Faith Gage stood in front of her door and looked over the collapsed warehouse across the narrow street and toward Chengdu in the valley below. Smoke rose in columns from the smoldering remnants of the fires that had been triggered by the earthquake. It then spread like a low fog toward the base of the mountain beneath her, yellow-gray, poisoned by exploding chemical tanks at the factories in the economic development zone. In the near distance she could make out the smoldering shell of the almost completed RAID Technologies microchip plant, the largest building on the western edge of the city.
She recognized that the silent movement of distant things made it hard for her to maintain the images in her mind of the hundreds of thousands of souls entombed in the rubble, the raw hands of searchers, and the roar and grind of earthmoving equipment, and the wail of survivors already gathered in temples, burning incense in honor of the dead.
Shuffling footsteps drew her eyes toward a young man in his mid-twenties carrying a duffel bag over the shoulder of his wool jacket. His dirt- and soot-covered face seemed forlorn against the background of the dusty anarchy of wood, brick, and concrete spilling out into the street. He came to a stop in front of the remains of the wooden shack next to Faith’s. He stared at it, then took in a long breath, exhaled, and lowered his head.
Faith walked over. When he looked up she saw that tears had formed, muddying the dirt at the corners of his eyes. She could perceive beyond the tears a somber core, but she couldn’t tell whether it was a product of nature or trauma or grief, or of all three.
“Aunt Zhao is fine,” she told him in Mandarin, then pointed at her own house. “She’s staying with me.”
He looked down and sighed, then wiped his eyes with his sleeve, tracking the grime across his face and forehead.
“You are?” Faith asked.
“Her grandson. Jian-jun.” He pointed toward Chengdu. “From the city. You must be the anthropologist she told me would be coming.”
Faith nodded, then said, “Chifanle meiyou? “ Have you eaten?
Jian-jun’s face relaxed, seeming to find comfort in the familiar greeting, even though spoken by a gweilo, a white ghost, in a wasteland.
“Chifanle,” he answered. I’m fine.
His sunken cheeks told Faith that he wasn’t, that he probably hadn’t eaten much in days, perhaps even before the earthquake. She led him through the house and into the kitchen where his eighty-five-year-old grandmother sat at the table chopping vegetables for lunch. He walked over and knelt beside her. She reached for him with her thin arms and hugged him against her breast. He pulled back and whispered something to her. She bit her lip and frowned as he again pressed against her.
After pouring him tea, Faith dragged a wooden chair up next to his grandmother. He pulled himself onto it and then warmed his hands on the cup.
“How is it in the city?” Faith asked him.
“Chaos. Fury. Violence.” Jian-jun took a sip of tea; he didn’t seem surprised or put off balance by Faith’s speaking unaccented Mandarin. “Schools and hospitals collapsed everywhere, burying children and sick people.”
His hands tightened around the cup and his face flushed.
“The concrete didn’t just crack, it crumbled. Disintegrated. Mobs hunted down the builders and the mayor and a couple of party leaders and hung them. They’ve now surrounded all of the government offices and intend to starve them out and kill them, too.”
“Isn’t the army-”
Jian-jun shook his head. “The army isn’t intervening, and not because they’re afraid. They’re as sickened by the corruption as everyone else. I think they want to try to contain it to Chengdu and the other cities in the earthquake area, and let it be an object lesson for the rest of the country.”
Ayi Zhao stared ahead. Listening.
“And there’s no clean water. Chemical runoff from the burned factories flowed into the BoTiao River and the waterworks.” He pointed north. “And they can’t use the Zi Pingpu Reservoir. It’s too polluted by lead and cadmium from the electronic recycling companies up in the hills. People are drinking from their toilets.”
Ayi Zhao whispered, ” Tian ming.” It’s the mandate of heaven.
Jian-jun reached over and took her hand.
He and Faith both knew that saying the words was no different than criticizing the party directly. In historical terms, it meant that the government had lost its legitimacy, and withdrawing the mandate was the way heaven authorized an uprising. Tian ming had justified every dynastic change for three thousand years and explained every earthquake and flood. Even Communist Party members feared the phrase.
What had always bothered Faith about the concept was that it was circular: The success of an uprising meant that the mandate had truly been withdrawn; the failure, that it hadn’t, and millions of lives had been sacrificed over the centuries determining heaven’s intentions.
Ayi Zhao raised a finger and said, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
Faith cast a questioning look at Jian-jun. It sounded to her as though Ayi Zhao had quoted a lost stanza from Yeats’s “Second Coming.” She saw, more than spoke, the famous lines in her mind.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…
“It’s from Karl Marx,” Jian-jun said. “From the Communist Manifesto. Grandmother was a party member in the 1940s, but Mao purged her for supporting Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1970s.”
He pointed toward the front door.
“She was sent to a forced labor and reeducation camp outside of Chengdu for five years, but was taken back into the party when Deng took power. Then in the 1980s she was purged again when she protested the Tiananmen Square massacre and Deng’s support of the wealthy against the poor.”
He held out his arms, as if to encompass the village.
“That’s why she’s living up here now. But she remains a hero to those living below. The government can’t kill her or imprison her without inciting bloodshed. She’s like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi-except that the condition of her freedom and her continued living is silence.”
Jian-jun looked at his grandmother, then back at Faith, his gaze seeming to classify her as a Westerner who saw Communism not as a theory, but as a peasant society’s delusion.
“For people of my grandmother’s generation,” Jian-jun said, “Communism wasn’t an economic system as much as a philosophy of life and a cry of resistance against foreign occupation, a proclamation of the dignity of labor, even the labor of peasants and farmers.”
He pressed his fingers against his chest.
“I’m a Christian,” he said, “but does that mean I believe everything in the Bible? Would I turn my cheek if someone harmed my grandmother? ”
His voice rose, as though he was repeating an argument he’d already had with himself or with an unseen enemy.
“Do I believe with Jesus that non-Christians are a brood of vipers and that justifies their murder? Do I believe that Christ will return and lead an army that will torment and torture the unbelievers? ”
Ayi Zhao looked at her grandson and nodded.
“The people of my grandmother’s generation weren’t deluded. They knew that China was an agricultural country. They knew that it didn’t have the industrial and economic development that Marx said was the precondition of Communism.” Jian-jun spread his arms again.
“What did they know of capitalism? Only British and German and French imperialism and Japanese occupation. The people of her generation weren’t stupid, but they, and the generations that followed them, were betrayed.”
Jian-jun’s words made Faith realize that there were two empty seats at her table.
“What about your parents?” she asked. “Did they follow your grandmother into the party?”
Ayi Zhao and Jian-jun both stiffened.
“I’m sorry,” Faith said, “I didn’t mean-”
“In China,” Jian-jun said, “we still believe in the Confucian virtue of filial piety. We take care of our parents.” He locked his eyes on Faith’s. “The last thing I did before leaving Chengdu to come here and check on grandmother was hide them from the mob.”