.” But they really doubted that she could become an accomplished traditional Chinese singer.
The administrators concluded that Yeying had become a burden to our group. There were many new recruits who were better singers and dancers than she. “Why don’t we just discharge her and send her home?” Commissar Wang finally recommended. The others agreed that this was probably the best course of action to follow.
Many of us learned about the decision before Yeying did. We were anxious, believing that she would lose her temper and swear to harm this or that person or to cast a spell on them. And we were sad because we were going to miss her. Some of us cried as the news sank in.
But when they told Yeying, she said, “Good. I never liked it here anyway. And in Tibet three men would fight to the death for me. They want me there.”
Two weeks later she packed and left. Her departure was uneventful. There was no special gathering, no speeches and no goodbyes. We arose one morning and went to breakfast and Yeying was no longer there.
The next time we traveled the long road to Lhasa we asked the soldiers at the posts about Yeying but none of them had heard or seen her. We worried about her.
We didn’t see her for three years.
Then one day she returned to Chengdu and showed up at our base. She carried a baby on her back and one in her arms. She’d taken a ten day bus trip to get to us, she said. She had become a very ordinary looking Tibetan woman. She dressed in Tibetan clothing and her hair was again long and wild. We noticed that she had aged very much in five years and that she seemed tired when she spoke.
We cried when we saw her and told her how much we’d missed her. She seemed not to share our sentimentality. She told us, “Well I managed to marry myself to a good Tibetan man. And I gave him two babies.” She was proud and indicated that she had prestige and a good life in Lhasa and that she was a respectable woman.
“Do you ever sing to the soldiers any more, out on the grasslands?” I asked her.
“Of course not,” she snapped back. “Do you think I am a bumpkin?”
She did not call upon Teacher Xu and she didn’t stay with us that night. She told us she was visiting other friends – Tibetans – who lived near our post. And she was going to go shopping for cloth in the street market.
Then she left us, once again. We looked forward excitedly to seeing her the following day. But she did not come back. Nor did she return the next day or the next. We never saw her again.
When we told Teacher Xu that Yeying was in Chengdu he was not excited. He merely nodded and acknowledged the news. “I am told she has aged,” he said. That was all.
In the following years our group made many journeys back and forth to Lhasa to entertain our troops. I asked about Yeying at every post on every trip and when we stayed in Lhasa I looked for her there.
But I never found anybody who saw her or heard her. No Tibetan goddess sang lullabies to the soldiers. And, indeed, the soldiers stationed in Tibet insisted that stories of such a woman were just fairy tales.