Tag Archives: china

The Venus Flytrap: A Women’s Language

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The philosopher Hélène Cixous, who wrote extensively about the need for a embodied, feminine authorship, penned in one essay: “I said, ‘write French’. One writes in. Penetration. Door. Knock before entering. Strictly forbidden.”

To write in: in secret, in solitude, in defiance, in allegiance, in spite of. This can happen in any language.

In China’s Jiangyong County, for an uncertain number of centuries, existed a dialect called Nüshu. It was created for, and used exclusively by, women when they were not otherwise permitted literacy.

Nüshu created the custom of “third day missives”, which would arrive in a woman’s marital home on the third day following her wedding. These were booklets of joyful blessings and sad songs, sent to her from her mother and her closest female friends. In literature I have read about this literature, the words “sworn sisters” come up repeatedly, at the centre of the nexus of intimacy.

Among all partings I think of this – a queer woman writing to her lover or desired one, separated from her by marriage. Her secrets travelling to another village, almost safely. Her lover or her desired one receiving these cries of the heart, etched in ink. The lines of the Nüshu script are so delicate, leaflike as compared to standard hanzi logograms, that they were known as “mosquito writing”. I want to imagine those lines being saved, but I also want to think that every woman in her new household would have known how to read too. Would they have kept her secret, or turned against her?

Nüshu was also often written on handheld fans, objects held close – folded or open.

Unlike the Japanese Hiragana or Korean hangul scripts, which were primarily used by women before being absorbed into general use, authentic Nüshu died with its last proficient speaker in 2004. Only scholars know it now, and perhaps deciphering rather than communicating is their primary mode. Because it was written down in personal documents, it could not possibly have been secret, as many claim. So its use was either accepted, or tolerated as a form of lesser communication.

I looked at lines of characters: the same word in different Chinese scripts. There is said to be a link between Nüshu and the most ancient of them all: the writing carved on bones and tortoise shells that would crack upon heating, and be used in divination. How many times did the words for “rain” or “king” appear on those shells and bones? And the ones for “love” or “child”? In the 19th century, these fragments were ground up in traditional medicine, their secrets swallowed.

The lettering for “woman” in the ancient oracle script is serpentine, an almond shape cut through by a flowing incurvation. I meditate in other languages about the scripted, the secret, the silent, the said.

This is how we know that Nüshu was an embodied language: it could be spoken, and sung. The written documents that remain are only vestiges of a certain world. Words build worlds; this language too sustained one. And like those swallowed divinations, I know there are some who carry its spirit, scriptless and soundless, into many vastly different ones.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Review: Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong (trans. Howard Goldblatt)

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Published as part of The Myths series, which retells timeless classics from around the world in the words of some of the best contemporary writers, Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong recreates a two-millennia old legend from China about a woman who travels hundreds of miles in search of her husband, who has been conscripted in the construction of the Great Wall.

Like all of Peach Village, the orphan Binu was brought up to believe that tears are taboo, a conviction that took hold after 300 of its residents had been executed for having wept at the funeral of someone who had fallen from the favour of the King. The women of the village devised new ways to cry, which would leave their eyes dry but their breasts, ears, lips (or which ever body part was most beautiful) wet with tears. Binu wept through her hair, as she does on the day that she discovers that her husband Qiliang has disappeared.

When she learns that her husband has been taken to Great Swallow Mountain, to work on the construction of the staggeringly ambitious Great Wall, she becomes determined to take a coat to him so that he can stay warm through the winter. Warned that this act will carry her death by sorceresses and shunned and envied by her co-villagers for her stubbornness and peerless devotion, Binu sets forth on a journey of a thousand li.

Along the way, she is assisted by a blind frog, whom she suspects is a reincarnated mother looking for her missing son. But she is also accosted by a group of half-deer children, encounters cities where people are sold as “large livestock”, and is chained to a coffin, having been sold off herself as a dead man’s wife. Her weeping takes on legendary scope – she is hired at one point to weep into a vat because her tears contain the five tastes needed for a pharmacy. It overwhelms her to the point where every part of her body begins to cry, and she journeys the thousand li with “eyes dripping like house eaves after rain”, leaving a stream wherever she walks or crawls. As the story proceeds, we understand that Binu did not set out on her adventure under any grandiose illusions of success, but because it was the only thing that, in the face of her loss, she knew how to do.

In the preface, Su Tong says that “Binu’s story is a legend not so much about a woman at the bottom of society, but rather a legend about status and social class”. Perhaps this accounts for the matter-of-fact nature of his retelling, where another writer may have emphasized the mystical and metaphysical nature of events in the story including rebirth, animal familiars, prophecy and the like. Yet Binu’s loss, as all who have endured pain will know, is profoundly intimate. From the work of scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Carl Jung, we know that myths exist for the purpose of deconstruction – not in a literary sense, but as a means of projecting our private lives onto narrative structures that allow us to see the bigger picture even as we endure intensely personal experiences.

The story of Binu, in that scheme of things, functions as an allegory on the necessity of grief, and how far one may need to go to truly access – and release – it, against every self-preservative instinct that may prevent it. The great wall that ultimately shatters under the weight of her loss is the one that had been raised by her upbringing, which forbade all but the most discreet, controlled displays of such emotion. Weep, the myth seems to instruct the reader. As Binu herself says to one who questions if she too is dead – “I am still crying, and that proves I am alive.”

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: In The Mood For Nostalgia

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I once lived in a house that had only one article of art on its living room walls: a smallish framed poster from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. In retrospect, it was almost a mockingly ironic statement for that home, but that’s another story altogether.

It was some years before I finally watched the film myself, and when I did, I appreciated all those things that others have spoken enough of – its simmering sensuality, its restraint and its canonical status as a paean to impossible love are but examples. But I will confess: there was nothing I adored nearly as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams.

When I think of the word “exquisite” I think of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, her fine hair and features glowing in the desert in that other magnificent story of impossible love. When I think of the word “elegant” I think of Maggie Cheung in that blue cheongsam with the roses, telling the husband of the woman having an affair with her own not to get an apartment where they can meet and, clandestinely, write. From scene to scene, carrying with delicate grace a different cheongsam in each one, she held me transfixed. But the blue one – that’s the one I want.

Although they look nothing alike, in my mind, the cheongsam is like the saree, a garment about which I am passionate. Both are explosively sexy in their sheer subtlety. They burn slow. They smoulder. The cheongsam obscures even the clavicle, but observe Cheung’s voluptuousness of hip as she climbs up and down stairs and try to tell me honestly that it doesn’t mesmerize you more than a cornucopia of cleavage.

Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love is like a Shanghainese print advertisement from the 1930’s come to life. I’ve always had a love for those. Like Hindu calendar art, they are astoundingly gorgeous kitsch that few people seem to care about. Beautiful women with little roses in their hair and willow-like grace selling beer, soap and other assorted irrelevances; I wish the artistic value of these ads survived alongside their motives in the modern world.

I don’t think I will ever have a poster of that film on the walls of any house I live in again. But I will have those old prints. And when I do I will think not just of how pretty they are, but of every association they connote: bazaars I wandered in looking longingly at frames, knowing that there were no homes or walls in them that were mine enough then to place them on, people I knew, films I loved. I will dream of China.

We travel to run away. We travel, like Tony Leung in the same film, to whisper our secrets into the souls of buildings and trees and hope they never escape into the lives we return to. And sometimes we cannot travel at all, because the places we yearn for exist only as either memory or mirage, and so we watch.

Perhaps one day I will go to China to find myself a blue cheongsam with roses on it, because you can be anyone you want to be where nobody knows you. I’ll sit in some café deliberately evocative of a bygone Shanghai and think of the incandescence of my friend the poet-countertenor Cyril Wong singing Chinese opera in a small theatre in Jakarta last year. I’ll be as embarrassingly strange and guilty of wanting to possess the exotic as Nat King Cole’s heavily-accented rendition of Quizas Quizas Quizas, yes, but at least I won’t deny the heartbreak beneath wanting any of it in the first place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Idli And A Screaming Orgasm (or, Spicing Up The Menu)

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In preparation for the Olympics this year, the government of China has released a tourist-friendly 170-page book recommending new English names for some 2,000 delicacies – all of which till now go by some baffling monikers. What a pity this menu makeover is – it would be such fun to hang out in China and order, among other things, “chicken with no sexual life”, “husband and wife’s lung slice” and “fat man with straw up nose”.

Food and cheap thrills – what a deadly combo. The only reason I’ve ever asked for a Screaming Orgasm (that’s a drink, by the way) at snooty restaurants is because I love the expression on most waiters’ faces when I tell them what I want to have.

So now that the chicken who can’t score becomes the much less colourful “steamed pullet”, and “Chinese buttermilk” is all that’s left of the chubster snorting his drink, I think it’s time to come up with a few good replacements. What’s world cuisine without tact, political correctness, prudery and the taste-buds of the tame getting lost in translation?

First, let’s take the idli. Ah, the idli! Plump, perfect, pillowy and so very native – no? According to the 7th century writings of Xuang Zang, vessels for steaming came to India via the cooks who accompanied the Hindu kings of Indonesia back here. The idli, therefore, was born of the marriage between Java and the South. Ergo, we have the Chubby Marriage Pillow.

Chubby Marriage Pillows go best with sambar, which is made from toovar dal, also known as pigeon pea. I say we rechristen it Pigeon Pea Broth. As a committed carnivore who rolls many an eye at the prissiness of too many vegetarians I come across, I think the confusion can only mean more for me. Great! Pile on the ghee while you’re at it (also known as Distilled Cow Blood – don’t you good veggos know where dairy products come from?).

Before we move on the meaty stuff, let’s linger a moment on one more chaste item: the ubiquitous khichdi. There’s a story about the king Shivaji, who wandered lost and hungry in the forest one day. Coming upon the hut of an old woman, he asks to be fed, and she gives him some khichdi fresh off the fire. When he burns his fingers attacking the hot, hot dish, the old woman chides him for being like “that impatient king Shivaji”. Not recognizing him, she instructs him to approach the thin outer layers of the khichdi first, which are easier to handle. In learning how to eat this simple meal was how Shivaji was supposed to have learnt a valuable military strategy.

In the centuries since, the good king’s name has been taken in vain, in gain, and in disdain many times over. I don’t have to tell you where it most recently appeared. All I’m saying is, it’s not for nothing that khichdi will henceforth be called “Hot Hot Rajnikanth”.

All this food smut has made me really hungry, so before I absolutely have to go devour something, I’ll make one final recommendation. Like any funky Indian goddess, I’m usually very well-satiated by a good goat sacrifice. And to keep this new menu locally loyal, one of my favourite desi dishes is mutton rogan josh. Let’s be literal, for a change. Mutton is mutton, rogan also means mutton, and josh means mojo. The sum total of which we can take to mean Twin Mutton Mojo. Ooh. Two sets of horny things are always better than one. Bon appetit!

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.