Tuesday, June 25, 2013
“Who shall end my dream’s confusion?
Life is a loom, weaving illusion…”
The Chinese Nightingale (1922)
The relentless howling wind blows all his words away. A young officer – a captain – with a weathered face kneels only the distance of four rifles from me. We are behind a low stone wall facing the rolling grasslands of the high Tibetan plateau. Both of us wear thick padded military overcoats buttoned to the neck. The captain has surveyed the green emptiness beyond the wall for several minutes. He has not found what he was watching for, however, and the disappointment shows in his face. He lowers his binoculars and turns toward me and shouts something. He waits for an indication that I understand. Instead, I point to my ear and turn my head side to side. His response is to crawl so close to me that our shoulders touch. We turn and sit side by side with our backs against the wall. He leans closer and cups his hands around my ear and repeats his words. Only then can I hear what he is saying.
“I think she’s watching us. She knows we’re here. I can feel it. She’s playing with us. I think we are wasting our time. We will not see her today.”
He pulls back and waits for my reaction. I nod. He points toward the four squat stone buildings of the military outpost twenty meters away and with two of his fingers makes a motion on the ground as if they are walking. Again I nod. The flicker of a friendly smile momentarily interrupts his crestfallen expression. He slips his binoculars into a leather case and ties the case shut. He stands and steadies himself, then reaches down to help pull me to my feet. I rise unsteadily and stand still for a moment to let the powerful blasts of wind blow away the greasy grass and gravel sticking to my uniform. We walk side by side back to the barracks.
Again he leans close to me, touches my arm and says in a loud voice, “She has magical powers. And she’s clever. Very clever. They say she commands the wind to protect her when we search for her. And the wind obeys, flinging grass or dust or snow to blind us. It’s one of her tricks. Oh, she’s just full of them.”
I smile and nod. But I add no comment.
He seems bothered by my silent insouciance and appears to read it as something like disrespectful doubt . “What is it?” he asks. And then louder, as if I still don’t hear: “Do you understand what I’m telling you, comrade?”
My response is to glance momentarily back at the horizon. “I’m just disappointed,” I turn and tell him. “I thought I’d see her today. I thought I’d hear her. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the stories.”
“City girls,” he snorts. “I should have known better. What do you believe in anymore? Or maybe it’s your age, you’re all that dull age where you believe nothing is magical anymore. Is that it, eh? You’re a generation too old for fairy tales and not yet bold enough to believe in real romance? Revolutionary youth, right? I suppose I should feel sorry for you, believing only what you can see and hear. How dull that must be. There is more, you will learn. Much more.”
When I don’t defend myself he continues, “She’s real, all right. But she’s nothing like you or your friends over there,” he snaps and motions toward the tight circle of giggling green-uniformed girls huddled together in the shelter of the barracks, drinking tea from little cups. “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. I mean she is not human.” He lowers his voice. “She has certain skills, powers. She is not flesh and blood. She’s a spirit. A goddess, some say.”
“And what do you say she is?” I ask.
“Oh, she’s a goddess, for sure,” he affirms without hesitation.
His articulation of the word “goddess” betrays both the officer’s reverence and his fear, as if he is trying to account for a very personal religious experience to a skeptic and it bothers him because he can’t quite explain it. He’s a believer. I am not. Not yet, anyway.
“And you are certain of that?”
“Yes. I am sure. I’m older than you. I’ve been around, believe me. Everyone up here on the roof of the world knows. We are closer to heaven in these mountains, and she’s sent down from heaven to tease and taunt us. To haunt us, even. Soon enough you’ll know, too. After that you will be more patient and grateful. You’ll hear for yourself,” he tells me before turning his eyes to the pallid late-afternoon sky as if he was noticing it for the first time.
The sun is settling rapidly behind the mountains and the feeble light of the day is fading fast. Dark shadows of the snowy spine of the mountain peaks on the horizon are rolling quickly toward our encampment, like a silent black tide. “Don’t take my word for it,” he continues, still eyeing the sky. “In a few hours it’ll bed dark and then you’ll find out -- if you’re lucky.”
“Or maybe not,” I whisper to myself.
The officer leaves me with my female comrades and continues on to his quarters in the next building. One of the girls looks up at him as he passes and asks derisively “Captain, is she really a goddess, like the others are saying?”
“Are you quite sure?” Another one twitters.
“Quite sure,” he responds without glancing back at them and spits onto the stones several feet to his side.
Just twenty-four hours earlier when we arrived at this godforsaken army post on the ascending serpentine road from Chengdu to Lhasa, lonely soldiers crowded around us when we climbed down from our trucks and unloaded our supplies. Some of them only stood and leered – they had not seen a real woman in a long time. Some helped with our baggage. And others, trying to strike up a conversation and get our attention, eagerly shared stories of the singing Tibetan temptress of the nearby grasslands and mountains. A few were clearly obsessed. And those who told us about her appeared convinced of her divinity. She was a fairy tale come to life, some of them said. We were not sure if they were trying to impress or frighten or seduce us, or perhaps all three. Our commanding officers whispered to us that this was nothing more than an old myth embraced by lonely and desperate young men and that it was certainly not true.
Mmbers of our singing-and-dancing military company murmur to each other that these soldiers suffer from the prolonged affects of altitude and solitude. They share the same delusion. They are clearly dizzy with desire and they imagine things. God only knows what they think about us. We laugh at them behind their backs. And we keep our distance from them.
The next day young soldiers confide timorously to some of us that they build stories in their minds about the singer and they see her in their dreams. They are young – in their teens -- like us. And they are innocent like us, also. They are filled with optimism and hope and dreams and fears. They lie on their beds listening and her ghostly melodies bring to life memories of home, of faraway parents or wives or lovers or children, of buried romance and passion, and a deeply disconcerting awareness of the desolation of their surroundings and of their isolation.
The night songs of the invisible singer are soft soliloquies of desire to these young men. When she sings another world -- a world of romance and of possibility – is born out of the darkness. When she stops, it dies.
They muse in their bunks, “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.”
But she cares nothing for their needs. She lives in the shadows. She stays out of sight
laughs at them when they rush from post to pursue her. But to these young men she is real, as real as their desires. In the morning when they do their laundry we hear them singing:
Here I sit washing
Day after day
While millions of my sons
Go floating away.
We blush and pretend we do not know what they are singing about.
A few of the most brazen boys make eye contact with us, but immediately turn away. We know the meaning of their hungry look, their words, their frustrations and their unrequited and dangerous yearnings. Our commanders have warned us never to be alone and out of sight from others with one of these soldiers. Their faces are red with passion, ours with embarrassment.
Previous travelers on the mountain road have heard the soldiers’ stories. We listened to some of them in Chengdu during our briefing for the journey. Even the most skeptical, we find, have become believers. They recall sitting outside smoking and sipping warm tea and then, as the first stars flicker in the evening, they hear that voice.
They say that it she first sings a prolonged single note, like a distant sigh or perhaps a the echo of a faraway Tibetan horn. Then other notes gently rise and fall. It is too carefully calibrated to be caused by the winds alone. The notes tumble one after another cross the flat grasslands and back and forth between the mountain slopes. Listeners prick up their ears and hold their breath. Notes fade just as others rise, falter and fade as they follow the earlier notes. A melody emerges and expands. It beckons and teases. At times it floats gently on the thin night air like the fragrance of flowers from home.
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 soldiers who never return. Those who come back ride with heads bowed, worn down and embarrassed by their fruitless 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 in Chengdu while making preparations for my first trek to Tibet with my People’s Liberation Army unit. The year was 1970 and I was 15 years old.
I joined the Army when I was 14. I wanted to escape the boredom of daily life in Nanjing. All the schools had been closed so students could make revolution. I wasted my time on the street. I longed to travel, serve my country, live heroically. My ticket into the Army was my ability to dance. The PLA was recruiting in Nanjing for one of the traveling troops of singing-and-dancing soldiers sent to entertain troops far from home. I lied about my age, forged my parents’ signatures to induction documents, and was mustered into the military.
But military life was not what I expected. It was all joyless drills and rehearsals. I soon missed my friends and my family in Nanjing. There were many nights when I thought of running away and returning home. But I was afraid of how my former young Red Guard comrades might treat me if they discovered I was a PLA deserter. So I stayed in uniform not out of love for the army but out of fear of my friends.
After three months of basic training, I was assigned to one of the units that entertained soldiers stationed in Tibet. Groups of about 15 performers and officers traveled the long route to Lhasa and back one time each year in a caravan of four trucks. We brought our own costumes, sets and sound equipment on our journey. We departed from Chengdu at the last week of June each year when the weather was most favorable and spent the next three months performing. We returned home in the early autumn, racing back to Chengduto escape the rapidly approaching dangerous winter weather.
When we learned of the mysterious singer, my fellow soldiers and I were skeptical After our first performance at a post halfway to Lhasa 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 her.
We were strartled. It was exactly as it had been described to us. 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 beyond the protective wall circling the post.
The following morning we questioned some of the Tibetan herdsmen who had 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 mysteries.
The next 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 military, having heard the legend of this 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 horror, 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.
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, many 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.
She became a 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 Tibetan 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 elusive singer. Wherever we performed, they ventured onto the nearby plateaus and valleys looking for her. They returned each evening tired and 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 she passed by yesterday or during the last full moon but they did not know where she was going or where she lived. They said that they’d heard – without 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.
Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang insisted that someone among local tribes had to know more about this woman. Surely someone knew where she lived, knew her name and how to find her. Yet they could find not a single tribesman to provide this information to them.
On their return to Chengdu and during their last night in Tibet, they were awakened in the darkness by music – a low distant melody beckoned to them from close by. The singer’s voice was clear and controlled and sweet, unlike any other voice they’d heard before.
Commissar Wang leaped from her bunk, pulled on her tunic and hurried into the hall. Teacher Xu was already there waiting for her. As they hurried toward the stairs – thinking the singer was outside – their route was blocked by what seemed to be a pile of soiled and fetid clothing almost as tall as a man.
“What is this?” Teacher Xu asked the commissar as they fumbled in the darkness.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “Perhaps it’s somebody’s idea of a prank.”
“Why would anyone barricade the hall with dirty laundry?” Teacher Xu asked.
They approached the strange obstruction cautiously. When Commissar Wang reached out to remove it, the rags seemed to spring 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 erupted, disgorging ever more colorful garments from within. Finally two arms and a head popped out. Teeth flashed. Several dulcet staccato notes rang like an alarm clock and these were followed by a burst of laughter. Was this a nightmare come to life?
As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, the startled and frightened teacher and commissar made out the shape of a woman. But her appearance was like no other woman they had seen before.
She was covered by layer upon layer of ragged multi-colored jackets, vests, skirts and trousers. A large sheepskin coat was thrown over her left shoulder leaving her right arm free in the sleeve of a scarlet and blue shirt that extended well beyond her fingertips. The front of her black hair was tightly braided and beaded and bracketed each side of her face while the rest of her 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 they glowed from within like embers in ashes. She opened them wider and craned her neck forward 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 liver with eyes and teeth. In places the flesh seemed to have peeled away and hung down in strips giving her the appearance of someone who had recently crawled from the grave. Her pungent scent was that of a wild animal.
She stepped toward them waving her long sleeve up and down like the wing of a wounded bat, as if, they thought, she was actually trying to scare them. If so, she was successful. The teacher and the commissar trembled beside each other, tongue-tied.
The woman took another step and her heavy boots clomped hard on the wood floor like hoofs. Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang inched backward, stumbling over each other, hugging the wall.
Finally, she blinked several times, shook her head, glowered and growled and burst into a fit of hysterical laughter.
Other soldiers, hearing the commotion, climbed from their beds and peered sleepily into the hall. When the woman saw faces emerge from the doors, she backed toward the stairs. She was remarkably nimble given her cumbersome layers of clothing. As figures emerged into the hallway, she spun around and ran down the stairs. She paused at the bottom, grinning broadly up at Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang, baring her teeth. Then she darted through the doorway, raced across the parade ground and out 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 passed them. They watched her disappear in the dark, their hearts fluttering in fear at what they’d just seen.
When she was a safe distance from the post, she resumed singing and the sentries instantly recognized the voice of the singer of the steppes.
Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang regained their composure, pulled on boots and pursued the woman. But by the time they passed through the gate, 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.
Early that evening she returned. She approached the post on a short-legged gray horse, leaning forward in the saddle, leaving a long trail of dust behind her. Outside the gate she pulled up suddenly and leaped from the animal’s back. She whispered in the its ear and released the reigns. The horse took a few steps and quietly began nibbling on the short grass. The woman strode past the sentries and through the gate and waited outside the barracks door. A soldier summoned the teacher and the commissar.
When at last the two stood before the woman, she spoke Mandarin to them– 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 intended no harm, they assured her. And they 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 in a fire?”
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 put 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 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 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. “Everyone knows you Chinese hate Tibetans,” she said. She knew they had been listening to her and pursuing her for years. But she was afraid.
“Why did you come to us today,” Teacher Xu asked, “if you are afraid of us.”
“It was time,” she said. That was all.
“Are you afraid of us now?” Commissar Wang asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “You are Chinese. I am Tibetan.”
“Please,” Teacher Xu sought to assure her, “you are safe with us.”
“If you hurt me,” she said, “my tribesmen will hurt you. When I am safe, you are safe.”
There was a long awkward moment of silence after this threat. No one knew what more to say.
Finally, Teacher Xu said, “You are safe.” Then he asked if she might sing for them to prove she was the really the woman who serenaded soldiers from the grasslands.
She assented and said she would sing a song she’d composed herself. 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 and the sky. This close, her voice had incredible clarity and power. “There was that familiar wildness to it,” Teacher Xu said later, “something completely natural and untamed and so infused with passion and life. A true force of nature. So pure as to be …” and here he seemed at a loss for words. “So pure,” he repeated. “A song bird. A heavenly song bird.”
No one moved while she sang stanza after stanza of her song. The words were Tibetan. Her voice had the sonorous tone of someone mourning the loss of a parent or a child or a lover. It was rich with melancholy and innocence and devoid of artifice. The melody was as simple as any song composed by a child but at the same time was informed by her experience of solitude and longing. Who could not identify with that? Her gentle melody, as always, caressed and kissed the heart and soul of each listener. Not one of us understood her words. And yet each of us felt we knew what she was singing and sensed also that she was wrapping lovely foreign words around our individual wishes and dreams. One of the soldiers wiped away tears and covered his face as he listened.
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 gaping at her.
“This is a voice you could find nowhere else in the world,” Teacher Xu exclaimed, at last, breaking the silence. “Only here! 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 anyone like you before. Never.”
“I know,” the woman replied. “I am Tibetan.”
“Yes,” he said. “Tibetan. Maybe a bit too Tibetan. Your voice is not quite suitable for the kinds of songs performed by my group. You will need training from me to learn to perform revolutionary Chinese music. But once you learn, with that voice, the whole country will be in your hands.”
“Yes,” the girl said, without really understanding what Teacher Xu meant.
“Are you willing to undertake such study with us?” Commissar Wang asked.
“I think so,” the woman answered.
Finally, Commissar Wang asked simply, “So will you join our PLA performing group?”
“It is one of my dreams,” 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.”
The girl smiled broadly and nodded.
So, to us from that day on she was Yeying, our nightingale.
Commissar Wang asked where she lived and Yeying said she lived with her yaks in the nearby hills. Wang said they were departing soon for Chengdu and asked if she could gather her belongings and join us. She said she’d return the next day. Before departing she needed to visit tribesmen in the nearby villages to say goodbye.
She often giggled when she talked, like a shy and self-conscious adolescent. 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. I often wondered later if she did this because she was afraid, it was a way of keeping the men at a distance from her. There was something unquestionably mature and sensual about her, it seemed, yet everyone also saw 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 her belongings 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 singer of the grasslands. His quest was a success.
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 climbed in with her. The rest of our group traveled in other trucks behind them.
At our base in Chengdu Yeying was assigned a single room in the women’s dormitory. Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang quickly set about altering her appearance. There was no more yak blood for her face and arms. Her wild hair was washed and trimmed and trained. She wore her two long braids and tucked under a standard military cap. She was issued a shapeless green military uniform and lace-up sneakers 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 very narrow eyes. In the past Teacher Xu and Commissar Wang, inspired no doubt by Jiang Qing, favored female performers with large round eyes. Yeying was an exception. But her behavior remained unusual in the extreme. She turned out to be a very strange bird
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 were hilarious. Then she’d mutter something in her Kham dialect, as if speaking to an invisible compatriot 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 speaking.
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 older than she really 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 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 she 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 she carefully copied our behavior and our speech patterns and even our informal 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 still attempted 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.
She loved yogurt that she purchased from Tibetan traders she’d met at the street market. She was excited about finding the familiar food from her homeland. She offered each of us a spoonful. Back then yogurt 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 scarlet 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 several 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 jumped to her feet 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 room.
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 day. 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 military cooking. “Why isn’t yogurt served?” She asked. “Why isn’t there butter tea?” or, “Why isn’t there more meat?”
The kitchen 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 clatter, screaming and shouting and we wondered what was happening. We went to the kitchen and found Yeying chasing the cooks with the 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 quickly dissipated and their threats were empty. 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 and one of the cooks gave her a large slice of pork to take with her to her room.
While there were many other things 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 peddled around the same circle, talking to her bicycle, 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.
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.
“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 a bundle of ration coupons for textiles with her. 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 child 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 the bottom had been sliced open by a razor and her money and coupons 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 Tibet?
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 made it all 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, beat 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 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.
Nothing was simple for Yeying. Dancing was impossible for her. And it became clear early on that she had also difficulty with her singing lessons. 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 warm-up exercise. Teacher Xu wanted Yeying to start on the lowest pitch and move steadily to the highest within an octave: Doe, re, me, fa, so, la, tee, doe. 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 and that 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.
Yeying sang Tibetan songs easily in her own singular 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 all the other 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 untamed 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 patriotic singer. You cannot use that wild voice any more. This is China. 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? 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 to entertain the soldiers.
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 tribesmen and women 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 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 there,” she said. “They chased me for a long time, I remember hearing them crying and calling out for me. But I was afraid of them. I am Tibetan. They were Chinese. I left them there and returned to my horses and yaks.”
“Why did you decide to stop running away?” we asked.
“It was time,” she said, cryptically. “One night I was cold and I crept up close to the post and watched the performers everyone was laughing and singing. They seemed happy and unafraid. I learned that two high officials were asking about me and wanted me to sing with the other women. I asked my tribesmen what I should do. They said it was time for me to speak to the Chinese. They said maybe it was my destiny to tell the world about my Tibet. I told them I was afraid. They told me that they would protect me if the Chinese tried to hurt me. So I just changed my mind. The next day I gave away my yaks and my horses – all but one – and I came to the post to see the Chinese for myself. When they asked me to come with them, I said yes.”
She’d end each evening of storytelling 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.
When she sang in Tibetan she always closed her eyes. We didn’t question this, but merely accepted it as yet another of her idiosyncrasies. What did it matter, after all, if she closed her eyes? We loved those emotional late night gatherings and stories and that heavenly voice.
Yeying softened. Each of us noticed the change. Even Teacher Xu commented on this with a wink. But this was not entirely 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 think 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. And I think she gradually 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.
One year after Yeying came to Chengdu, Teacher Xu was contacted 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 Sichuan province.
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 wishes 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 wants to hear her sing some of the songs she sang to our gallant men in Tibet,” the representative said.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Teacher Xu stammered. “She really isn’t mature enough to go on stage. She’s never performed on before a distinguished crowd. People will be disappointed by her voice. She hasn’t learned to bow or to do proper gestures. She has no stage manner and her voice is untrained.”
The representative insisted. “The commander wants her to sing in the Tibetan style. Let the audience decide if she is ready or not.”
Teacher Xu became visibly unsettled by this demand. “I need to emphasize that I have serious doubts,” he said, raising his voice. “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.”
The representative cut him off by saying, “The commander would like it. That settles it.”
Teacher Xu knew he had no choice. He spent the next several days wringing his hands and agonizing over Yeying’s performance at the event.
He spoke with her and with several of our set designers in an effort to put together a simple act that could not go wrong. At the same time he had little confidence in her since he’d forbidden her to sing in her own 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 sang. 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 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 ruin our program.
Several thousand people gathered at an outdoor arena for the concert. Singers and dancers from all corners of the province performed. My group did three different numbers and received wildly enthusiastic applause for our work.
Then it was time for Yeying.
Despite the summer heat, she wore her layered rustic native Tibetan clothes and boots. 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 into the microphone. 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.”
When her turn came Yeying marched out onto the huge stage with her characteristic bow-legged loping 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 regional military 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 designed the stage setting for her performance. They had constructed a 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 landscape onto it. They were sure she would be a hit with the Chinese crowd and that Teacher Xu was wrong about her.
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 at the microphone 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 anxious. We feared she might flee 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. One of the girls from my troop ran out onto the stage, picked up the microphone stand and moved it around to Yiying’s face. “Sing now,” she whispered. “Sing, Yeying.” She ran off the stage. There was coughing and a buzz of voices in the audience.
Yeying planted her feet, held out her arms, and fixed her gaze up 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, her arms outstretched, sometimes swaying from side to side as if she was a single blade of grass in the wind. The crowd was dumbfounded. The commander watched and listened from the front row, his mouth open, leaning forward in his seat.
Her voice enchanted every ear. When she finished her song and dropped her arms to her sides, the entire audience leaped to its feet applauding and shouting for more. People stomped their feet on the ground and chanted “More! More! More! More!” The commander beamed broadly, applauded enthusiastically and called for an encore.
Yeying ran off the stage to Teacher Xu. He stopped her, took her by the shoulders and turned her around and told her to sing another song.
“But what should Yeying sing, Teacher Xu?” she asked.
“Sing anything from your homeland, Yeying! Anything! Just sing! But this time, please face the commander,” he said.
Yeying returned to center stage. But again, she looked out at the audience and seemed terrified. The applause and the stomping stopped. But everyone in the crowd remained standing, waiting for Yeying’s next song.
She turned her back on audience again and faced the sheets and the scenes of Tibet. One again a girl ran onto the stage and repositioned the microphone in front of Yeying. Yeying lifted her arms and ang a long sad song without any musical accompaniment. When she was finished she again ran from the stage, the audience once more gave her a thunderous ovation. She was, much to everyone’s delight, the star attraction of the day.
The commander came back stage with his family and staff 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. He asked to have his photograph taken with Yeying.
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. “Someday, Yeying, everyone in China will know your name.”
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 transcribe them and 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.”
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 in her first song, “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 each night on your braid and let our hearts beat side by side, my lover.” 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 you 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 terrified when they learned what Yeying sang and they feared we would all be blamed for her impolitic lyrics. They feared that all of us might 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.
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 Yeying's song. Teacher Xu composed entirely different words – patriotic words praising the fatherland and the people and the Army and what it was doing in Tibet – and sent them to the regional commander.
Teacher Xu told Yeying, “In the future we will write and approve all songs for you. You must 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.”
The next morning Yeying was gone. Her room was empty except for the Chinese military uniform and shoes thrown into a corner. There was no note. There had been no goodbyes. All of us were questioned about her whereabouts but none of us had seen or heard her leave. The sentries reported no one left the post during the night. Still, Yeying was missing. The post was searched and units were sent through Chengdu to look for her. But we never found her.
Teacher Xu did not report her as a deserter. And he did not recommend that a search party be dispatched outside the city to look for her.
We did not see Yeying for five years. And then one night, about two weeks after we’d returned from another long trek to Lhasa, she appeared suddenly in our barracks. She was waiting in my room when I returned from dinner. She was seated on the floor, bundled up in her large Tibetan coat. Her hair, beneath her red scarf, was once again wild and long. She carried small child on her back and held a baby in her arms. When news spread that Yeying was back, about a dozen of the girls gathered in my room to see her and talk with her. She told us she’d taken a ten day bus trip to come back to us.
We cried when we saw her and every one of us told her how much we’d missed her, how we’d worried about what had happened to her. She was devoid of sentimentality. She did not say that she missed us. She did not ask about Teacher Xu.
She had aged very much in five years. And she spoke slowly and remained seated as she told us about her life.
“Why did you leave us so suddenly, Yeying?” one of the girls asked.
“Because it was time for Yeying to go home,” she answered. She did not elaborate.
“Where do you live now?” another asked.
She said, “Well, Yeying managed to marry herself to a good Tibetan man. And he gave her two babies.” She said she had prestige and a good life in a valley not far from Lhasa. She said she was a respectable family woman and that all Tibetans knew her name and her reputation as a singer.
“Yeying, do you ever sing for the soldiers in the remote posts on the road to Lhasa?”
“Of course not,” she said. “Do you think I am a bumpkin?”
She only stayed with us for an hour. She said she had Tibetan friends in Chengdu and she would stay with them before returning to her husband and her home. First, though, she said she had to shop in the street market for cloth to bring back to her friends. We hugged her and told her to be careful and asked her to promise come back to see us again. She promised nothing.
She disappeared, once more, into the night. We never saw her again.
When we told Teacher Xu that Yeying was in Chengdu he merely nodded and acknowledged the news and said, “I am told she has aged much.” He did not ask anything more about her.
In the next 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 found no one who knew anything about her. No Tibetan goddess sang lullabies to our soldiers at night. Some of the young men occupying the remote posts said they’d heard about a mysterious singing woman out in the grasslands long ago. But it was just another fairy tale, they concluded, and the only music along the lonely road to Lhasa was provided by the singing and dancing soldiers from Chengdu.
"Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?"
John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale."