He who tries to express spirit through ornamental beauty
will make dead things.
–from an 11th century Chinese treatise on art.
“See how the skin glows?”
“It’s like a pearl, master.” It is only his second day with Master Wei, and once again the boy congratulates himself on being apprenticed to this man. Li is certain his future is assured. “How did you make it so?”
“Soon enough for you to learn that, Li.” The old man walks slowly around his pride and joy, nodding to himself and smiling a private smile. His hair is silver, long, no longer pulled back in a tail; he feels himself free of the constraints of appearance.
“This is a work of art, Master Wei.” Li’s eyes slide over the object in question, covetous, amazed, a little afraid.
“Yes. Yes, she is very fine.”
Mei-Ju studies herself in a bronze mirror. The handle, once carved and intricate, has been worn smooth. It once belonged to her grandmother, concubine to a local warlord. When the warlord died, his wife cast Grandmother out with only the clothes on her back, the child in her belly, the engraved metal combs in her hair, the mirror, and the jewelry she had sewn into her hems as soon as the warlord began to sicken. Mei-Ju has inherited her things.
Sometimes, when she regards herself in the highly-polished bronze, she sees a face not quite her own. It is older, more beautiful still; she thinks perhaps the mirror shows who she will become. She does not stop to think that perhaps it holds spirits within. After these occasional visitations, she seems different, subtly changed, lovelier than before.
Her family is very poor but Mei-Ju is very beautiful and very ambitious. She is sleek but a little plump; any spare food goes to her, to keep her beauty intact, for her family believe this is how she will save them. If she is lovely enough, a rich man will take her as wife or concubine, then, they pray, prosperity will flow to them, that emptiness will become fullness. This is their fervent hope in all the years of lack, all the years when the groans of their stomachs compete for attention, trying to out-do each other: My hunger is greater! No, mine! Oh, be silent. Mei-Ju thinks only of leaving the hovel, not of what her elevation will mean to her family. She believes that when she at last leaves, she will not look back.
Her skin is flawless, a pale yellow, like gold washed to take the harsh shine out of it. Her eyes are black stones surrounded by long lashes. She brushes her hair, which is ebony, a black waterfall, and almost long enough to sit on. Usually, she makes her sister, Chen-Ju, hold the mirror for her, but Chen-Ju is out in the field and their father would not consent to having her play maid to her beautiful sister, not today when they need the harvest so badly.
Mei-Ju is spared physical labour—not least because her feet were broken and bound when she was very small; even then they could see how wondrous she would become, how her face would change their lives. Her feet had to be made to match. The concubine grandmother was the one to wield the large rock, to break the bones as her own had been and to bind the soft, crushed things tightly. Mei-Ju’s shoes are tiny and plain, but she dreams of one day wearing something precious, something silken and soft on her misshapen limbs. She cannot run, and walking is painful and slow (one reason why she likes to have her sister on hand), but she knows her golden lotus feet will help her totter to a place she longs to be.
“The robes are very rich, master,” observes the apprentice. The golden dragons running up and down the fabric glare fiercely at him. Part of him regrets what some may well see as waste.
“Of course, Li. This is for the Crown Prince. It can be nothing less than the best. The Empress would not have it otherwise.”
“Her son was away for a long time,” the boy hazards, aware the knowledge he gains here will help him navigate the treacherous paths of the Imperial Court. He is from a poor family, but Li is intelligent and ambitious.
“True. For five years the Empress could not do anything, but when her time came, when she finally drove out the usurper, she brought her son and heir back home.” Wei nods sagely, adjusts a sleeve. “Bring me the headdress, Li.”
Chen-Ju hates her sister. Her own face is flat and plain; they don’t look alike at all. Some days—all days, really—Chen-Ju would like to rake something sharp down Mei-Ju’s face. Not her nails—she has none, for they crack and split and tear to the quick from her arduous hours of manual labour. Something else, then: one of the engraved combs Mei-Ju uses in her hair, perhaps. The combs that belonged to the concubine grandmother. Yes, they would do the damage nicely.
Chen-Ju used them once, wound her own hair up and twisted it thus and thus. She made her eyes lose focus and her face seemed softer, almost pretty. She reached for a hope of beauty, her soul stretched out its fingers, almost had a grip on something she had never known; then Mei-Ju wandered in. She wasn’t angry—she laughed. She laughed so hard she fell over, tickled beyond words at the idea that her flat-faced sister might try to adorn herself, might try to find something lovely in her rough visage.
Clenching her fists, Chen-Ju had fought the urge to hit, fought the urge to disfigure. She, too, believed that the cost of a future would be paid in the currency of Mei-Ju’s face. It didn’t mean she hated her sister less, but it stayed her hand.
She swings the hoe over her head, the strong muscles of her shoulders and arms forged from years of work, clench. The tool comes down to split the sad earth with surprising force. She pictures Mei-Ju’s face in the brown of the soil. It is not simply the pain of always coming second to her sister, for she is not merely ‘second’—she is last. Her life is a race she can never win against Mei-Ju’s beauty.
Chen-Ju will marry a farm labourer, another peasant. Her industrious nature and tenacity will snare a husband, a man who wishes his helpmeet to work by his side, a woman who will bear sturdy children. She will never escape hard work, her face will never elevate her beyond the mud of the field.
“The Crown Prince was hurt?”
“Beaten, yes.” He fits the headdress carefully onto the perfectly formed head, secures it gently into the elaborate black coiffure. “Nothing I couldn’t fix.”
“The Empress must have been grateful.”
“Bring me those rings, the jade – and the bracelets. Yes, she has been my especial patron ever since.” He straightens, arches his back, sighing with relief as his vertebrae crack back into place. “When she gave me this latest commission, I considered myself most fortunate. Not that one – the one with the dragon swallowing its tail – bring that.”
“I hear your daughter is a great beauty, Wu Tsian.”
Mei-Ju’s father nods, his heart barely daring to hope. The harvest has not been good; he never thought to feel so hungry. He tries not to let his desperation show as he looks at the old man whose silver hair floats around his face in a haze.
“I am here to negotiate for her hand in marriage.” Wei’s eyes flit around the stark farm, recognising instantly, after a lifetime of judging people at a glance, that this man will be happy to sell his glorious daughter. The old man nods, a gesture Wu Tsian misses. This family will not starve again, the clan who asked for a bride will pay well. Whatever they give these peasants will be nothing compared to the bounty they will gain from a marriage with the Crown Prince, but to this small, ragged herd it will mean life.
They discuss terms and Wu Tsian does not waver, does not hesitate when the old man lays out the conditions of Mei-Ju’s good fortune. When Wu Tsian consents, his heart aching at the thought of the price his daughter will bring, he invites the old man inside. Master Wei is gracious, he has been in worse places (was born in one), but not many. The girl comes when called, tottering, doll-like. His face breaks into a smile; he had not hoped for this. “Golden lotus feet! My friend, how wonderful.”
“We knew she would be beautiful, that an important man would want her, so we made sure she would be entirely so.” Wu Tsian turns to Mei-Ju, who looks on expectantly. “Mei-Ju, our prayers are answered. This man has asked for your hand in marriage—to the Crown Prince.”
Mei-Ju catches her breath; it is more than she could have hoped for. Her grandmother, the concubine, trained her how to behave. She simpers, is modest, but flicks her eyes up, floats glancing blows at the well-dressed man who has come to rescue her. He thinks, if he were younger, she would be a wonderful diversion; as it is he congratulates himself on his choice. The Empress and her son will be pleased, as will the family who are paying him to find a bride.
The door opens and Chen-Ju and her mother enter. Wu Tsian is so excited he can barely express their good fortune. His wife weeps for joy and announces Mei-Ju must pack. Her daughter gives a haughty look—what is there for her to take from this place? She will dress in Grandmother’s one remaining outfit.
“Everything she needs will be provided, wife of Wu Tsian,” Wei interrupts, thinking that families should not leave each other on bad terms. “Do not worry. All her needs will be met in the Palace.”
Mei-Ju’s heart thrills at the word ‘palace’. Chen-Ju’s face darkens, twists. Her salivary glands over-produce and she wants to spit in her sister’s face. But it will not do, she will be gone soon.
“We should leave now; it is a long way to Chang’an,” says the old man. Mei-Ju agrees. She disappears into the back room that acts as their only bedroom, gesturing for Chen-Ju to follow, to help her dress.
Chen-Ju does so with bad grace, she is not gentle. She tugs at her sister’s old dress, so worn it rips in places. Mei-Ju ignores it, stands still as Chen-Ju removes the silken robe from the old chest. This Chen-Ju handles respectfully, grudgingly. It is one of the things (like her sister) she finds impossible to ruin, something always stops her, some kind of fear.
Slowly, she unrolls the dress and slips it over Mei-Ju’s head, her fingers fumbling with the band-knots. Chen-Ju steps away, raising her eyes to the glorious glowing yellow of her sister’s form. The silk, embroidered with lotus flowers, matches the gold wash of her skin. She is a Chrysanthemum Bride, surely her fortune is assured. Chen-Ju averts her eyes; they hurt. Something lands on the floor at her feet.
Mei-Ju’s mirror. Chen-Ju catches sight of her own face in its polished surface. She folds beside it and begins to weep.
“The family who bought her?”
“Had no daughter, merely an over-abundance of sons. But they wanted ties with the Empress. They knew I had been asked to find a bride for her son.”
“They paid much for a girl to pass off as their own niece from the provinces. Are you not afraid they will tell someone?”
“Who would admit to claiming a peasant as family? Who would admit to sullying their lineage?” the old man chuckles.
“They must be very ambitious.”
“Very. Always keep some form of insurance, when you deal with the very ambitious, Li. Remember that.”
“Yes, master. When they finally met, Mei-Ju and the Crown Prince – did she like her husband?”
“Not really, no.”
Mei-Ju felt as though she had held her breath the whole way to Chang’an, and the trip from the outer provinces was very long. She rode in the cart alongside the old man, never questioning why she did not have a wedding procession. After a few days the yellow robe showed wear and she could smell the journey embedded into the thick weave. She would, she thought, burn it when she arrived, when she was showered with her bridal gifts, when she had better. Grandmother’s cast-offs were not worth keeping. Perhaps, though, she would send the old hair combs back to her sister.
Her mind flitted briefly, dismissively, over the rumours that had reached them in their care-worn village, of the Crown Prince’s disappearance, of the stirrings it had caused. He had been in hiding, obviously; now he had returned and she was to be his bride.
When they finally reached the Palace, the old man covered her face as they rattled through the main gates. She was taken into the Palace by secret ways. He left her with three serving women, who bathed her from head to foot, scouring her skin with brushes until she glowed, washing her hair, rubbing oils and perfumes into her skin until she felt intoxicated with the scent of herself. Her wedding robes were rich, royal red, heavily embroidered, long-sleeved, delicately made. Her hair was dressed, held in place with combs of jade and gold. They hung her about with jewelry that had adorned empresses for hundreds of years, and painted her face, until she looked like a doll. Her lotus feet were re-wrapped in clean swaddling, shod with new shoes finer than she had ever imagined.
She feels weighted down by her finery but she does not care; it is a burden she embraces, a weight she craves.
When the old man reappears she is ready, her excitement sitting in her throat like a ripe plum. He leads her to a large, richly appointed chamber. On a raised platform is a bed and on the bed lies a figure. She approaches slowly, her eyes downcast.
“Meet your husband, Mei-Ju.” Master Wei’s voice floats up to her as she mounts the platform.
The Crown Prince has a pale, waxy cast to his skin. He is a beautiful boy, not much older than she, and in full wedding robes, golden dragons rampant on the red cloth. His eyes are closed and his chest neither rises nor falls with the motion of breath. Now Mei-Ju realises that he lies not on a bed but on a bier. In spite of the embalmer’s excellent work, there is something about him that speaks of decay; he smells stale and dusty beneath the heavy perfume.
Mei-Ju backs away, her tiny crushed feet aching, her heart swelling. She turns to the old man, who is now flanked by two large men.
“Minghun,” she breathes, her eyes filling.
“He has been dead for five years?”
“Yes, beaten to death by enemies of the Empress. I preserved him as well as I could during our time in exile, but the materials to hand were not the best. Still, it was all I could do.” The old man sighs, adjusts Mei-Ju’s jade combs. “When the Empress returned to power recently, this was the first task she gave me, to find him a bride for minghun. An afterlife marriage was all she desired for him—no parent wants their child to go into the darkness alone, unmarried.” His voice is soft, pained by the idea. “But Mei-Ju screamed. She screamed for a long time, and fought. In the end, though, she was too frail. We had to replace her robes, and fix her hair again, she was disheveled by her struggles.”
“You covered the bruises well,” observes Li, eying the skin around Mei-Ju’s mouth.
“Yes. She would not take the poison willingly, my men had to hold her mouth open, pour it in, stroke her throat like a cat to make her swallow it down.” He points to the places where bruises lurk under the thick makeup. “There is something in the poison that seems to restore the flesh after death; the marks were very much lessened after she had breathed her last. I don’t know why. Perhaps you will find out, when you take my place.”
“Come. It’s time for her wedding. The families will arrive soon.”
“Did her own family know?” Side by side they stand, surveying their work, the bride and groom in rich red, youth suspended, lying on their joint bier.
“Oh yes; well, the father did. Perhaps he told his wife. The girl’s sacrifice has made their lives better. They will want for nothing. One life for the benefit of many.” The old man nods. “I think it was an easy choice. Come.”
Chen-Ju keeps the mirror for a month, until the day Mei-Ju’s face appears in it. Chen-Ju is transfixed by her sister’s wild hair, red-rimmed, weeping eyes, her mouth in a constant ‘o’ of despair.
It is the day of Chen-Ju’s wedding to a local farmer—the family’s improved fortunes have hooked her a higher rank of husband. She has the mirror propped on a chest as she brushes her dull hair, pinches her pale cheeks for some colour, smoothes down her unadorned scarlet dress, when Mei-Ju fills the silvered surface like smoke.
Chen-Ju watches for a while, then wraps the thing in a piece of old cloth. She sneaks out of her parents’ house, makes her way to a field and buries the mirror and her screaming sister as deeply as she can. Chen-Ju’s heart lifts; she does not bear the burden of beauty and for once she is grateful.