- Translated by
- Emily Jones
Mai Jia is one of China’s most famous spy thriller authors. In 2002 he published his first novel Decoded, which took him eleven years to write but made him famous overnight. All his subsequent books have been bestsellers, and his novel The Message was cast as a major motion picture in 2009. Decoded was published in English in 2014, followed by In the Dark in 2015.
In the early winter of 1971, our army was looking for new recruits in Fuyang, Zhejiang Province. Although an intake of 120 was planned, the actual number ended up being 128. Our Chief of Staff assigned this temporary quota over the phone, adding eight extra young women who were supposed to fill the phone operator posts.
Our rules required all new recruits to undergo physical and political review upon arrival, but the stringent army checks they had already undergone meant that there were usually no additional issues. To our chagrin, however, we came across two problematic people – one male and one female.
The young man’s issue had to do with his flat feet, commonly referred by us as “duck feet.” It was said that anyone unlucky enough to be afflicted with flat feet would experience piercing pain after marching any further than five kilometers, but during field training the soldiers routinely had to march several dozen kilometers or more a day. Obviously, the young man was unfit to be a soldier and had to be sent home.
However, the young woman’s problem was extremely serious, frighteningly so! Officially, the problem was said to be about her moral conduct, but more specifically, the problem concerned her broken hymen. Under normal circumstances, a woman’s hymen can only break in one way, but the woman, who was only nineteen and unmarried (she came from a town called Biaoshang), insisted that she had never had a boyfriend, so how did her hymen break? In actuality, the problem was more severe than the issue of moral conduct – it had to do with lying to the army. Lying to the army was not just being unfaithful to our organization, it was being unfaithful to our party and our people.
The army was extremely sensitive about such topics in the 1970s. We were so naive and fearful of sexual matters that our nerves could easily have snapped in half at the slightest mention of them. And yet, here they were on a physical review form accompanied by the sworn statement and signature of a female army doctor. Although the doctor never wrote down the word “slut” on the form, this particular word was used by the relevant people both when reporting the new recruit to their superiors and when discussing her with their subordinates. The word “slut” was normally forbidden, and no one dared to use it, yet as soon as this opportunity presented itself, suddenly everyone was bandying it around.
“Slut! Someone is a slut! This woman is a slut!”
Of all places, the army is the strictest when it comes to discipline and conduct. Yet here was a new female recruit who had been deemed a slut before she even received her uniform and badges, so of course this matter had to be dealt with seriously. How seriously? According to the army rules, she was to be returned to her hometown. If even a flatfoot had to be returned, a slut certainly would. But the question was, who would do the job? Since I was the chief of military affairs at the commander’s unit, the job landed in my lap. Thus in the winter of that same year, I found myself on the same train with both recruits towards Fuyang, which was only 50 kilometers away from the heavenly city of Hangzhou. As a northerner, I was immediately smitten with the beautiful scenery of the south.
On this errand, as long as I sent the recruits to the local People’s Armed Forces (PAF) with adequate explanations and evidence, I would be off the hook. How they got to their units or home villages, and eventually back to their respective families, would be none of my business. Had I gone back at once, I would have avoided getting involved further. But the trouble was, I became too mesmerized by the dreamy scenery of southern China. Despite the arrival of winter, it was verdant everywhere: the trees, grasses and the water were all green, without the slightest trace of the loess I was used to. It was sunny and balmy, with white clouds floating on the blue sky, against the backdrop of beautiful mountains and rivers. Everything was so intoxicating that I felt as though I was in heaven.
I grew up on the Loess Plateau and joining the army had taken me to an even rougher terrain within the region. In my experience, the winter I encountered in Fuyang existed only in heaven. And then there was the gorgeous Fuchun River. As a child, the only periodical I read was Fuchun River Illustrated and the river occupied a special spot in my heart. Now that I had arrived, how could I bear to miss it? Even if the PAF hadn’t arranged for me to tour the river, I would have done so privately. But as it happened, once I gave the slightest hint, the head of PAF quickly assigned someone to take me on a tour the next day. That night I stayed at the county guesthouse located on the Stork Hill along the riverbank. There I fell into a restful slumber amid the faint percussion of the distant wind, cradled in the memories of my childhood.
The next morning, the designated PAF companion joined me for breakfast at the guesthouse. Our plan was to get on the ferry at 9 am, heading to Dongziguan at the upper bank, where we would take lunch, then continue the ride downstream. According to my companion, this was the most scenic part of the river, snaking around in various bends – some wide, some long and narrow, with rolling hills on either side, treating our eyes to a sumptuous feast. My companion had obviously visited it many times, for he talked about it like a professional tour guide, without the slightest hesitation. His description was so smooth and vivid that merely listening to him filled my heart with excitement.
The ferry from Hangzhou was due to arrive at the harbor that sat at the foot of the Stork Hill. It took us less than five minutes to walk from our guesthouse to the harbor. My guide explained that the siren the ferry sounded after docking was loud enough to awaken the entire county town. Given our proximity, we could easily walk over as soon as we heard it. But I was over-eager and left the guesthouse ten minutes early. Upon arrival, we discovered that the ticket counter remained closed, though a few customers were already waiting. Armed with an official letter promising free rides, we didn’t have to queue for tickets. With ten more minutes at our disposal, my guide and I took a stroll along the river, eventually making our way back to the foot of Stork Hill. There we sat down for a chat in a pavilion.
From where we sat, I could see the guesthouse and the wide, rimless surface of the river. It seemed even more vast and boundless with the morning sun shining on it, as though it was an ocean. Hangzhou was supposed to be located in that infinite center. Sure enough, as my eyes scanned the width of the river, a black dot began to emerge. It grew bigger in the glistening sun. My guide looked at his watch and announced that it had to be our ferry. We walked back leisurely, since it was apparent that it would take longer for the black dot to transform into a ferry than for us to return to the harbor.
By then a lot of people had gathered at the ticket counter, most of them young students with Red Guard badges. One of them even held a red flag, as though he was attending a revolutionary event. Since my guide and I both wore uniforms, all eyes turned to us as we approached: some waved while others engaged in active discussions. I nodded symbolically in their direction, thinking, “I can’t get too friendly, otherwise I would have to talk to them instead of enjoying the beautiful scenery.” Indeed, this wasn’t the first time I had intended to sightsee, but ended up becoming the scenery for admirers of the People’s Liberation Army. This was especially true with students. All of them aspired to become soldiers one day, which meant that anyone with an army uniform represented a step closer to their dreams. While I usually welcome these conversations, that day I was especially keen on having silent exchanges with the Fuchun River. For it could be the only chance I would ever get, and I didn’t want to miss it. I purposely had my guide walk towards the back, to keep a certain distance between us and the crowd. Then I saw a jeep moving along the harbor. As it came to a halt, someone got off and waved at us. Once he approached, he began whispering that we had to go back at once. We asked what happened and he said someone had died.
The dead person had something to do with me, because she was the “slut” I had returned. She committed suicide by taking half a bottle of DDVP, an insecticide. According to the same female doctor who had checked her virginity, anyone drinking a small mouthful of DDVP might still be revived within half an hour, but after that the chance of survival would be very slim. The girl took half a bottle and was only discovered well into the night, so the chance of survival was nearly zero. Her father said that no one knew when she took the poison, because when his eldest son, the head of the village defense platoon, came back from his night guard duty past midnight, she was still okay. She was curled up all alone in the front parlor, looking very sad, but not sad enough to kill herself. Her brother saw her looking forlorn and asked her to go to bed, but she didn’t pay any attention to him, just sat there motionless like a ghost. In the middle of the night, her mother heard some commotion in the pigsty downstairs. Two pigs, seemingly frightened by something, had started to grunt. The mother initially wanted to check on them but fell asleep again quickly. She dreamed that she had gone to the pigsty and nothing was wrong. This made her sleep even more soundly. When she woke up the next morning, she suddenly recalled her dream and went to check on the pigs. Although a pile of firewood had fallen down and caused a mess, the two pigs seemed totally fine. Feeling relieved, she wanted to take some firewood to make breakfast, but as she bent down, she found a piece of clothing wrapped around the firewood. It was still early in the morning and the light was dim. She couldn’t figure out to whom the clothes belonged, but felt that it would be a pity to burn the firewood along with the clothes. But when she bent down to pick them up it was her daughter’s cold body that she found.
That was three hours ago, and now this cold body had been taken out of the firewood and brought to the PAF accompanied by the wailing and commotion of her family members. They placed the corpse in the hallway near the entrance. As a soldier and a Korean War veteran, I had seen all sorts of corpses on the battlefield – male, female, old, young, my fellow soldiers’, enemies’, American, Vietnamese, armless, headless, eyes wide open, tongue sticking out, you name it... But when I saw her corpse in the hallway, I could only gasp. First of all, it didn’t look like a corpse. All of the corpses I had seen lay flat – whether it was in bed or on the ground, or in the middle of nowhere, a corpse would normally be flat on its back with the arms and legs stretched out. And even if the body had been in some other position at first, someone would have come along and rearranged it into this basic posture of a dead person, an unspoken respect from the living to the dead. This young woman was on her back, yet both her head and legs failed to touch the ground, while her fists protruded forward, almost reaching her thighs. Indeed, her body looked like a bow, not a corpse, as though she was doing sit-ups, or perhaps struggling relentlessly, trying to rise and leave the scene.
How could anyone allow this to happen, forgetting to pay the most basic respect to the dead? I angrily made my way in and squatted down, hoping to help her into a better position. I know that the dead usually yield to the living. Even if certain corpses weren’t easy to handle, it was never impossible, if I was patient enough. But when I tried to smooth out her body, I found all of my efforts futile. Her body was as tough as a stone, tough and cold. When I pressed her upper body, the lower part would tilt upwards, but as soon as I straightened her lower body, the upper part would tilt back up again, reminding me of a seesaw. Meanwhile, all exposed areas – including her face, hands, neck and ankles – had a gloomy hue, a dark blue that seeped through. Her whole body must have been the same color. She and I had been on the road together only the day before, so I had a vivid memory of her. Her skin tone was pale and supple thanks to the beautiful water from the Fuchun River, but I never expected she would be dead by the following day, let alone that her skin would turn dark blue as though she were a silky chicken simmering under low heat overnight. Now she appeared overcooked, taking on the hue of danggui and black beans... A dark blue corpse was no less terrifying than one arched and seemingly trying to sit up. As I looked closer, I noticed traces of dirt at the corners of her mouth, her nose and her ears. The lines also appeared crooked. Her father explained that it was the blood, but because her body turned dark blue, it no longer looked like blood but dirt. A term immediately came to mind then: bleeding to death through the seven openings of the body.
This had been an agonizing death. From head to toe, this corpse was telling the living: she died an extremely tragic, agonizing death.
I believe any living human being would have sympathized with the girl’s plight at the sight of such a corpse. But for her relatives, this empathy could explode into full-fledged anger, eagerly looking for an outlet. As soon as I entered the PAF courtyard, I could smell this raw emotion permeating the air, fixed on quiet but sad faces. To avoid becoming an easy target, I showed my utmost sadness as soon as I saw the dead body, as though she were my true comrade. I cursed myself and fate, even bursting into tears to show how distressed I was. This did hold their emotions at bay for the time being. Given the ruthless manner in which they had acted (carrying the corpse to PAF from their village, for example), I had expected that their goal was not merely to win sympathy.
At least twenty people stood in the hallway, while more gathered inside the courtyard, all claiming to be her relatives. I had no idea how she had so many relatives all of a sudden, but I suspected that anyone vaguely related to her had come along to be part of the spectacle. While there is strength in numbers, too many people leads to chaos. The hallway was noisy and wails could be heard in the courtyard, but no one made any efforts to calm them down. The PAF comrades, those bookish types, had probably never encountered such an uproar before. They seemed indecisive, darting here and there aimlessly, without knowing what to tackle first. When I arrived, the door to the courtyard was still open, revealing multiple rings of onlookers. I was much more seasoned than my PAF comrades, thanks to my combat experience. I immediately asked the guard to close the entrance to the courtyard. Under the circumstances, the door should have been closed long ago.
After examining the corpse, I decided to be preemptive and disperse the crowd first; otherwise things could get out of control. I had read the form filled out by the young woman beforehand and knew that her father was the head of the village, which meant that he was also a party member. So I talked to him first, expressing myself in a sympathetic yet firm manner:
As a party member, it was unbecoming for him to carry his daughter’s corpse here, but because we understood that he was upset, the behavior could be forgiven.
Our goal was to resolve the matter, but having so many people around didn’t help. In order to resolve it, only the family members of the deceased could stay; otherwise I would treat it as a mob gathering and notify the police.
At last, I pointed at the office of the PAF head and said to the young woman’s father, I will wait for you there, but I won’t let you in unless you disperse the crowd. I walked off immediately after that, without giving him a chance to argue. Someone in the crowd shouted that I couldn’t leave, but no one dared block my way. Throughout, I was helped by an invincible aura created by my dignified manner and the army uniform I had on. Soon their arrogance subsided. As I entered the office and looked through the window, I was relieved to find that the father of the deceased was already convincing the crowd to leave.
Ten minutes later, everyone had left except for the deceased’s closest relatives: her father, mother, elder brother, younger sister and younger brother. Her younger brother, a boy just a little over ten, didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation. His curiosity about army barracks far exceeded his sadness, which meant that his eyes constantly wandered to the badges on the soldiers’ caps. Meanwhile, the father, the mother and the elder brother leaned against the flower pots, talking among themselves, perhaps exchanging strategies for the upcoming negotiation. Only the younger sister of the deceased, who looked to have just graduated from secondary school, stood timidly in the middle of the open space. She sobbed, trembling, as though she were an abandoned orphan. It pained me to see her lonesome and helpless figure. The two girls looked so much alike that I felt as though I was witnessing the agony of her elder sister before her death.
When I came out of the office, I approached her but didn’t comfort her. Instead, I told her to look after her younger brother. This was my strategy, as I knew comforting her directly would not produce any results, and might even backfire on me. By giving her a task, by getting her involved quickly as an adult, I sought to pacify her out-of-control emotion. After that, I politely invited the three adults to the office.
Once inside the hallway, the father found the corpse missing and felt tricked. He lost his temper, but I explained that to abandon the deceased on the floor was a show of disrespect. That was why we had moved her into a room. As we spoke I showed them the corpse in the PAF activity room, which had a ping pong table inside. The corpse lay on top of the ping pong table, having been given a pillow and covered with a white sheet. In this way, she looked more like a corpse, which contrasted starkly from earlier, when they had thrown her on the floor like a grenade and anyone who happened to cast a glance at her would shudder with fear. There was a long wooden bench with an armrest, which was normally used by the ping pong players during the break. Maybe the father was simply too tired, or maybe he was afraid that we might hide the body, but he refused to leave the activity room. In fact, as soon as he entered, he sat down on the bench and indicated that we could talk right there. He lit a cigarette, looking as unflinching as a statue. We had no choice but to get some chairs and sit next to the dead girl. If her soul was still around, I supposed she heard everything we said.
What I expected to be a terrible fight turned out to be quite peaceful. There was almost no heated speech, as both parties tried to stay reasonable and fair. The father of the deceased was not difficult, even though he didn’t show himself in the very best light. When he finally got seated he tried his best to control his emotions. He said whatever was on his mind, which showed that he genuinely wanted to discuss the matter. He said he carried the corpse to the PAF office not because he wanted monetary compensation, or to stir up trouble. He didn’t gather the crowd either, but they had followed him, probably because he was the village head. He said destiny had a hand in the girl’s death, and it wasn’t so much the army’s fault but his own. “I hounded her to death!” he said. Hearing those words uttered, I felt touched, and was filled with respect for him. When the PAF sent his daughter home the day before and told him bluntly what had gone wrong, he was so ashamed that he wished he could dig a hole in the ground and escape. It was as if someone had stripped him naked, as if the entire family was stripped and now they stood naked in public. All he wanted was to beat this “beast of a daughter” to death, and he slapped his daughter hard. It was worse than a punch and his daughter fell down instantly with blood all over her mouth and one side of her face swollen. But her father didn’t stop there. He wanted to kick her, but our PAF comrade stopped him. The father was so angry that our comrade had to warn him not to hit his daughter again, or else there wouldn’t be any future recruitment from his village.
After he left, the father didn’t hit his daughter again. Instead, he asked her to name the “stray dog” that had slept with her. He interrogated her three times, and each time the daughter insisted that she was innocent, but he didn’t believe her. The army hospital was very advanced and had the most professional doctors and equipment, he thought. How could they have made a mistake? “I felt that my daughter was definitely in the wrong,” he said, “I thought she was refusing to reveal the truth to protect herself and the man.”
Not being able to get anything out of the girl further aggravated the father. On several occasions he wanted to hit her again, but twice he stopped short when he recalled what the PAF comrade had said. On the third occasion he couldn’t take it anymore. They had just finished dinner then and the empty dishes were scattered on the table. He threw a bowl at her. She ducked and ran off. He picked up a pole and chased her around with it, shouting that he wanted her dead. The girl tried with all her might to escape at first. She ran from the kitchen to the living room, from the living room to the pigsty, then back to the living room, with her father in hot pursuit behind her.
This resulted in chaos: frightened livestock scurried in all directions, while farming tools clattered to the ground. On her way back to the living room, the girl tripped and fell. She remained motionless instead of getting up, waiting for her father to come and hit her. The pole he carried was made of mature bamboo, thicker than his arm and very sturdy. Had it landed on her, she would have died instantly. As he raised the pole high up in the air, his wife emerged in front of her daughter. She screamed at her husband, “She would end up dead!” He replied, “I want the beast dead!” His wife exhausted every ounce of her strength trying to rip the pole from his hands. Then she stopped shielding the daughter and said, “Go ahead and hit her then. You’ll be the one digging her grave.” The father had totally lost control by then. He punched and kicked his daughter like a hailstorm, while shouting savagely, “I want this beast dead.” As his wife recalled the scene, she said, “How could he hit anyone like that? He really wanted her dead. I was so scared that I could only hold on to my mad husband, urging my daughter to run.” The girl got up but didn’t run. Instead, she lifted up her bloody face and approached her father. In an unexpectedly calm tone, she asked him not to hit her because it wasn’t necessary to beat her to death: she would kill herself. Her calm surprised everyone. Her father uttered his ultimatum before going to bed upstairs. He said, either you tell me that bastard’s name or you die.
The daughter said, I have no choice but to kill myself then.
Her father said, go ahead and kill yourself.
Her father uttered this phrase repeatedly. He said it as he walked upstairs, then repeated it after he finished climbing the stairs. Later he was awakened by his daughter’s weeping, and in a rage he got up to say it again. He admitted that it was he who had hounded the girl to death, and therefore he wouldn’t ask the army for compensation. But he needed to find out whether she had really slept with anyone. The father now believed his daughter told the truth. His tears came streaming down as he took out a piece of paper, the suicide note left by the girl. I saw a short sentence scribbled on it: “Dad, I am innocent. After I die, please go and rectify it with the army, I am innocent.”
In fact the father had been thinking things over after he went upstairs. Perhaps it was possible his daughter was refusing to comply because she really had been wronged. This girl was normally as docile as a lamb. Introverted and weak, she had never disobeyed her parents ever since she was little. The father said, “If any secrets really existed, she would definitely have confessed, given the way I beat her.” His wife added, “After the old man went upstairs, I went to look for my daughter, and found her shocked and confused by her father’s rage. In fact, she even wet her pants.” But still she insisted that she had never slept with any “beasts.” She kept on saying no, no, no. “Whatever I asked she answered no, as though she were a fool,” the mother explained, “I know my daughter. Even if she had all the courage under the stars she wouldn’t do this kind of thing. If it did happen, it could only have been a ghost, without her knowledge.” The mother looked weak, but she seemed eloquent when she spoke, her voice firmer than her husband’s.
After his wife talked to him about it, the father began to suspect that his daughter might have been wronged, so he initially planned to bring it up with the army. He never expected his daughter would commit suicide right away. Now that it was too late, the father sobbed and cursed himself for her death. Then he held the corpse in his arms and broke into a wail: “My daughter, my daughter, I am the one who killed you. I must clear your name. Whatever problem the army had, Dad will ask them to check it again…”
He wanted us to examine the corpse. No one had expected this of the family. This was not an unreasonable request, if an ignorant one. It was obvious that they wanted to air their dirty laundry in public. We tried to talk them out of it. Not only would it be disrespectful for the deceased, but it would not do any good for the living either. Yet none of the family members – the father, the mother or the elder brother – would heed our advice. They seemed confident that the girl hadn’t done anything despicable, and they firmly asked our doctors to conduct the examination again. I was at a loss for words, almost completely sure that the request was futile, for I envisioned the result of the reexamination would cause further embarrassment for them. To a gynecologist, whether the hymen is broken or not can be as clear as night and day. It is nearly impossible for a doctor to make a mistake. However, one can’t be certain that someone with a torn hymen has slept with a man. That is usually the case, but one can’t exclude some special situations.
For example, when I was serving in Vietnam, a young woman riding with us flew out of the trunk and landed on the ground when an enemy bomb hit our vehicle. She screamed when she saw that she was bleeding profusely, thinking that a bullet must have hit her. We carried her to the doctor, but upon examination, the doctor found her to be okay – the bleeding was the result of a ripped hymen. This made me realize that the “black and white” judgment made about the deceased was not completely scientific. I knew that the family would probably abandon their request if I shared my honest opinion with them, but how could I dare say it? If I blurted it out, they would use it against me later, and that could spell trouble for me. Consequently, I tried to convince them with other reasoning. However, my words failed to persuade them. They continued to insist on an examination of the corpse.
The father of the deceased said that, he would carry his daughter’s corpse away as soon as the result confirmed that she really had the problem. He would not hang around for another minute, or make another request, or say another word.
Her mother explained that the girl had sacrificed her life for this request, and if we didn’t grant it she would kill herself right there.
Her elder brother said that if we didn’t grant it, he would carry the two corpses to Beijing and ask Chairman Mao for justice.
His father said that if we didn’t grant it, he would kill himself too, because it was better to die than to be denigrated forever.
Nothing else mattered at that point. I was angry and sad at the same time. This young woman had failed to become an honorable soldier and lost her precious life. This was a double whammy for her family. I felt sympathy towards them and truly wanted to relieve some of their pain. I even decided secretly that I would give them double compensation. I planned to attend her funeral in person, to stop their neighbors from looking down on them. However, the family seemed set on disgrace in their bid to win back their respect, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. At my wit’s end, I had a discussion with the PAF head, and we decided to grant their wishes.
Once the decision was made, we acted as quickly as possible and had someone contact the county hospital and arrange for the vehicle to pick up the doctors. Before noon, the doctors arrived with their medical toolboxes marked with a red cross. They were two female doctors, one old and one young. The two stayed in the activity room for less than five minutes, before coming out with a signed certificate: the hymen of the deceased was intact.
It was as though we suffered an ambush on the battlefield!
I rushed to the post office to call the army headquarters. In fact, the call was made to my supervisor, the Chief of Staff. Upon learning the situation, he reprimanded me for trusting the PAF doctors. His words woke me up. He was right: we couldn’t really trust the local PAF under such circumstances, because it involved a conflict of interest. Now they would walk off scot-free, evading all blame. Yet they were the ones who had sent us the slut with questionable morals in the first place. The Chief of Staff wanted me to head to Hangzhou in the afternoon, to make a request with the provincial military district and send our army doctors in to conduct the reexamination. But he changed his mind before hanging up. Instead, he would contact the military doctors himself and all I needed to do was to stay put and wait.
The next morning, two army gynecologists from the provincial military district arrived as expected. They walked into the activity room with the same kind of solemnity as their two colleagues the day before, but came out just as quickly, and their report was almost identical: the hymen of the deceased was intact.
When the news reached the Chief of Staff, he rushed over as quickly as possible. He even brought our own army doctor, the one who had initially diagnosed the dead girl as “slut.” She was a tall, well-built woman from the Jiaodong region of Shandong province. As the wife of a department head in the military, she was usually very arrogant. Humility was written all over her face this time, however. And by the time she came out of that room, horror had taken over. In fact, she stayed inside for less than a minute. We thought she had forgotten some equipment and would head back in, but she pulled me and the Chief of Staff frantically into another office. In a panic-stricken tone, she said there had been a mistake. We asked what was wrong and she said it was the wrong person.
In fact, she sensed that something was amiss as soon as she pulled the sheet up to conduct the examination. That particular area of the body varies from one person to another, just like fingerprints. What she saw from the deceased was different from what she remembered. Alarmed, she went to check on the face of the dead girl, and was shocked to find that she was not the same person. Although 22 people had undergone examinations that day, there was only one problematic person (which was the only case they’d found in several years), so it would have been impossible for the doctor not to recognize that particular young woman, even if she was dead. In fact, given that she remembered the private areas of the young woman, it goes without saying that she would remember her face. But how could this have happened? The doctor felt that someone had purposely switched the person just to swindle us. But that seemed farfetched, in my opinion. The deceased might have looked different after her death, but obviously she was the same person. Look, for example, at the extra growth on her ear, the red mole on her neck, the short, ear-length haircut she got after joining the army. Besides, who would have died just to pretend to be someone else? The Chief of Staff and I decided that we had made the mistake – there had been a mix-up and we got the wrong person.
As we listened to the army doctor recounting the events of the day, we realized what had gone astray. The procedure included the collection of forms from all the recruits at the same time, and then bringing them in one by one. This way, the doctor didn’t need to call each individual woman by name. After she performed the examination, as long as there was no problem, she would just let them go without uttering a word. In fact, it was like an assembly line: one person went in the examination room as the other left. The matter would have been simple, so long as no problem was found. All she needed to do was to stamp the word “normal” on all of the forms at the end, sign them, and that would be that. Only if anything problematic was discovered – such as in the case of this young woman – would the doctor need to ask the procedural questions, such as name, age, sexual history, etc. According to the doctor, the young woman she encountered answered everything, including her name, age, and that she “never had a boyfriend.” Those were her original words. After getting her name, the doctor went to the pile, took out the relevant form and wrote down her response: this woman claimed to have never had a boyfriend, but we found her hymen to be torn during the examination, which was highly unusual. The doctor recommended that our leadership handle this case carefully. For the rest of the group, the nurse stamped the word “normal” on their forms, and had the doctor sign them at a later time.
Frankly, this kind of assembly line checkup was the usual practice. Hospital procedures such as X-rays and electrocardiograms, were all done this way. But it still required the patient’s presence while the form was being filled out. While filling out and submitting forms, the doctor must have had some recollection of whether the form belonged to this same woman. But given the intimate nature of this particular examination, they scheduled it at the end, so that by the time this was done, they didn’t have to return the forms to the women being examined. Instead, the doctor submitted them directly to her hospital superiors. I asked the doctor for the name that had been given then, and she replied with the name that she would no doubt remember for the rest of her life.
It was the name of the deceased!
The riddle had been solved at last. I surmised it happened this way: when this other young woman’s indiscretions were discovered by the doctor, she purposely gave the name of the deceased instead of her own, so that she would not been inculpated by the information about the broken hymen. Now we had to set aside all of our naïve or false ideas, because coming up with ways to redress this unjust death had become the top priority.
How we did so would depend on what her family members were planning. So far they had not acted badly, for they only brought up two reasonable requests: one was to take care of the relevant funeral expenses, and the other was to take the younger sister away as a replacement soldier. The Chief of Staff granted these requests without getting permission from the army. Initially I presumed that the deceased must have had two younger sisters, and that the one I saw was the youngest, but I learned later that she only had this one younger sister, aged 15 – too young to join the army. We suggested coming back for her once she reached the proper age, but the family refused, probably because they were afraid that we wouldn’t keep our word. Unable to persuade them otherwise, the Chief of Staff had me stay behind to make complicated arrangements for the young girl to join the army, which meant we had to ask the local public security bureau to change the household registry for her. It was time-consuming, so the Chief of Staff and the army doctor left first.
Before his departure, the Chief of Staff instructed me to go back as soon as possible, as I might need to make another trip to this part of town to return another young woman. I understood what he meant. The army doctor had pointed out that the crime was serious enough to have the other young woman – the one who lied to the doctor to escape punishment – executed by firing squad! After all, she had indirectly committed a murder, and to return such a person to her hometown would be letting her off the hook. These words sounded very harsh to my ears, especially coming from the army doctor. I had never disliked this arrogant woman more than I did at that moment. Why couldn’t she have just taken pity on the poor young woman in the first place and covered it up – then everything would have been fine! But now we had gotten ourselves into every conceivable trouble: rumors, comedy, tragedy, death, you name it, with more disasters on the way. Hardly had one wave subsided when another had risen again. I felt an unspeakable fatigue and fear, and maybe that was why I attended the funeral of the deceased voluntarily.
This meant that I had to stay for at least one extra day. So, four days after the Chief of Staff departed, I finally finished all of the army recruitment papers for the younger sister of the deceased. On the morning of the fifth day, I travelled with her back to the army base. By then I had stayed in Fuyang for over a week, but I had still had no chance to take the tour of Fuchun River. It had to be destiny then: without the right karma, I had to give it a miss, even though I was so close.
On my way back, I sat face to face with the younger sister of the deceased. The two sisters resembled each other so much that I had the impression of still being on the train back to Fuyang with the older sister. I had also sat across from the deceased then, but we didn’t talk at all in those 17 or 18 hours. She cowered up like a prisoner and didn’t dare to look me in the eyes, though at one point she begged me to tell her what she was supposed to have done wrong. There was no real reason to keep it a secret; she would have to learn about it sooner or later. But I acted like a bureaucrat, saying that those in charge would eventually tell her. I had been referring to the local PAF. If I had only told her about it, she might have been able to explain it to me. What chance could she have had of explaining to the PAF, after all? Her explanation would have only agitated them further, just like her encounter with her father. Because of what I was thinking at the time, because I was being bureaucratic, she never got that opportunity to explain.
On my way back, I kept on thinking: if I had told her the truth on that train journey, would the course of events have been different? This question kept nagging at me. I felt exhausted, especially since the other Fuyang recruit was waiting for me at the army barracks, ready to be returned. I would have to go back to the same city and deal with a similar story.
Even now, when I think of it all, I still feel exhausted.