Return to Origins

When he thought of there being so many hymens throughout the country, lined up like a Great Wall of troops waiting for him, Baldy Li couldn’t help excitedly scratching his thighs with both hands.

—Yu Hua, Brothers (2006)

A song by the military composer Meng Qingyun poses what a re­cent People’s Daily article describes as a “five-hundred-year-old — question”: Just how long is the Wall? The song begins,

Everyone says that our homeland lies on both sides of the Long Wall

Do you know how long the Long Wall is?

One end leaps over the cold moon in the desert mountain pass While the other end stretches into the hearts of the children of Hua and Xia.1

Even as this piece appears to reinforce a conventional view of China’s most famous landmark as a national icon, in practice its opening lines translate the Wall’s significance from a geographical plane (“one end leaps over the cold moon in the desert mountain pass”) to a cultural one (“the other end stretches into the hearts of the children of Hua and Xia”). The reference to the children of the Hua and Xia—the legendary ancestors of the Chinese race—alludes

simultaneously to China’s past as well as its future, suggesting that the Wall may be seen as a figurative blank screen onto which the na­tion’s collective dreams and aspirations may be projected.

While this children’s song emphasizes the Wall’s cultural and psy­chological dimensions, the structure’s military connotations make a mediated return in the form of the song’s suggestion, further on, that if we want to know where the Wall lies, we need only look for the “endless row of bodies dressed in green uniforms.” This refer­ence to a row of uniform-clad “bodies” functions as a reminder of the Wall’s military connotations, and also recalls the image of the Wall as concealing an endless row of bodies of the corvee laborers and soldiers ostensibly buried beneath it. We find a similar formula­tion of the Wall’s corporeal and military underpinnings in a re­cent work by Beijing-based author Yu Hua. Originally published in two volumes in 2005 and 2006, the controversial best-selling novel Brothers traces China’s transformation over the past four decades from Maoist orthodoxy to capitalist excess, culminating in a “na­tional virgin beauty pageant” that was inspired by the protagonist Baldy Li’s surreal vision of an endless row of all of the nation’s hy­mens “lined up like a Great Wall of troops.”

In Yu Hua’s novel, this vision of a Wall of hymens has its origins in a sequence of events that can be traced back to Baldy Li’s deci­sion a decade earlier to have a vasectomy after discovering that the town beauty, with whom he had been infatuated ever since he was a boy, had rejected him in favor of his stepbrother. From this point on, Baldy Li’s life is a rollercoaster ride that takes him from stable sinecure to abject poverty to obscene wealth. Under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, he quits his state-guaranteed “iron rice-bowl” job at a local charity factory for handicapped workers in order to start his own business, but fails spectacularly and ends up staging a one-man sit-in outside the local government building in an attempt to get his old job back. Having nothing better to do as he sits there day after day, he begins collecting empty bottles and old newspapers discarded by passersby, and from these humble begin­nings he becomes filthy rich by developing a vast, nationwide recy­cling conglomerate. Baldy Li’s resulting wealth brings him a host of problems, including a gaggle of women who file a collective pater­nity suit against him, but he brings the resulting trial to an uproari­ous halt when he presents the judge with a decade-old medical record of his vasectomy. He concludes by offering the court an emotional apology in which he confesses that, while it is true that he has slept with countless women, he nevertheless has never had the opportunity to experience “true love”—a romantic ideal that he conflates metonymically with an intact hymen. After melodramatic accounts of Baldy Li’s desire for true love are published in newspa­pers throughout China, he finds himself swamped by letters from beautiful virgins offering their love—and it is precisely this out­pouring of epistolary devotion from virtual (and ostensibly vir­ginal) strangers that inspires his surreal vision of hymens lined up like troops.

Obsessed with this vision of a Great Wall of hymens, Baldy Li de­cides to make his fantasy of true love a reality by hosting what he describes as China’s first National Hymen Olympic Competition. Yu Hua originally conceived the idea for this virgin beauty pageant at a time when “pageant fever” was sweeping the nation. After hav­ing been banned in China since the founding of the PRC, beauty pageants returned with a vengeance at the turn of the twenty-first century. In 2003, for instance, China’s Hainan Island held a na­tional Miss China pageant as a prelude to hosting the first Miss World competition in China. Over the next few years, China hosted a variety of other regional, national, and international beauty con­tests, including a Tourism Queen International pageant, a Top Model of the World competition, a “Zhen’ao National Contest of the Beauty of the Gray-Headed Group” for contestants over fifty — five, and three out of the next four Miss World competitions. Thus, during the first years of the new millennium, China’s attempts to “march into the world” were often played out in a march down the catwalk, as the desire for national strength and recognition was in­creasingly sublimated into romantic and even sexual desire.

One of China’s more peculiar variants on the beauty pageant tra­dition was the inaugural Miss Artificial Beauty pageant for plastic surgery recipients, held in December 2004. Inspired by a contes­tant who had been disqualified from a traditional pageant on the grounds that her beauty had been artificially enhanced, this pageant has quickly taken hold in a society that has embraced cosmetic sur­gery with a passion, spending more than $2.5 billion a year on cos­metic procedures. This craze has been driven in part by a fasci­nation with the possibility of self-reinvention, the implications of which Yu Hua develops most dramatically in his description of Baldy Li’s National Hymen Olympic Competition. Attracting more than three thousand contestants from around the country, the vir­gin competition appears at first blush to be a smashing success. We subsequently learn, however, that the pageant’s beauty is only skin deep, and that the entire celebration is actually predicated on a sham. Few if any of the contestants are real virgins; instead they use a variety of techniques, ranging from hymen reconstruction surgery to artificial hymen inserts, to create the illusion of virginity.

Baldy Li’s virgin beauty pageant culminates in a hilarious scene featuring a domestic brand of artificial hymen named after the leg­endary Lady Meng Jiang—ironically so, given that the name con­notes not only a vision of the Wall as an impermeable barrier, but also the woman whose tears were responsible for the Wall’s col­lapse. A Lady Meng Jiang hymen malfunctions at a critical moment on the eve of the pageant, exposing the underlying hypocrisy of the event as a whole. Just as the cultural significance of the hymen lies in the necessary possibility of its rupture, the symbolism of the Wall lies in its status not so much as an impregnable barrier, but as one that is necessarily vulnerable to being breached.

Yu Hua’s satirical depiction of the duplicity of the fictional Na­tional Hymen Olympics uncannily anticipated some of the most no­torious scandals of the Beijing Olympics themselves—including al­legations of lip-synching performers, ethnic impersonation, and age falsification—together with the Olympics-inspired delay in reveal­ing that several Chinese companies had been using deadly mela- mine to mimic the presence of protein in infant formula. More gen­erally, the Beijing Games could be seen as an elaborate facade, in which China attempted to assume an “artificial hymen” of political purity for the sake of its ongoing march into the world.

Yu Hua’s positioning of the symbolic Wall at the intersection of the twin ideals of love and illusion was also mirrored by an unre­lated misadventure that took place in early 2006. In a harebrained entrepreneurial scheme of which Baldy Li would have been proud, a Chinese company—on Valentine’s Day, no less—installed a rep­lica of a section of the Wall near Badaling. Responding to the grow­ing problem of graffiti on the Wall, this so-called Great Wall of Love was presented as an opportunity for couples to inscribe oaths of love and devotion on a Wall-like surface without having to de­face the actual structure. With 9,999 bricks available for inscription at a price of 999 yuan (approximately 123 U. S. dollars) a brick, the Great Wall of Love theoretically could have netted the company more than a million dollars. In the end, however, only four couples purchased the figurative “cash bricks” before the project was shut down on the grounds that the fake Wall was in “violation of cul­tural heritage protection regulations.”

The charge that the Great Wall of Love went against cultural her­itage regulations was not entirely unanticipated, and in fact the project’s organizers had from the very beginning attempted to pre­empt this critique by clothing the project in a rhetoric of historical preservation. They had specified, for instance, that a portion of the proceeds would be donated to support the restoration of the actual monument, and that the very presence of the Wall of Love would help protect the real Wall from further desecration by providing

tourists with an acceptable surface on which to express themselves. In theory, therefore, the tourist site would help secure the integrity of the Great Wall, just as the Wall itself was conceived as a defen­sive structure to help protect the nation as a whole.

The name of the 2006 Badaling graffiti wall not only echoed Deng Xiaoping’s earlier call to “love our country and restore the Great Wall” but also anticipated William Lindesay’s coinage—for a Badaling cleanup project he organized later that same year—of the Mao-inspired motto, “If you don’t love the Wall, you are not a real man.” Lindesay used an emphasis on love and desire (“if you don’t love the Wall”) to articulate a version of Baldy Li’s libidinal fantasy, that it was only through loving a Great Wall of hymens that he would be able to reassert his manhood. Lending unexpectedly lit­eral connotations to the conventional English translation of Mao’s dictum that it is only through a visit to the Wall that one can be­come a “true man,” these contemporary examples present the Wall as a symbol of strength and male virility, but also as a perpetual re­minder of a potentially emasculating challenge. The Great Wall of Love was explicitly presented as a fake Wall—a blank surface onto which tourists could literally inscribe their fantasies and desires. Yet perhaps the reason the project had to be shut down almost immedi­ately after it opened was because it inadvertently came too close to the “truth” of the Wall. The Wall, in other words, is always already a “fake” Wall—a figurative screen onto which viewers may project an array of disparate values and ideals. It is, however, precisely this quality of being a “wordless scripture” in which viewers can in­scribe their dreams and desires—as they were briefly able to do in a very literal sense with the Great Wall of Love—that has helped grant the structure its historical resilience.

In this volume, we have surveyed the Wall’s history while exam­ining its status within the contemporary imagination. I have at­tempted to challenge many of our conventional assumptions about the Wall’s status as a monolithic and unitary entity, but only in or­der to redeem a set of underlying intuitions about the Wall’s coher­ent identity. More specifically, I propose that the significance of this paradigmatic symbol of Chinese history, national borders, and physical enormity is ultimately determined by its position at the in­terstices of past and present, materiality and abstraction, China and the world. The virtually simultaneous unveilings of the Great Wall of Love tourist site and Yu Hua’s fantasy of a Great Wall of hy­mens, meanwhile, underscores the fundamentally ephemeral nature of the Wall—suggesting that the “reality” of the modern Wall may be found in its status as a projection of society’s collective fantasies and desires. The long-term stability of the Wall’s identity lies not so much in any intrinsic continuity of appearance, purpose, or func­tion of the structure, but in its status as a blank surface onto which viewers may project their dreams and aspirations. It is in the Wall’s ephemeral and fractured nature, therefore, that we find the secret of the structure’s status as a historically continuous and conceptually coherent entity.

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