The night that hides things from us, a short story | It’s better to have loved and lost — In memoriam of 4 June 1989, Tiananmen, Beijing, China

The night that hides things from us

by Julie O’Yang

“The village stands on the bank of the broad river with her white, wild water gushing forward to the east. Shhhimmeringo-chamchockpour-glissandiferochower!

In the dark his voice lowered from a pressing, bottomless fortissimo to a driving undercurrent of hissing pianissimo. The Yangtze then turned into triplets of a recurring motif. Smooth, silver ripples traversing an immense level of rice fields, open to the horizon walled in by a range of blue peaks, and on the west a dark patch of woodland. This was the place he was born and raised, in a thatched hut on the hill overlooking half a mile of rustling rice paddies. In the shadow to the left, immediately adjacent to the cemetery that in the summer also served as playing ground for children, a Buddhist temple emerged dedicated to Kwannon-of-the-Eleven-Faces, accompanied by a shrine with a handsome tiled roof in honour of the Deity of Silkworms. All the details she had envisioned as she saw them vividly in her mind’s eye, distinguishing every infinitesimal thread of an imaginary tapestry she could have perceived through the magic of his voice. His voice was the only proof that they were together in that moonless night – the darkest of all nights – on the 4th of June 1989 on the Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, China’s capital.

“You never saw each other’s face, did you?” Lune interrupted her mother’s account of the day she was conceived.

“It was the night of oblivion. We shut our eyes in order to see. It was anonymous love. We were the nameless lovers. Nine months later, after long way round full of unlooked for ventures, I arrived in London and gave birth to you. I called you Lune, the moon child. You don’t have a family name, because both his name and his body are erased forever – crushed deliberately by the army tank.”

“The protestors were camping out on the Tiananmen Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. For how long?”

“44 days. We only met on the last night, a few hours before the People’s Liberation Army moved into the streets of Beijing and opened fire on us. A danse macabre of 44 days ending in the horror on the 4th of June.”

“Lots of 4s in there. Do you believe it’s written in the stars, mom?” The child knew that 4 has the same sound as “Death” in Chinese she never learned to speak.

“Perhaps it was. I sang Der Tod und das Mädchen for him. Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber, Und rühre mich nicht an. Und rühre mich nicht an…‘I’m still young! Go, death. Don’t touch me, don’t touch me,’” she hummed in a quavering mezzo soprano. “I was going to take the entrée examination for the Beijing Central Conservatory shortly and all the time I was practising. Schubert turned out to be prophetic. But he died!”

“Besides his voice, what else do you remember of the nameless lover?”

“His skin. That milky sheen like will-o’-wisp down the bank of the Yangtze that I could only have imagined! His skin still makes me cry. It’s difficult to find someone to take the place of the nameless lover…”

In the black, pitiless summer night his weight on hers strangely elevated her and made her float like a feather. They soared, their bodies fitly joined in young love, enkindled, luminescent and powder-white, almost angelic, like two sweethearts from a Chinese opera. His chilly touch in the sultry, oppressive hours of darkness drugged her and diminished her terror. It still haunted her, like Demon’s fiddler cutting tender yet deep lines across your soul with his capricious, virtuous notes to leave you forever tormented and thrilled.

But Mother was not the only one who fed the demons from the past. Lune was diagnosed with a rare bone disease. Like Oskar from The Tin Drum, the girl didn’t gain any height since the age of four. 4! “Prenatal anxiety disorders. I give her ten years,” the English doctor had informed her mother dryly. But the child was strong and survived her medical condition that was tantamount to a persistent pain. Lune may never have had met the man the women called the nameless lover, yet she inherited the impenetrable, mercurial quality that seems only to belong to dead people. The child kept herself alive for a reason. She wanted to know the truth. The truth, you can bend it and twist it. Over the years truth had become an obsession. Lune wanted to know what the nameless lover looked like. She wanted to pronounce the sweet sound of the word she had never pronounced once in her life: daddy.

“Tell me about the Yangtze, will you?” the girl pursued. At the age of twenty two she still wanted her bedtime story, which was exactly the same one told the evening before.

“He told me that the Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and third longest in the world, and that he was a dragon boat racer.” Breathing a sigh of tedium, Mother repeated the same sentence said yesterday. After years dealing with the sick child, she was exhausted, at the end of her rope. It seemed that not only the girl’s body ceased to grow years ago, her mental age equalled to the number of trees in the Gobi. She didn’t know Lune had been lying to her all these years. She didn’t know anything as people often have no idea what’s really going on in a child’s head. The elfin, stubborn creatures who can love the way adults lie.

“Are all boys in China dragon boat racers?” Lune asked again.

“The boys who grew up on the river are, and they are good fishers. But your daddy was different. It was his childhood dream to become an Olympic Champion. He was a born dragon boat racer – ”

“What does it mean?”

“It means he is a time traveller.” If it were true. How she longed to be touched by him again, now in broad daylight so they could look each other in the eye and say “I love you”. Love was absent, waiting for death in her memory.

“Why he should be here with us then! Why doesn’t he come to us on his dragon boat? He can still become a champion in one month time, in London!”

“He can’t. If he did, that means someone must die. It MUST.”

“But why? How?”

“Because darling child, in this life we learn how to live; we learn how to die. There is always death and taxes.” That’s what the protestors believed that brutal night two decades ago when they stood on the Tiananmen Square, voicing disapproval under the immense portrait of Chairman Mao, taken down by live fire and gnashed and minced as the military vehicles swept into the city. “Free will” or “Free kill”. One letter difference but that’s all the choices there was. But for the first time China believed in change! For the first time China believed that she could change the course of the Yangtze. Change the old river that sticks to an old moon. Change old rules that are not better not worse but exactly the same. The same, unquestioned hardness, cruelness against its people and human race.

“Next, the tale of the nightingale?” the child shook her head, pretending to read from the list her mother made to help her remember things on the advice of the English doctor. Lune had heard the story hundreds of times and knew it by heart. This evening she wanted her mother to stay a little while longer, because this was the last time they spent together. Tonight, past midnight, the child will get up and sneak out of the house and take a walk to the Thames to meet someone. She had circled the date on her calendar, which was an ancient Chinese Moon calendar. The 5th day of the 5th Moon month.

“How often do I have to tell you, darling girl? It’s not a nightingale. Jingwei bird is so small that it’s almost invisible to people in China. Jingwei bird is the spirit of freedom. Legend tells that the bird lives in a city of gardens under the River Yangtze. Once upon a time, the youngest daughter of Emperor Yandi, the Emperor of Fire, went boating on the Eastern Sea. Suddenly a storm rose and her boat capsized. The girl was buried by surging waves. Her father, the emperor who loved her very much sent out the best dragon boat racers to search for her body. To prevent the fish from eating her remains, they threw rice cakes wrapped in lotus leaves in the river. This is the origin of the ancient sport that dates back to at least two thousand years. Each year in the summer, on the 5th day of the 5th Moon month, dragon boat racers from all over China would gather on the Yangtze. They would bring rows and rows of brightly decorated dragon boats to be lined up the long, wide river, and the spectators would throw their home-made rice cakes to their favourite dragon boat racers. The champion of the race is the fastest, cleverest boat who knows exactly how to plot a course through the festive chaos. The hero will receive loads of rice cakes at the end of the day plus flowers and love letters from girls.”

“Did they find the drowned girl?”

“For several weeks they had hunted for her body. One day something beached. It was a shoe, one of the pair the girl wore on the tragic day. Attached to the red silk they found a feather. People understood immediately that the girl was captured by the Dragon King who owned a palace under the Yangtze River, in the tangerine garden bounded by the subterranean city. It is said that the Dragon King saved people who drowned in his river. He fed them tangerines and let them grow wings so that one day they could travel back to the world they came from.”

“What’s the journey like?”

“No one knows. I believe it’s a passage through the womb hole that connects parallel worlds. A bit like Alice’s looking glass, I would think. Weird, tough. Most people gave up. Few who made it are the real time travellers.”

“Did the daughter of the fire king make it?”

“The Dragon grew attached to the girl and didn’t want her to leave him. He would come to her every day to feed her bite for bite for hours on end. Slowly the girl turned into a beautiful bird, with a shock of fiery feather on her little, round head and two red claws. But her body had the alternating bands of light and dark. Obscured this way, Jingwei appeared unseen for the mortal eye, for that was exactly how the Dragon King wanted it to be. Next he put her in a cage made of pure gold to make sure she wouldn’t fly away! But then, on the 5th day of the 5th month, the tangerine moon rose above Yangtze, something that only happens every 823 years. It is a sign that the magic doors connecting the parallel worlds are open on the peculiar day. In the dead of night a young man went to the river, carrying his racing boat. He was one of the dragon boat racers who worked for the emperor. And although he had never had the courage to tell her, the young man had been in love with the drowned girl for a long time. Even now he couldn’t believe that she was dead, since she was still alive in his heart! Tonight he made up his mind to speak the truth. He came to the shore, rolled up his trousers and moved his boat over the sad, wet pebbles towards the tumbling waterway; the guttural timbre of the Yangtze reminded him of a choked, shrieking flute. He told himself to be brave, not to be disheartened by the cold river. As he started to row to the middle of the water, the huge orange discus followed him behind his boat. He stopped rowing and whispered to the floating, orange face of the moon. “Jingwei, Jingwei, say it ain’t so,” he said. “Jingwei Jingwei, I speak your name in spite of fear of your silence. Say nothing back, my sweet girl, but say you love me because I love you ever since the day I knew you were born. Jingwei, Jingwei…” The poor guy. He went on and on and was so single-minded until in the end his voice became hoarse, until he started to cry blood tears. At the crack of dawn, shortly before it would disappear behind the horizon, the circle of burnt orange rumpled in water, and ruptured like a wrinkle in time. The flowing river stopped in its track. Arrested in the magic, for the first time the Yangtze halted the continuation of its ancient monotone. Then the water started to travel again, first in jerky movements which became a wild roaring of tones and notes like an angry musician playing from his raw strings. From the restless, unremitting stream a thin thread of light materialised piercing the morning air. The dragon boat racer caught a moving mark hardly larger than half his fist. A little girl took wing to the first sun, with a shock of orange hair on her little, round head and two red claws, and her body had the alternating bands of light and dark on it so that it was obscured and appeared unseen in broad daylight. The end.” Mother stood up to kiss her child on her forehead. “Good night, little one! See you in the morning!”

But I won’t be there anymore, the little one answered determinedly in silence.

The clock in the living room struck twelve times. Lune counted in the dark. She got up and groped for the clothes hidden under her mattress. The white layered summer dress she had had for years, which still fit perfectly around her not fully formed body. As she arranged the straps on her childish shoulders, she stuck her head out of the window to find a strangely clear night. A huge tangerine moon greeted the sultry, tropical night in the city reigned by a damp, grizzled wind from the ocean most time of the year. This year the 5th day of the 5th month of the moon calendar fell in mid-summer. Still more than one month away from the Summer Games so he would have some time left to train himself and become an Olympic medallist! She pondered, picturing the first dragon boat champion in the midst of the Olympic stadium. The first ever!

The huge moon coloured the apathetic waves of the Thames in an oily brew of black and orange, cascading in soundless, sleepy motion under the bridge. Lune climbed over the railing and mounted the cement girder. Someone called from the dark; she had to hurry.

She closed her eyes, ruminating the words her mother said last night: “If he returned, that means someone else must die. Death and taxes.” The golden moments in the stream of life rushed past her, she saw nothing but sand. The Thames spoke softly in muddy undertone. A moment before she fell and sank in rings of liquid flames, she saw the dragon figurehead rising from the black water, and the face behind it, luminescent, powder-white, almost angelic. “Daddy, call me Jingwei, I’m free,” she whispered. The little girl lifted her layered summer dress like a white heron and floated to dreamland. She made love to the sky. She let her hair hang down. She was beginning to fly. From above, far, far, above, she saw her father and mother kissing in broad daylight in the midst of Olympic stadium. They are both champions, the freedom fighters, and around them people are throwing rice cakes and roses at the winners. They are the heroes.


*The Night that hides things from us was first published in 9.69 seconds Anthology (Vaani, London, 2012) on the occasion of London Olympic Games.

{Note from the author: The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, also known as the June 4th Incident were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The pro-democracy movement lasted seven weeks. Hundreds of thousands students and citizens all over China demanded open political system and freedom of speech. On 20 May the Chinese government declared martial law. No military action took place until 4 June, when the tanks and troops of the People’s Liberation Army moved into the streets of Beijing, using live fire while proceeding to Tiananmen Square to clear the area of protestors. Until this day the exact number of civilian deaths is unknown, the Tiananmen Massacre remains a subject of controversy in China.}


Julie O’Yang, Europe-based novelist, screenwriter/filmmaker & visual artist, will soon launch China Noir, a political thriller; plus a resplendent 10-epidode drama series set in the Tang Dynasty. Her fiction, short fiction, essays and film reviews have featured in international renowned publications. Her most recent title, Butterfly, a novel, received praises from global audiences as well as literary reviewers and critics around the world. Visit www.julieoyang.com for more.


julie 超辣

Determined dreamer. Published author in English, Dutch, and Chinese. Former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) captain turned artist entrepreneur and screenwriter. She survived the Cultural Revolution as a baby. In the 1990’s she left for London and has lived and worked in free exile ever since. Her work covers a wide spectrum. As journalist, she creates content covering a range of topics on contemporary China from an insider perspective. In 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, she hosted a 5-episode talk show TV China for Netherlands’ national broadcaster and discussed China’s media landscape with media stars and experts from both China and the Netherlands. From 2013-2016 she was the Editor-in-Chief of the English/Chinese bilingual magazine XiN 新, focusing on today’s China shaped by consumerism. O’yang contributes a weekly column to Hoje Macau on contemporary Chinese art and culture. Her English language book titles include: Butterfly, a historical crime love story set in the Second World War. Since May 2016 O'yang has been collaborating with Flemish photographer Filip Naudts on an art project, which has resulted in the photo novel The Picture of Dorya Glenn. Julie works from the Netherlands and Denmark.

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1 Comment

  1. Beautiful story, Julie!

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