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Death at the Wukang Mansion (excerpt)

From Dear Chrysanthemums, by Fiona Sze-Lorrain, published by Scribner, 2023. 


 Ling arrived at the Wukang Mansion a little past midnight. The stairways were bleak. Lights flickered. In spite of the silence, the subdued colors, every household seemed awake. The place felt restless. Barely a month had passed since the launch of the Cultural Revolution, and electricity was palpable in the air. Ling was assigned to unit 6, studio 42, on the third story of the northern wing. She’d come to Shanghai with a bag of clothes and few personal items. Despite what she’d heard about the building, she had not expected its imposing architecture. Sometimes it was a glowering king; other times it looked like a shabby tyrant who had lost track of his followers. From a distance she gasped at it, even before turning onto the main boulevard.  

When Ling arrived at her unit, she noticed a spacious room next to her studio. It was unoccupied. She entered her studio gingerly and was taken aback by the spartan neatness: the bedroom had been carved from a once-larger apartment. A bed, a side table, a desk, a chair, made of wood and without character. Even so, in those days, it could have housed a working-class family of five or six. No one told her anything beforehandnot even Deputy Director Shao, who assigned her the unit and hired her for a local drama troupe before it was shut down. But Ling knew from the stillness and the musty smell. There was a coffin inside.   

The corridors were cramped with pots and pans, piles of newspapers, and chaotic columns of cardboard boxes. Singlets, blouses, and pants were drying on racks and wires that zigzagged haphazardly across one another in midair. The place smelled of charcoal, leek, and damp bricks. The odor of ruins jolted Ling out of her imagination, the fabulous Wukang Mansion from the roaring twenties. Once in a while, a shuffle of footsteps, followed by hushed tones, came from above or below. A basin dropped and a child bawled; kitchen utensils clinked and clanged against one another.   

The coffin arrived early each morning, before Ling stepped out at eight to buy breakfasta cheap fried dough stick or tea eggfrom a stall vendor across the street. For the rest of the day, the coffin stayed where it was. Shortly after the evening radio news broadcast at six, a group of young Red Guards would come to claim their prize.   

By the end of her first week, Ling had learned the routine by heart: how the coffin left the building after being shouldered down the stairs by three stone-faced teenagers who struggled with each step. Through the servants’ quarters south of her block, it entered a backyard crowded with potted plants. Hoarse yells of political slogans resonated through the corridors amidst boisterous gesticulations from residents observing from higher floors. The coffin came without a lid.   

No one wept. No one bothered with gossip. It was as practical as that: a rectangular box made of four light wooden planks and a base. Come morning, the same coffin was returned to the same room, either empty or carrying a new body, again dragged up each flight of stairs and without affect, though ironically, with more swiftness, more wariness, and this time, by the concierge Old Dan and his wife.   

Day in, day out, the coffin came and went, efficiently and without fail, like the glorious sun that rose in the east but never set in the west in every revolutionary song or ode, which all patriots of a New China must memorize and praise. Everyone in the Wukang Mansion seemed determined to keep out of one another’s way and avoid one another’s gaze, especially Old Dan, who was hard of hearing and never greeted a new tenant. His wife couldn’t stop complaining in her peculiar accent that added an er sound to almost every word, “Tenants these days never last through the winter.” She did not sound like a native of Shanghai.   

But the retired couple were now concierges in name only. Other than carrying the coffin, they no longer bore any responsibility or collective duties, let alone cared for the maintenance of this eight-story building, nearly a hundred cramped units, littered with stains, cracks, and messy dazibao, big-character posters in black and red ink that were torn off or pasted over their notoriously long and damp corridor walls. On a peeling wall outside Ling’s studio, excerpts from the great Chinese classic novel The Water Margin were inscribed like graffiti, in clusters of tiny, squeezed characters in cursive. From afar they looked like rectangular hills of ants. The novel narrated the historical fiction of one hundred and eight outlaws during the Northern Song era. These legendary outlaws fought and defended their Chinese lands against the nomadic Khitan invaders, but they died on the battlefield or were summoned to court, betrayed by their own emperor. 

Now and then Ling kept her door ajar, not to engage in small talk with passersby, but hoping to steal a peek at the face inside the coffin. On some days, the body was shrouded in a dirty white blanket. On other days, a few spread-out sheets of used newspapers covered the face. In the end, it was the faces of the tall, waiflike Red Guards she couldn’t erase from her mind before she slept. In their shrill voices, they sang in off-pitch prophetic refrains from the theme song of the model ballet opera The Red Detachment of Women. They sang with gusto, without regard for tenants in the building or for the early morning hour: 

Forward! Forward!  

How heavy the soldiers’ responsibility,  

How deep the hatred of women runs! 

When they marched, they looked straight ahead, heads slightly tilted up to the left, without even a blink. Once the coffin dropped from their hands and to the floor. It slid down a flight with a thud when one of the Red Guards missed a step. Ling rushed out her door. Stunned by such a dramatic descent of the coffin and their apparent helplessness, the Red Guards scrambled down the stairs, put their hands to their faces, and shrieked, as if screaming for their own lives, and it was only then that Ling realized, curbing her thrill, that they were not young men at allthey were girls who hadn’t yet reached puberty.