by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Working on an essay considering the ruined bodies of transnational Chinese Cinema, I began reading Bei Dao’s short story “In the Ruins” from his collection Waves. Near the end of the story, the main character, the accused reactionary Wang Qi, stops at the ruins of Yuanmingyuan–the Imperial Gardens in Beijing–and prepares to commit suicide rather than report for denunciation in the morning. As he stops before the rubble of the palace, the narrator recounts:
Standing before him was China’s history, the history of the last decades, or even of the last centuries or millennia. The endless arrogance and revolt, dissipation and vice; the rivers of blood and mountains of bones; the sumptuous yet desolate cities, palaces and tombs; the thousands upon thousands of horses and soldiers mirrored against the huge canopy of the heavens; the axe on the execution block, dripping with blood; the sundial with its shadow revolving around the glossy stone slab; the thread-bound hand-copied books piled in dusty secret rooms; the long, mournful sound of the night-watchman beating his wooden rattle . . . all these together formed these desolate ruins. However, history would not stop at this scene of ruin, no, it would not, it would proceed from here, and go on into the wide world.
He touched the cooling stone pillar. Finished, he thought, this once-illustrious palace which had been the celebration of an age had collapsed, and once it had collapsed, it was no more than so many pieces of stone. And he himself was just a little stone among them. There was nothing to be lamented; in the midst of a people’s deep suffering, individuals were negligible.
In this one passage, Bei Dao is able to survey the complexity of ruins–the emphasis on collapse, fall, and dishonor–and the temporal aspects of ruins, which merge the past with the present, impose the past on the present. Ruins are rubble, and history, and tradition, and memory made material. At the same time, they are spatial reminders of time, time moving backward and forward, for ruins do not only look back but also look ahead. Ruins are located in a time and place, and their locations draw the past into the present and toward the future. They mark the failures that signal new possibilities: new buildings, alternative structures, reconsidered social relations. Ruins trace the past that did not fulfill its promise and in the process promise a different future.
In this light, it is crucial that Wang Qi toss his rope over a tree branch and then spy a young girl cutting grass in the bushes near the ruin. The main character had spent most of the story remembering his relation with his daughter. Now, at the moment of his preparation for suicide, he speculates on the future of this other girl, this strange child he startles with his familiarity. She marks the future, related always to the past through the present. After several pages describing Wang Qi’s encounter with the girl, the story continues:
Night fell. In the darkness, the outline of the ruins could still be distinguished clearly. He sat on a piece of stone for a long time….
I shall stop here and not give away the ending, leaving this post slightly in ruins.