From the manner in which the Chinese athletes win and lose, you can see the degree of freedom the people of the Middle Kingdom truly have. “The agony of defeat” is far more excruciating if the gymnast has yet to earn the home she has been promised, should she win gold. If the home is taken away because of her defeat, she and her family are demoted to the poverty of countryside. The state owns the athletes.
I felt paralyzed and could not post my blogs during the Beijing Olympics; I did not trust my inclination to marvel at the triumphant mood and architectural wonders (designed for foreign architects). The closing ceremonies have ended and I can only say that the whole event, apart from the earnest competition of the athletes, was a garish display of hubris.
B.Y. gouache, 1991
Aside from the fireworks, just about everything else was in mimicry of the West. Watching a prettified Beijing, I was reminded of a tale my father told me from the Chinese classic collection of ghost stories, “The Liao Zai”:
On a desolate road, Wang meets woman of remarkable beauty, who claims to be a runaway concubine from a rich man’s estate. Wang is elated and takes her home. The next day at market, he is accosted by a Taoist monk who scrutinizes him in horror from head to toe. The monk asks him whether anything unusual has happened to him. Wang replies, No, even as he thinks about the beautiful woman he has taken home the night before. The Taoist monk says, “Your whole body is enveloped by an evil vapor, how can you lie?” Wang adamantly refutes that anything extraordinary has happened to him and makes excuses to himself: “Oh, this monk is just trying to cheat me out of money by purporting to provide aid.” The monk walks away in a huff, leaving Wang with these words: “Is there such a fool? He is near death and continue to disavow that he is in any danger.”
When Wang returns home, he finds his front door locked. As he peek in through a window, he sees a demon with saw-like teeth, painting the image of a woman on a sheet of human skin. When done, the demon shakes the skin, drapes it over its body and instantaneously morphs into the very beauty Wang has sheltered in his home.
The story is long and involved and skipping a few scenes, the monster ripping out Wang’s heart as he cowers in bed. This tale, titled, “The Painted Skin,” is essentially a didactic tale: there are unwise people who when warned of a demon claims it to be a great beauty.
There are many Westerners, and even more overseas Chinese, who have clearly been mesmerized by the monster beneath a sheet of painted skin.
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