April 29, 1999 [The King of Masks]

What could it have been like during the Cultural Revolution when Mao decided to destroy the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas?  Was the old world swept away with the power of Revelation, and did they see a new Earth--without the old Heaven?  How many terrible things did they get rid of? How many fears and hatreds were banished?  How many children were saved?  And were they saved one at a time, until only one at a time could remain?  I've heard of gender-selective abortions in China these past few years--girls, of course, chosen to go, all of them Olds--and babies spirited away to Westerners, leaving a generation of only children pampered and groomed for greatness, nostalgic for siblings they've never had. 

Does The King of Masks care? He has his talent and trade, the street performer sweeping masks one after the other from his face like a Melies magic trick--but needing a son to pass along his quick-change secrets.  He buys a little boy--who's a little girl; but he keeps her anyway to cook and clean--and more: to remind him that nothing will come after him, that when he dies the masks go with him. 

How long can he keep this up, this denial of the sweet girl who needs him--who wants him and loves him as he deserves--although for a long time I don't think he deserves her at all, the old fool, stuck in his Old China--a few decades before Mao will burn it on the trash-heap of history--and once more, just a few years later, starting another fire--a one-child policy that turns its back not only on a second or third, but girls in particular--the fools.  I think of my own girls, and wonder what I would do without them--and the poor world, bereft of my two traveling troublemakers, the lights in my eyes--like the light on the water as the old man and his new daughter dawdle with the current in their little houseboat, one mask after another coming off until it's just them, barefaced and looking at each other.


Popular Posts