Like Father, Like Son

by Gord Sellar

It was nothing like it is now:
Beijing was always the place where collapse began,
when dynasties died, unlike now, where the South
reaches up to shake the lagging North.

It had been a kind of ritual, this flight
to the South; thus went the Ming,
at the end of their rule, and someday,
thus, in like fashion, would fall the Qing.

But the Young Monarch flees into the night:
a hundred faithful accompany the boy,
among them the Shield King, Hong Rengan—
all moving not like fire and nothing like a flood,
perhaps more than anything like fugitive
clouds unable to make rain, or cover the sun.

Round Lake Tai they hurry, toward Huzhou,
where English songs fill the streets at night
for Chinese Gordon’s defectors are there already,
joined to Hong Rengan, the Shield King.
An isolated Taiping garrison: waiting.

Waiting never lasts long enough,
and soon the Qing come down with terrible fire.
The British by then are gone, the Ever-Victorious
Army disbanded, but the French fight on. They, too,
sing tunes from home, to keep their spirits up,
and by their sides, though not singing, are more
defectors: this time, Taiping runaways.

Rengan and the Young King must flee again.
South from the city; by pulses, ever south,
back down to Guangdong, with the Qing dogs
panting behind them: Rengan is taken
in October, and makes his testament to Hong,
and is slain in Jiangxi, at Nanchang, in November.

But young Tiangui Fu, the Young Monarch, makes good
his escape from the camp where the Qing had taken
the Shield King; with a dizane followers, he buries
himself in a marl-pit.
                                 Heavy the clay, hard and cold
up to his throat. It is as if all life was
the state of being buried in the soil
of a forgotten country you’ve never seen.
The worms, pernicious seeds that stick to him,
and the slick of soil that becomes his skin;
he settles down into it, remembering
the oil-thick snake of his mother’s hair
moving across her back as she spoke of kingship.

Four days of hunger scrape against his will;
four days of sorrow pin him to the earth:
he wishes he could spread his arms, and spring
up into Heaven, to be with his father. But
wracked from nightmares eventually by hunger,
he wanders, lonely as a thunderless cloud.

In the worst of it, where his hunger is transformed
to longing for his own death — in vision, or fact,
nobody can tell — a man comes. Tall, slender,
dressed in white, with winter-white flesh, takes hold
of him, and puts into his hands a roundel of
flatbread. In devouring, Tiangui loses track of the man,
who vanishes into irresistible obscurity.

Suddenly, the will to live is strong:
he shaves away his tresses, and becomes
a laborer named Zhang, a Chinese John Smith,
and slaves through someone’s harvest, till it is done.

Then on the road, a road gone much worse by now —
his father Hong, when robbed, was left a set of clothes —
Tiangui Fu is robbed of everything; the bandits
rape him until he bleeds, and leave. A man
finds him, drags him out of the Guangdong gutter
and straps loads of bamboo to the boy’s back:
impromptu slavery, until he can run away.

Then a Qing patrol finds him, this heir
of Hong Xiuquan, starving, skin broken in
a hundred places, teeth snapped, wandering
by a country road in the coruscating belly
of a cold and brutal October afternoon.

A strange hope courses through him even then:
the doors of his father’s craziness once thrown
ope to release him from the madness, finally.
He decries his father’s bloodlust, war-madness,
showed them his scholar’s soul with open palms,
confesses to them with tones plaintive and sweet
that of Heavenly Empires he wants nothing at all,
but only to be a scholar, study the Analects,
and write the examinations at Canton someday,
to attain the lowest degree of licentiate,
for the last shall be first, and the first likewise be last.

Irony is not a quality of the world, itself,
but exists only in our minds, an act of reading:
nobody smirks when his head drops down
into the heavy dirt of Guangdong.
                                                          And likewise
No sound out of Shangdi; the heavens do not weep,
temples are silent, and peasants wait still for nothing.
Hong makes no word, Yushu is silent, no Majestic
Celestial-Dragon plunges from the sky, scales flashing,
shimmering claws, screaming its voice wider than rivers,
and deeper; no regulatory unicorns of death; even
Guan Yin lodges no complaint with the Son of Heaven.

June 12, 2012

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