The following Kafkaesque story about a visit to Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 2009, has been widely circulated in the Chinese blogosphere, written by a blogger using the name 十七只猫和鱼 (Seventeen Cats and Fish), who codes key phrases (“something something square,” etc) in order to bypass censors. Translated by E. Shih:
What day was yesterday—what day was yesterday? I’ve forgotten. My memory has been shot lately. But no matter what day it was yesterday, I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the freak incident I experienced in the three hours from five to eight pm.
The June weather in Beijing is like the face of a child with Down’s syndrome: It changes in the flash of an eye. Just like that, at a few minutes past 4:30 pm, the unidentifiable grey clouds morphed into a mass of gale and dust that enveloped all of Beijing. The rain gave no relief, but was humid, repressed like a sad, angry drunk, and it carried the stench of blood.
I, a petty city dweller, was walking along a non-vehicle path, thinking to myself whether I should go get a bowl of soy-sauce stew outside the Xuanwu gate or go get some Yanji cold noodles at the mouth of Xin Street. Just across from the noodle place there was a place that sold discount socks. Oh, but if I went for the soy-sauce stew, I could go check out the demolished South Gate…etc. In other words, just mundane thoughts of a mundane person.
However, a number 46 bus making a stop at the side of the road changed my mundane thoughts, because there came drifting from it the most beautiful melody in the world:
“Something, something red flag (I can’t remember exactly), I am proud of you, I cheer for you and wish you well; your name is worth more than my life!”
This voice chased away all thoughts of soy-sauce stew and discount socks, and destroyed my mundane state of mind. Oh, to think there has always been something in this world whose name is more important than food, drink and merriment, that is more important than one’s life! This average will of heaven made ten pieces of red fabric a meter each in length, drew a few geometric designs, and created a mysterious magical power! It can make one march out happily to die—no, that’s not right—to sacrifice one’s life. This kind of magical power makes one so sad —no—blessed! Touched!
Then let me go! I will go! I want to kneel under this totem that is like blood, I want to cheer for it, I want to wish it well! I want to tell it, Your name is more than life itself! But where can I find it? Oh, that’s right—doesn’t the bus number 1 have that one stop—what’s it called again? Anyway, there is a band of people there who do this sort of thing all day, from dawn to dusk. Something-something Square, was it? I’ve forgotten; my memory is really shot lately. Alright, I’ll just go there and check it out! Let the soy-sauce stew and Yanji cold noodles go to hell! I want to be proud of myself, like sister Peng Liyuan! [Peng Liyuan is a state celebrated folk singer who specialized singing national revolutionary songs, including the “Praising the Red Flag,” quoted in earlier text. ]
So I hopped on number 46 a moment before the door closed, only to find that the bus did not go to Something-something Square, but to Xidan. Oh well, I’ll just transfer later. At least there’s air conditioning. Next to a wall at Xidan I entered the subway. The fresh, slightly messy face of a girl selling flowers caught my attention. Out of pity and shamelessness, I bought a white chrysanthemum. I didn’t expect the trouble that ensued because of that chrysanthemum.
“Excuse me sir, can you wait a moment? What is that written on your shirt?” A kindly police stopped me.
“Eh? I don’t know, you tell me,” I answered.
“Oh, it’s nothing. You may go,” the police said, turning to go.
It was just a shirt that the school distributed; the words written on it were a bit distorted, that is all. I don’t know why he had the spare time to be interested in a t-shirt design while he was on call. What a dereliction of duty!
Whatever, ignore him. Oh! Is that Something-something Square? How grand and beautiful! That growing grey cloud really ruins the scenery. The flag I love must be close by. I entered the square with respect in my heart.
In the booth where they did a safety check for terrorists, I put everything I had on me—a book and the white chrysanthemum—into the x-ray scanner, and a miraculous thing happened. Only the book came out the other end. The flower had disappeared! My goodness, this is a magic machine! Or else a white chrysanthemum-eating monster was hiding in there!
Oh, it was only stuck. I risked radiation and stuck in my hand to retrieve the white chrysanthemum and turned to leave. But I was shocked to discover that I was faced with four terrified police and two something-something soldiers. Can a flower be a deadly weapon? Did I look like Bin Laden?
“How many of you guys are there?” one police asked.
“Eh? What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled. How did he conclude that I was not alone? How did he draw this conclusion? It’s not as if he could be that comedic mainland clairvoyant from the Stephen Chow movies.
“How many of you guys are there? How many of you guys are there?” the clairvoyant asked as if he was a crashed computer.
“ ‘You guys”? There are no ‘guys.’ I’m alone.”
“What do you have that flower for?”
“Why can’t I have a flower?” (I was becoming more confused.)
“Not on me.”
“Please wait a moment. We will check your identification.”
“My identification number is 11…”
Before I could finish speaking, the clairvoyant turned and left, as if he didn’t need my number at all to check my identification! He really was a true clairvoyant! Just as he left, a person dressed in regular clothes but chatting with the something-something soldier came up to me.”
“What book do you have there?”
“What country is that from? Can I see?” the regular guy asked politely.
“Of course. Here.”
“Oh,” (flipping through a few pages) “not much. What are you doing on the Square?”
“Watching the lowering of the flag.”
“Why’d you bring a white chrysanthemum?”
“Does the law forbid bringing white chrysanthemums into the Square?”
The regular guy sank into silence. The something-something soldier standing nearby bit his lip, as if trying hard not to laugh.
“What do you do?”
“I’m unemployed. How about you? Are you here for travel?”
“No, I work here.”
“Oh, where do you work?”
The regular guy pointed at the X-ray machine.
“You work in the X-ray machine?”
The something-something soldier couldn’t hold it in any longer and burst out laughing. The regular guy shot him a look.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Beijing. You?”
“I’m from Liaoning.”
“From Hulu Island?”
“From Maan Mountain.”
“Oh, I’ve been there before…”
At this critical moment of conversation in our new friendship, the clairvoyant returned and interrupted. He told me his clairvoyant powers had been temporarily lost, and that he wanted me to go somewhere called “the station” to verify my identification on a computer. So I hurriedly picked up my book and chrysanthemum, walked into the Square with him, and got into a police car parked there.
The air conditioning was very sufficient in the police car, very comfortable; but there was a horrid cigarette smell. An auntie with a dark expression and wearing earphones was sitting in the car. I nodded at her, thinking, she wouldn’t be another person who forgot her ID, would she? We’re a pair of unlucky ones. Who would have thought that as soon as I sat down, she would lean over and ask me, laughing:
“How old are you?”
“Are you in school?”
“What’d you bring a flower to the Square for?”
“I wanted to watch the lowering of the flag. Are you interested in flowers, too?”
“Can I see?”
“Where’d you buy this chrysanthemum?”
“Xidan. It was five bucks.”
The auntie picked up a walkie-talkie and said, “Attention, attention, someone is selling white chrysanthemums in Xidan.” This action jerked me out of my contemplation of the clairvoyant and pushed me into an even deeper confusion.
Why would a woman my mother’s age wearing a flowery skirt sit in a police car in her spare time? Why was she so interested in white chrysanthemums? And why would she tell others of her interest through a walkie-talkie? If even the city authorities pay no mind to a little flower girl, why should this woman? Also, what would a regular person be doing with a walkie-talkie and earphones?
“Does this chrysanthemum mean anything?” she turned back to ask.
“Meaning…I never thought about that.”
“There must be some meaning. Every kind of flower has a meaning. For example, roses symbolize love, and chrysanthemums…”
“Oh. Well then I guess it’s goodness, purity and happiness?”
“But it’s a white chrysanthemum.”
“Chrysanthemums naturally come in white, yellow, purple…”
“White chrysanthemums are used for memorials.” She suddenly tossed out a theory.
“Oh, is it? Memorials? You said it, not me. Memorials for what?
The auntie was at a loss for words. At this point, the clairvoyant and a few others who appeared to be his gym friends got in the car. The auntie told them that she was going to go eat, and glanced at me as she was getting out of the car. “This child is my son’s age,” she muttered, like Xianglin [a character in a Lu Xun story].
The clairvoyant left, leaving me with the body builders, a Nanzai river connoisseur, and an uncle. The Nanzai river connoisseur was just leaving after getting my basic information, and that was when the uncle, who seemed to hold the most weight in the group, came up next to me.
“Why’d you bring a flower to the Square?”
“Just watching the lowering of the flag.”
“You have two choices: leave the flower and go watch the lowering of the flag, or take your flower and leave.”
“In other words, the law forbids citizens to bring flowers when watching the lowering of the flag?”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I’m just following orders.”
“You mean you’re following orders to stop anyone who brings flowers to watch the lowering of the flag?”
“No, the leader made the orders because of your situation.”
“What’s the reasoning behind this? What harm would one white chrysanthemum do? It doesn’t seem as if it’s on your prohibition list.”
“There’s no reason. Do you need a reason under martial law?” The uncle’s patience and politeness suddenly disappeared.
“Is the Square under martial law? I didn’t see any announcements about it.”
The uncle opened his mouth to speak, and suddenly fell silent.
“Do you respect me? Truly, do you respect me?” The uncle suddenly asked a sentimental question.
“I respect you a lot. Haven’t you noticed that I have been addressing you with an honorific, while you address me plainly?”
“If you respect me, then do as I say, quickly.”
“I respect the law, of course, and you as well. But I can’t do as you say, unless you give me a line from the law. Which law prohibits bringing chrysanthemums out in public?”
Let’s skip the back-and-forth between me and this uncle policeman, police number 051911, name Wang Kun, on how much tax one must pay to have the right to free speech. Let’s skip, as well, the various questions nosy people came into the car to ask, just to pass the time, and the endless discussion of whether one should always bring an ID when leaving the house. In any case, in light of the efficiency of their service to the people (to not be able to find one identification number in a whole hour!) and holding back my dissatisfaction at not being able to watch the lowering of the flag, I picked up my white chrysanthemum and my book, and followed the Iveco car to “The Station” (going the wrong way up the street all the way).
This place called “The Station” had no street number. Coming in and out were country people smelling of vegetables, pot-bellied police escorting them, unidentified loiterers wearing earphones, and a fourth kind of person. These people didn’t belong to any of the above types, but leaned against the wall looking at you through slitted eyes, their skins darkly tanned. I thought, better keep a distance from that lot. What would we do if they were aggressive psychotics? Just as I was thinking this, two people behind me called my name.
“Go in to verify your identification,” the Nanzai River connoisseur said, pointing at a dark corridor.
“Don’t you people know everything already?”
“What do I know?”
“Your POS machine should be able to find my ID within seconds.”
“The POS machine is broken, and we can’t get on the Internet,” the Nanzai River connoisseur blinked.
“Don’t lie. You shouldn’t, old man that you are.”
“You’re so mean! If you don’t believe me…” The Nanzai River connoisseur looked like he was about to cry.
“Alright, alright, okay.”
I was afraid the big man would start crying and make it awkward for me, so I walked into that extremely unsanitary corridor, escorted by the body builder. We passed a few country people who seemed to be crying, and entered an interesting room. This room didn’t seem to have any equipment for verifying identification; just a chair, a few surveillance cameras, and a table on which there was a stack of white paper and a red stamp pad. The one window had bars and an anti-theft shutter.
“Have a seat,” said the body builder, pointing at a stool.
“What’s wrong?” A new character appeared and spoke to the body builder. He wasn’t too old, maybe around 30, and wore a police uniform. (Let’s call him Cop Uni.)
“It’s the one with the white flower,” the body builder said, lifting his head to shoot me a glance.
“Why did you come to the Square?” Cop Uni smiled and pulled up a chair to sit next to me.
“I just want you to be quick and verify my identification. I just came to watch the lowering of the flag, and forgot my ID.”
“Why did you bring a white flower?” Cop Uni was still smiling.
“I like chrysanthemums.”
“You like chrysanthemums?”
“Yes, I like them. I have a lot of them at home, too.”
“Where do you live?” Cop Uni was getting in the zone. At that moment, a man dressed like an army official walked in and sat down beside the body builder without saying a word.
“Haidian,” I answered.
“Why did you come to see the lowering of the flag today?”
“Because I didn’t have time yesterday, and I don’t feel like coming tomorrow.”
“You didn’t bring flowers here to see the lowering of the flag to commemorate something?” Cop Uni was getting agitated.
“What? What do you mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please spell it out.” I was very shocked.
“Today is June Fourth,” Cop Uni said, eyes filled with fire.
“What day is June Fourth? Is that a special day?” I asked, looking him straight in the eye.
Cop Uni did not speak for a few moments.
“Everyone, what day is today? What’s so special about it?” I asked loudly. But no one in the room answered my question. The body builder pretended to check his cell phone. At this moment, the door opened.
“Do you currently reside at XX in the Haidian quarter?” A bald man broke in without saying hello.
“No, I live at XX.”
“What’s your exact address?” The bald man searched for a pen.
“I need to see your police badge.”
“I don’t have it on me . Talk,” said the bald man impatiently.
“I need to see your police badge,” I repeated.
The bald man knew he had flouted protocol, so he ran back, panting, to bring his badge number 05114, Wang XX. I didn’t recognize the last two characters, because they were rare. I just told him my address.
“What’s your work unit?”
“No work unit. I’m self-employed.”
“Parents’ work unit?”
“I’ve been an adult for a long time. They’re not my guardians. They have their lives, I have mine.”
The bald man left, mumbling to himself.
I finished half my book during the long wait. In the interim, two people came through: One was a woman who seemed slightly psychotic and claimed to have dreamed of a certain leader, who told her to go find him at some gate. The other was a middle-aged man holding a sign that said “22nd commemoration of Teachers’ Day.” He seemed very nervous, and did whatever the police told him to do. Finally, both of them were taken away by someone who said he was from the something-something office.
“People are so strange,” I said, putting down my book.
“What’s so strange about people?” The body builder and the official army dress man both looked at me.
“To so carelessly, so willingly leave with a stranger.”
They were both silent.
Out of boredom, I thought of the dialogue in classic plane hijacking movies. Since there was still a while before the lowering of the flag, I said, “Why hasn’t the person checking my identification come back?”
“He’ll be back when he should come back.”
“Come on, he’s been done for a while. What is he doing?”
“No, that’s not true. The system is just that slow.”
“Do you have children?” I said to the person across from me.
“No,” the army official said.
“You will. When you do, how will you describe yourself?” The army official fell silent.
“A liar, your father is a liar,” I said slowly.
For some reason, everyone laughed silently.
“You can read a book, at least. All I can do is sit here blankly and wait with you,” the body builder said.
“Do you want to read it? I’ll give it to you.” I gave him my book , but he waved me off.
“Can you leave the flower? If you leave it, you can go,” Cop Uni interjected.
“No, but if you like it I can give it to you.”
“Will you give it to me?” Cop Uni’s face was full of naiveté.
“No, because I don’t like you.” I looked at him ironically.
It was already past 8, and I’d been in this joint called “the Station” for two hours. I only had Cop Uni, the body builder and the army official to leaven my boredom. The baldie who was checking my information never came back. I had already lost hope of realizing my pride for the flag, of cheering for it and wishing it well. So mysterious, and only because I had forgotten my ID and brought a flower! Suddenly, the bald man was back, and he wasn’t alone. He had two other people with him. They looked as if they had jumped out of the third act of “The Tea House.” A and B stood shoulder to shoulder as soon as they entered through the door.
“Let’s go,” said A.
“Go where?” I asked.
“To XX. Don’t you live there? We’re from the station near there,” said B.
“I can go home by myself.”
“Don’t be like that. We even brought the car. How could you let us come all this way for nothing?” A added.
“Who told you to come? You’re the ones who wanted to come! In any case, who are you? Let me see your identification papers,” I said.
“No papers, no papers,” said B, suddenly losing it. His spittle flew out.
“What are you yelling about? Why’d you come if you don’t have papers?” I eyed baldie, who said nothing.
“Don’t you know where you are? You’ll go when we tell you to,” said A.
“Don’t you know where you are? If you’re impersonating officers, I’m calling 911 immediately,” I returned.
“You wear the same uniform, but what a difference,” I said to baldie.
The bald man dragged the two men out of the room.
“You can go now. You need to rent a car, huh?” Baldie came back after a few moments and said to me.
“Here they are, my papers,” said A, rushing back in and holding out the number on his shirt.
“Don’t get excited, 041128,” I said calmly.
Baldie pulled him outside and said to him, “There’s nothing happening here. You may go now.”
“You can go now. Remember, if you want to bring flowers to show appreciation in the future, go apply at the management office, first.”
“Who said I brought flowers to show appreciation? I just came to watch the lowering of the flag!”
“I said ‘if’!” said Baldie loudly.
“I’ll never bring flowers to show appreciation.”
“That would be for the best,” said Baldie without thinking.
“What are you saying? What’s so good about never bringing flowers? What’s good about that?” I wasn’t about to let him get off so easily.
“Just pretend I never said anything. You can go now.”
I said goodbye to the body builder, thanking him for waiting with me for a whole afternoon. He sat there, almost in tears, as if he could do nothing but watch me, and I just kept reading because I had nowhere to go. All his hard-earned muscles were no use. They all got up to send me off from this mysterious, ridiculous place called “The Station.” Baldie kindly pointed out the direction of the car rental place.
Too strange. What kind of procedure was it for the local station police to drive across half of Beijing to bring me home? Did they ever verify my identification? Why did they let me go without making me sign any documents? What day is today? Why was Cop Uni so mysterious? Why wouldn’t he tell me? Do they know something that I don’t? And if they do, why did they keep asking me? Today seems to be very special to them, but why? Guess I better go back and look at my middle school history book and figure out what day it is, that one flower can terrify a bunch of old geezers. These questions may have no answers for eternity!
Ah, cursed number 46, why did you pass by a regular person like me. Ah, Peng Liyuan, why must you sing that song. You ruined a petty city dweller’s afternoon. He was just going to go eat some soy-sauce stew or noodles, buy some cheap goods and then take a walk around the hutong! But he made his way toward the Square with pride in his heart to pay respects to the flag. And just as his life was about to change, he was shanghaied by a bunch of amateur comedians and forced to rehearse ““Dario Fo” for a whole afternoon. By the time they had finished it was dark outside, so dark that it made one afraid. He came out, he stood on Chang’an Street. What road should he take to go home?
The following photos are from blogger Ye’s post: The Longest Day: