“Missing” by Li Jingrui, translated by Helen Wang
Cuilin Sang, 2/10/17
There is this law that can pronounce a person as ‘officially missing,’ which in the about-to-be-missing husband’s view is the perfect way of disappearing from the life supervised by authorities. To be kept in the dark is the crucial part in this official missing. The void caused by the unknown in the wife needs to be filled, however futilely. Perhaps as a result of this, there is a lot of cooking in Li Ruijing’s ‘Missing.’ In an unobtrusive way, this darkly appealing story entangles mystery and speculation with sensory details of the worldly life. Crabs are being bought and cooked by the wife nearly on a daily basis after the husband’s missing, as a way of commemorating his dietary preference. Pungent odors permeate through the text, from cooked crabs, cigarettes, garlicky takeaways to brewed tea and soya sauce. In her silent waiting months, days go by in odorous exchange of energy with other lives or substances. It could be read as a political fable in a Black Mirror style. When humans can find leeway in the ‘taboo and secrecy’ in a society where true information can only be mysteriously communicated, non-humans can hardly find a way to survive. One crab gets released by the wife eventually, but is presumed to be still heading towards its death. There is no context for crabs to be officially missing. Their cooked death is inevitable, as opposed to the successful ‘cooked’ missing of the husband. And that unsettles the settling ending of the story, in which the reunited couple has to shut the world down.
Yue Xin, 23/8/17
The first time I read, in Chinese, Li Jingrui’s “Missing” – a short story that combines plain narratives with cliff-hanging plots, and which became censored within a few hours of being posted on Weibo – it was an emotional adventure and also an intellectual journey. In the story, many episodes remain unexplained: the anxious wife whose husband went missing without any clue left, the later-received black envelope, the subsequent offer of help from an old friend, and the disappearance of old acquaintances in quick succession. Everything seems to be horrifyingly illogical and strange, but these things are like undercurrents, smoothly running beneath the beating heart of this foggy metropolitan city – Beijing. The wife struggles to carry on as normally as she can in the abnormal circumstances, neurotically picking up every life detail, even ridiculously hallucinating about the non-existent plots merely for some possible clues to save her husband, which gradually blurs the reality with fantasy and turns the whole story to be more magically realistic. It reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984, in which people living in a dystopian and totalitarian system tried desperately to digest every abnormity as normality, accepting their fate to be suppressed and silenced.
Having worked as a journalist for eight years, Li Jingrui is sensitive to political changes in China and also actively voicing her support for democratic activists on her social media accounts which as a result, were closed down several times. She commented that this story was “political, but not overtly so.” “In China,” she claimed, “Kafkaesque situations are all too real. I wanted to show that when facing unassailable horror, we react with weakness and cowardice, but also with untold courage, and even if that courage is eventually swallowed up in the darkness, it was most definitely there.”
“Missing” is a pun which does not only literally mean “not to be found”, but directly refers to “disappearance for political reasons” or even “death” in China. However, it has still been repeatedly announced in the story that “officially missing is the best kind of missing.” After all, there’s a slim chance of survival, your dearest families would think. Remaining unknown is the best way to create a mysterious and tense atmosphere to solidify the rule, just like what Big Brother did in 1984. “We were aroused, not by desire, but by taboo and secrecy,” as Li wrote, “perhaps they had built a new world that would block my memory? Who were they?”
This is a question which will never get an answer.