野火烧不尽 / no prairie fire can destroy all the weeds (Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner: FICTION)

Issue #158
Winter 2023-24

In fiction, our winner is Mengyin Lin, for her story “野火烧不尽/no prairie fire can destroy all the weeds.”

Of the story, fiction judge Gish Jen says, “This gutsy and ambitious story nimbly ranges over five cities worldwide, chronicling the 2022 protests to China’s COVID-19 policies—a project fraught with not only political risks but artistic risks, too. The individuals in each city must be caught so clearly, so as to not blur into one another, and the whole must finally cohere in some satisfying, surprising way so that it does not sprawl out of control. ‘no prairie fire can destroy all the weeds’ succeeds on both counts and many more, with memorable, original, and haunting results. Bravo!”

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Or, when did you first call yourself a writer?

I did not grow up writing fiction. The writing we were required to do in Chinese schools was largely formulaic, though looking back on it, there was a focus on language. We were taught to use rhetorical devices.

Cinema first inspired me to consider myself a storyteller. I studied film in college and tried writing them for six years afterward. But my scripts were not produced, and I did not dare to call myself a writer. I only started calling myself a writer in the past year, since my fiction started getting published. I know publication does not define a writer or the quality of the writing, but I needed the external evidence to have the courage to call myself a writer.

Describe your writing process. What works for you as a writer? What do you find challenging, or even difficult, about writing?

The way we were taught to write screenplays is that you write an outline first, then you write a detailed outline/treatment, then you write a scene-by-scene outline, then you write the actual screenplay, which has dialogue. It’s meticulously planned, and by the time you start writing pages, there’s not that much room for spontaneity. I think this kind of writing process may have come from how funding works in the film industry—development executives need to get an idea of the whole movie before they invest more money.

When I started writing short stories, my process completely reversed. I write word by word, sentence by sentence, without knowing where the story is going. Along the way, I make surprising discoveries about my characters and their world. It is such a joy. I exert less control over what I’m writing and yield my authority to the text itself, trusting that the story will eventually reveal itself to me. The other thing that changed was that I used to think that in order to write, I had to have a big chunk of time to sit down at my computer. But after hearing Toni Morrison describe that she’d write two sentences on a piece of paper alone in her car before driving to work in the morning, I told myself to cut my own BS. Now I try to write whenever, wherever, and it has really worked for me.

To me, the most difficult part of writing is having the courage and determination to start anew every day, no matter how frustrating and challenging the day before was. Writing requires a certain degree of blind faith.

What inspired “野火烧不尽/no prairie fire can destroy all the weeds”?

I wrote this story in January/February 2023. In the beginning of 2022, China implemented the zero-COVID policy. At the end of November, an apartment building fire in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, which is featured in the first section of “野火烧不尽/no prairie fire can destroy all the weeds,” instigated a nation-wide protest against the draconian lockdown and testing policy. Though short-lived, it was the first public protest in China of such scale that I’d seen in my lifetime. Chinese overseas were quick to join in solidarity—so many people, myself included, had not been able to go home and visit families for more than two years. Young Chinese gathered in thousands in almost all major cities around the world. Many of these protesters had never attended a protest in their life, or never cared about Chinese politics. It felt like a historical moment for my own and the younger generation.

I attended a few of these solidarity protests in North America, which were permeated with deep-seated rage and sadness, bottled up since the beginning of the pandemic and the many years leading up to it. We were so hopeful and hopeless at the same time; there was not much that we could hope for, but we hoped nonetheless.

The domestic protests were immediately suppressed. A lot of Chinese people, especially older generations, berated the young protesters. The government tried to say that they were backed by Western evil forces. Soon after, giving up the zero-COVID policy, the government started arresting some of the protesters.

It was a very dark period, but I think something fundamentally shifted in the minds of many Chinese people, both inside and outside China. I think what happened during this period will continue to ripple into the future in ways that I cannot predict. As a fiction writer, I felt useless, helpless, and powerless. I wanted to do my part in some way. Perhaps writing itself can be a form of resistance and protest.

The title is taken from a very famous Chinese poem by Bai Juyi written around 786 CE. Every Chinese student learns it in elementary school. The full line is: “no prairie fire will destroy all the weeds; when the spring breeze blows, they will grow again.”

What projects are you working on now? Where is your writing headed?

I’m slowly working my way into my first novel. It feels like trekking in total darkness. I think I will continue writing short stories at the same time, so I have a brighter place to retreat to when novel writing gets too treacherous.


[November 24th, Ürümqi]

Dilhumar doesn’t want to play with her daughter tonight. A hundred and— She has stopped counting since day one hundred, for no particular reason. A form of resistance? Perhaps. If she can, even only momentarily, forget the futility of resisting. To stop counting the number of days since the last time she, her daughter, and her mother-in-law stepped foot outside together—she feels as if she could disrupt the linearity of time, which, when one stays inside for as long as they have, already feels like a distant memory, an illusion in the first place. In the Quran, Allah turns time; in Ürümqi, Allah sets time on a loop and lets it run. Everything comes and goes and comes around again: every day, her mother-in-law asks for her husband and son; every night, her daughter wants to play the same game of dubbing her favorite Disney cartoons; every other day, the whole building lines up to get their throat poked at a tin booth; every two weeks, the neighborhood committee says the lockdown will extend for another two weeks. Every once in a while, Dilhumar is seized by a weight in her heart, a lump in her throat, a weakness in her legs, and she sits down, closes her eyes, and waits for it all to end.

The living room looks the same when Dilhumar opens her eyes. In front of her, the TV is still playing Frozen on mute. American princesses always get what they want, and, though her daughter likes to belt out the songs, every time Elsa sings with snow magic at her fingertips, Dilhumar, the root of her ears burning, feels that the blond fairy is mocking her girl, who has no magic, who can’t even go to school, see her friends, or have a father. Without her voice, the happiness in Elsa’s disproportionally huge eyes looks menacing. Dilhumar turns the TV off. The room dims; the light from the old chandelier suddenly appears too yellow, aging everything in its vicinity. The air smells unfriendly, dry, the grease of chicken and peppers lingering since dinner. Dilhumar imagines herself turning, ancient, into a fossil of a woman, sitting right here, in this room, on this couch, until the end of time. Even the outside world has stayed unchanged: out the living room window, rows of apartment buildings identical to hers unfolding to the edge of the starless sky, whose windows barely hide the smell of despair behind them. She imagines hundreds of mothers and daughters sitting by those plain, illuminated rectangles at this exact moment, looking at her looking for them.

But where is her daughter? The girl was sitting by her feet a minute ago. That’s why the room feels unusually quiet. She calls the girl’s name. No answer. Kitchen, bathroom—empty. Her mother-in-law is curled up alone in her bedroom, mumbling gibberish like she is reciting incantations. She calls again, louder.

Mama, I’m here!

The girl sounds muffled. Dilhumar wonders if her ears were plugged somehow. She opens her jaw and tries to pop her ears as if she were on a plane that had just soared ten-thousand feet.

Over here! The girl yells from … the balcony. Dilhumar arrives at the end of the hallway and slides the balcony door open.

Mama, look!

Though the balcony faces the other side of the building, the view is more or less the same. What’s there to look at? Dilhumar follows her daughter’s finger and sees black smoke, the ghost of a fire, snaking out of the neighboring building. She cracks open a window to a pungent burning smell and hurriedly closes it.

What is it, Mama?

Go watch your cartoon in the living room.

Dilhumar ushers her daughter back into the living room and makes sure all the windows in the apartment are properly closed. She turns Frozen back on, the snow on the screen so white it almost blinds her. As soon as Elsa’s tune fills the silence, Dilhumar makes her way back to the balcony.

Now there is not only the ghost of a fire, but the fire itself, raging out of the fifteenth floor of the building. She doesn’t want to think about the questions that are already swirling in her mind, but she cannot stop. What she knows pulls her to no other destination than total darkness. Just like in her building, the door to the fire exit on every floor is tied with steel wires. The ground-floor door to the building is bolted. From up here, she can see their residential complex’s closed iron fence gate and the long, narrow alley that leads to it. The main road remains empty in the distance like it has been for the past three months, the whole city empty, mourning a feeling that no one wants to name. Freedom, dare she even think of it? But freedom, colorless and shapeless, is no longer the concern. It is the fire, red, morphing, growing. It is life. It is death.

How long has it been? Who is burning? Is anyone going to save them?

Mama, it’s a fire! Where are the firefighters?

The girl is back by her side, up on her tiptoes, clutching to the fraying rim of Dilhumar’s pajama blouse. On the living room TV, Disney princesses are having a cheerful conversation about nothing.

I don’t know, Dilhumar says.

Are firefighters also locked in their homes? the girl asks.

No, baby, they are on their way.

Dilhumar doesn’t know if she’s telling the truth. She has never had to lie so much to her daughter as she has in the previous months. Are firefighters also locked in their homes? Nothing is impossible. Of this much she is sure. She reaches for her daughter’s hand.

Finally, they hear the siren. Her mother-in-law wakes. The three of them stand at their balcony window, tracking the firetruck turning off the main road, fidgeting through the long, narrow alley, and stopping at the now-open iron fence gate. But it doesn’t go in, cannot go in, for reasons Dilhumar can’t quite piece together. But look at that water hose.

It’s so long, Mama! Like a dragon! the girl screams.

It is the first rescue effort the girl has ever seen. She fishes her mother’s phone out of the pocket and presses the red button. The snake of a hose is pointed this way and that, maneuvered from all possible angles. Minutes begin to stretch, until every minute is an eternity. The girl’s excitement dissolves into unspoken terror. From the outer edge of the complex, no matter the angle, the gush of water will not reach the fifteenth floor, like a faulty geometry problem that has no right answer.

Dilhumar doesn’t know how long they’ve stood there, unmoving. She doesn’t notice that both she and her daughter have started sniffling. Her daughter tells her that her hand is awfully sweaty. In the presence of the raging fire, the night has begun to feel chilly. The fire has spread to floors above; the fire truck still can’t get in; the water dragon doesn’t reach its prey. For a moment, Dilhumar imagines she is watching the eruption of a dormant volcano, the lava painting the night sky a reddish brown, glowing.

Then comes the screaming. A woman’s voice. Perhaps a girl. Girls. Her daughter throws the phone on the floor and breaks into a primal cry, as if she’d regressed into a feverish infant, unable to communicate pain any other way. As Dilhumar bends to pick up the phone, the girl buries her face into her mother’s abdomen as deep as she can. The warm pressure, almost right against her uterus, awakens a forgotten pain in Dilhumar’s body, the pain she felt only once in her life, birthing her girl, herself being torn open. That, and being burned alive—which hurts more? Dilhumar hugs the girl tighter. On this side of the window, her daughter is screaming; on the other side, mothers and daughter are screaming, too, descending into another dimension.

Her mother-in-law turns to leave, shaking her head, her words comprehensible to Dilhumar for the first time in a long while. The du’a for the dead.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

In the living room, Anna and Elsa are reunited, the victorious melody travels the length of the apartment to the balcony, joining the symphony of the blaze.

Dilhumar wishes she, too, could scream, but she cannot make a sound.

[November 26th, Shanghai]

By the time Shu-Yun gets the text from her colleague about the memorial happening on Ürümqi Middle Road, she has just seen the Qatari stadium rejoice for the Moroccan team, a collective, uninhibited, cathartic jubilation that feels extraterrestrial three years into zero-COVID, three nights after the fire. It’s the first time in a long while that Shu-Yun and her girlfriend have patronized a bar, which has set up a huge projection screen for the World Cup. Shu-Yun barely understands anything about soccer; she simply likes the thrill of watching the sport, tracking the telepathic passes between players, holding her breath when the ball inches close to the net. Before she realizes what is happening—goal! What she loves the most, though, is when the broadcast cuts to the fans: the look in their eyes, no matter joy or sadness, is the purest feeling she has ever seen; their love for the sport, for their team, for their country, indistinguishable and inseparable. Except that CCTV has attempted to crop the faces of the spectators out of their broadcast because Chinese audiences start to ask questions: why are we still locked in our homes while the rest of the world laughs, cries, and shouts, maskless?

She’d love to celebrate another win just to have a reason to make noise. For three days, she couldn’t look away from her phone, drowned in things she’d rather not know. Though she only once opened a mother’s audio messages pleading rescue for her unconscious child, and a video of a screaming fire, those sounds have settled in her mind, like squatters taking over an abandoned building. More shocking is the footage of people marching on the streets, camping all night in front of the Ürümqi municipal government, and a young woman holding a piece of white paper in Nanjing, her black baseball cap and mask unable to hide her rage. Where does their courage come from? Is rage enough to erase fear? How is she going to dispose of her own?

Not in a soccer game, she realizes. Though she works for a company that runs popular WeChat public accounts on celebrity gossip and beauty, she studied journalism in college after all. So did many of her colleagues who also never worked in news. Shu-Yun tells her girlfriend that she is leaving.

Meet me on Ürümqi Middle Road when the game is over, she says to her girlfriend. I bet you two-hundred yuan that Croatia wins.

Outside, she hops on a shared bike and starts pedaling. It’s her eighth year in Shanghai, but it wasn’t until this past spring, when everyone was imprisoned at home for months, that she felt that she belonged here. She made friends with her neighbors. She witnessed the city’s resilience, which has now become part of her. She has grown attached to the French phoenix trees and how light through their branches paints a crisscross pattern on the street. Seeing no oncoming traffic, Shu-Yun veers her bike to the middle of the road where the trees’ shadows leave a slim, open lane like a train track. Pedaling faster and faster, she lets the bike cruise on its own, catching a fleeting moment of freedom.

Shu-Yun doesn’t expect the police to be the first thing she sees on arriving at Ürümqi Middle Road, their bodies and vans blocking both ends of the street. But nobody stops her when she passes into the crowd. There must be hundreds of people here, but it’s much quieter than the bar, everyone talking in hushed voices as if out of respect for the mourned. She accepts a piece of blank paper from a stranger and spots her colleague, a girl a few years younger and maskless, standing in an ocean of blank paper across from the makeshift altar. From where Shu-Yun stands, the quiet is the sound of blank paper, the blank paper the look of silence. The candles are silent. The flowers are silent. The people are silent. Shu-Yun suddenly feels as if she were submerged underwater, struggling for air.

Once Shu-Yun reaches her colleague, she gets a supply of oxygen from the pregnant energy circling within the crowd. Everyone is waiting for something to happen, but nobody knows how, what, or where to start. Shu-Yun couldn’t have imagined mere hours ago that she would be where she is now, holding a blank sheet of paper like the girl in Nanjing. If this were more than a memorial, what would it be? A protest? A demonstration? What do people do at these things? Why is she really here?

Someone is humming a familiar tune somewhere. More voices join in. She first heard the song nine years ago, during her senior year of college, when she saw the video of feminist activists singing a Chinese cover of the song on Beijing’s subway. She remembers sharing the video with friends and it being deleted before they opened the link. She remembers feeling angry and confused. It was a rare incident then, in the early days of WeChat, but it’s an everyday occurrence now. She still has never seen the musical and only knows the first two lines of the original song: Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men, she sings under her breath. When she fumbles over words, failing to pick up lyrics from those around her, her colleague nudges her phone between them, the lyrics written on the screen: it is the music of people who will not be slaves again. When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes. Slaves. Life. Tomorrow. Her throat tightens. Her mouth is still moving but her voice fades. She tries to hear what those words sound like on other people’s lips.

Minutes after the melody ends, chanting starts. Shu-Yun doesn’t know who started it first, but in seconds, the crowd is chanting in unison. Every slogan is a surprise, the result a real hodgepodge from Mao’s maxims to fuck your mother venue code, fuck your mother Communist Party. During a brief pause, she hears herself telling people to stop saying fuck your mother.

It’s misogynist, Shu-Yun says, her voice trailing off toward the end of that short sentence now that people have turned their faces to her.

Smiling faces, she sees.

We don’t want PCR, we want food to eat! A woman’s voice, on the verge of breaking, leads a new wave. We don’t want lockdown, we want freedom!

Nobody shouts fuck your mother for the rest of the night. Shu-Yun was heard, people listened, this is what it feels like. Like seeing a World Cup win, she wants more of it, that head rush of belonging to a hope, a release, a triumph bigger than her small, unimportant life. She unleashes her full volume, voicing the new chant. Who can hear them? The residents on Ürümqi Middle Road? The growing mass of police? The only person in the whole country who has the power to stop all of this nonsense? Someone mentions his name. Fuck your mother! the voice follows. Shu-Yun lets this one go.

When her girlfriend arrives at two-thirty in the morning, the police have stopped letting people onto the street.

I owe you two-hundred yuan, her girlfriend tells her on the phone. Croatia won.

Shu-Yun tells her girlfriend that she is not leaving, her voice hoarse like it’s grinding against the walls of her windpipe. She is sitting on the curb with a stranger’s arm around her. A few minutes ago, the stranger, a girl in a beanie whose cheeks have turned rosy from the freezing weather, gave Shu-Yun a hug.

Freedom of speech! Freedom of media! Someone had shouted.

Upon hearing that, Shu-Yun, holding her white paper high, her arm stretched to a supernatural length, had suddenly lost all her strength. Like a puppet whose master dropped its strings, she had dropped into a sunken squat, burying her wet eyes between her knees. For eight years at her job, she had navigated what not to say, day in and day out—she was finally exhausted.

Shu-Yun is exhausted. She misses, badly, the softness of her bed and her girlfriend’s hair. But as long as strangers insist on their kindness, as long as the night insists on its darkness, she is not leaving Ürümqi Middle Road.

It’s really red, maybe getting frostnips, she says to the girl in a beanie, pointing to her own apple muscles.

As the girl tries to rearrange her scarf, Shu-Yun takes off her gloves, rubs her hands against each other for a few seconds, and glues her warm palms to the stranger’s cold cheeks.

[November 27th, Toronto]

Perhaps no one will show up, Zhi thinks. Or rather, he prays to the heavens, in whose hands, he feels, most have been left: what new variant would emerge down the Greek alphabet; how many days one would end up in quarantine upon landing in China; or when would he be able to see his lonely, aging mother again. The weather god has already worked in their favor, spreading thick clouds and sprinkling rain all day. At the staff meeting yesterday, he volunteered to stay on the side of the consulate that faces Saint George Street, where the protest is scheduled to take place tonight. His wife complained when he told her that he would be in the office on a Sunday night.

Haven’t you seen enough of this anti-China stuff? she asked. Wouldn’t it be better to stay in with your son?

His wife likes rhetorical questions that make him feel that everything he does is stupid and wrong. It was, indeed, stupid of him to tell her about the volunteer part. Three years ago, his wife quit her job and moved with Zhi and their seven-year-old son when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dispatched him to Toronto. After a long domestic stint following four years in the Republic of Congo, they had both been relieved that he was finally assigned to a developed country, where their son could have a better education. No one predicted the pandemic, no one predicted Zoom school, and no one predicted that embassies and consulates abroad would abide by the zero-COVID policy as if they lived in China. No outings without permission, no non-essential mingling with locals—non-essential being the key word. Traveling, eating out, going on a walk have become, it has been decided for them, non-essential activities. His son had wanted to play soccer after school with his Canadian classmates, but the consulate said it was non-essential. So the three of them have been spending all their time together, his wife bored, his son irritable, and the only agreement they can find is that Zhi is to blame for all their misfortunes. Maybe he volunteered to stay on duty simply to have some time to himself. This he was not stupid enough to admit to his wife.

What are you gonna do anyway? His wife asked a semi-genuine question when Zhi offered no response to her rhetorical ones.

But he semi-genuinely didn’t have an answer. He has made sure that all the lights are turned off, blinds closed, and what else? Having done that, he now sits at his desk by the window, peeking out from the darkness of his office, through the cracks between plastic slabs of blinds, onto the street, where a small group has started to gather. I am out in the open, and my enemy hides in the dark, Zhi thinks of the old saying. Guess he plays the role of the enemy tonight. This is not what he imagined he would be doing when he endured and excelled at rounds of written tests and interviews to become a public servant, a diplomat in a suit and tie, a representative of a world power. Instead, he handles mundane paperwork, takes hours and hours of Party lessons, and spies on a protest as if he were in a James Bond film. Thinking of James Bond, he feels important again. If other people don’t think what he does is important, he will make them see its importance, his importance.

Before he left their apartment, his wife said that when the temperature drops after sundown, the young protesters would choose comfort, warmth, and hot takeout in their high-rises over getting soaked on the street.

There’s no point protesting anyway, she said. She knows, he knows, everyone knows.

But his wife is wrong, and Zhi can’t wait to tell her later. By 7:15 p.m., a line so long that he can’t see its end has formed on the sidewalk outside the consulate. Flowers, signs, banners, microphones, speakers—he has indeed seen enough of that before. Falun Gong supporters and Hong Kong protesters regularly show up with the standard gear. Only this time, the people look different. They are covered from head to toe. Hood, mask, sunglasses—quite a ridiculous look. He may have just hopped from a James Bond extravaganza into a stringent Chinese civil war movie, himself a Communist Party spy uncovering the identities of evil Kuomintang special agents. Chuckling, he picks up the camera he was given and zooms in on a woman for a picture. Holding a piece of blank paper, she happens to be looking up in his direction. Click.

His wife was right about one thing, though. She didn’t say that there was nothing to protest against, only that protests were useless, with which Zhi agrees. He thinks of the time Jiang Zemin berated a Hong Kong journalist on live TV: too young and too naïve. That’s exactly what these kids on the street are. What do they have against their country? The fact that they are here, paying the tuition of Canadian universities plus the cost of living of Toronto, means that their families are well-off, unlike his working-class parents from a fifth-tier county seat. If their country wasn’t rich and strong, they wouldn’t have had the chance to be corrupted by their expensive Western education. Ungrateful bastards.

We want freedom! they are shouting now. Amused, Zhi opens the window to hear more.

Freedom is for spoiled brats. He watched the videos from Shanghai and Beijing. Spoiled brats yelling freedom of speech, freedom of press as if they were so intelligent, so morally superior. Someone even shouted, “I want to watch movies” and people started to chant it together. What a joke. Ask if the workers in the Henan Foxconn factory care about movies.

Communist Party, step down!

Zhi slams the window reflexively.

Then comes the name that he has been taught to fear and revere. Step down!

Even hearing these words feels wrong. He heard these chants in the videos, too. At first, he found them hilarious. Of course, no one is stepping down. Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China—didn’t they all grow up singing the same song? But the protesters repeated them over and over, like they are doing now on this foreign land, their volume growing, their desperation deepening in the guttural quality of that collective voice, and he feels as if something is bubbling inside him, those rhythmic incantations beating the drum of his heart.

Step—down! Step—down!

He imagines his lips moving in tempo.


Thrilling, just for the hell of it. When was the last time that he did something that he was not supposed to? Nothing since smoking on the roof of his high school dormitory, his scrawny, adolescent legs dangling over the ledge, seven floors above the world. Deep down his windpipe, vibrating against the tip of his heart, those never-uttered words in his mother tongue are breaking out of his throat like unborn chicks wriggling themselves out of the shell. Surely he’s heard seditious words before, in English, Cantonese, no doubt many times. But somehow the same words in Mandarin carry a seductive energy, frightening and exhilarating at once. Everything comes into sharp focus—a moment of total understanding. Or so Zhi thinks, since perceiving the world in shades of gray has never seemed necessary, the possibility of not understanding a sign of weakness rather than wisdom.

He reopens the window, telling himself it’s for the clarity of his photos. The more protesters he can help identify, the happier his supervisor will be and the more worthy he will appear. As he presses the shutter—click, click, click—he follows the lead speaker with the crowd: step—down! He is screaming and whispering at the same time, making the sort of quiet, hollow echo as if his chest were an empty cave. A sniper echoing the last cry of his targets. Click.


As Zhi swallows the protesters’ chants down his throat, he grows comfortable, confident, content, even, in knowing that when the sun rises tomorrow, he will fall on the glorious side of history, and those in his camera on the other. But he doesn’t yet know that the line between the two moves like a capricious child. The safe ground will, one day, shift under his feet, like it is shifting now before his eyes on Saint George Street.

[November 30th, New York]

When Phoebe Shi named herself in tenth grade English class after her favorite character in the American sitcom Friends, she didn’t know that she would, one day, live in the same city as her namesake. Previously, she had been Taylor (Swift) for two years, Hermione (Granger) for three, and Matilda before that, a name given to her by her first foreign English teacher, a left-handed British blonde. Phoebe never felt like a Matilda. She would have liked it more had she put the pieces together—her classmates were Charlie, Willy, James, George, Danny. Her teacher lived in the adult-hating world of Roald Dahl. But she clicked into Phoebe right away. After four years in New York, she feels even more attached to Phoebe than her Chinese name. Phoebe is her adult self, a senior at Parsons, a devoted New Yorker, whereas her Chinese name conjures her parents’ child, modest, obedient, soft-spoken.

When her parents called her earlier, after she reposted an article about the “white paper protests” on WeChat, she was sitting before four pieces of letter-sized paper pasted onto a piece of cardboard that she had cut out from an Amazon package. The winter sun shone on her blank canvas at a tender angle. Phoebe was deciding what to write on the sign that she’d bring to the solidarity protest tonight outside the Chinese consulate. It was almost midnight in Chengdu.

Are people protesting in New York? her mother asked.

No, Phoebe lied.

Your cousin went to a protest in Toronto. Foreign forces always target naïve students like you! her father vented.

Her cousin who cared about nothing but games and cars? Phoebe was surprised. She imagined her parents sitting up in their bed, moonlight on their frosted window the color of her favorite banana-flavored milk, her father’s face reddened and slightly inflated from rage, his angular jaw losing its sharp edges, and her mother’s face crumpling into itself, deepening the new creases that Phoebe was afraid to see.

If you have imbecile friends getting into this nonsense, stay as far from them as possible. Her father gave his order, assuming that his daughter, modest, obedient, soft-spoken, wouldn’t partake in such ugly affairs unless she was dragged into it.

Yes, Phoebe lied again.

And delete the post, one of them said.

Phoebe didn’t have to delete the post. By the time she disconnected their video call, the link to the article, as she expected, redirected to a familiar sight: a solid red circle with a white exclamation point in the middle. Underneath it read: this content is no longer available because it violated relevant regulations.

Before today, her father would have been right about her. Phoebe had never cared about politics, Chinese or otherwise. It had never seemed to affect her. She liked drawing and was studying design. Neither, she thinks, requires an understanding of politics, which is why she has been staring at her unmade sign all morning, her mind as blank as the reflective pool of white paper.

Phoebe learned about tonight’s protest on her classmate’s Instagram. The girl in fashion design reposted the flyer of the protest and asked if anyone wanted to go together. Phoebe hadn’t expected her classmate, whose family owned many clothing factories, to be interested in such a protest. Phoebe had last seen her at the beginning of the semester, just after the classmate returned from her summer in China. She had been quarantined for three weeks in a dirty hotel room before going home. Her family’s factories were on the verge of closing. And, because of all the travel restrictions, she had never gotten to see her grandparents, who lived in another city.

At least you were home, Phoebe blurted out.

At this, her classmate stopped complaining. Now that Phoebe thinks about it, it was not a very sensitive comment. Any sentence that starts with at least translates to be grateful for what you have, spoiled brat. She could tell that her friend was angry, worried, had been trying to get at something unspeakable. But Phoebe still envied her. Phoebe, her parents unwilling to splurge ten-thousand dollars on roundtrip airfare, had not seen them for three years—that’s more than 13% of her time on Earth!

Her friend, after Phoebe responded to her story, suggested that Phoebe bring a sign.

A blank paper? Phoebe asked.

Since we can say whatever we want here, you can write something on the sign if you want, her friend said.

Too embarrassed to reveal her ignorance, she only said, Okay, I will.

Remember to cover up, her friend added, sombrero emoji, mask emoji, sunglasses emoji.

Three thumbs-up emojis, Phoebe tapped on her phone, leaving out her questions: Should the sign be in English or Chinese? What should it be about, the Ürümqi fire or more? What is the protest going to be about, the Ürümqi fire or more? What would the “more” part be?

She has never been to a protest in her entire life. Her parents work for state-owned enterprises and have always made sure that she understands her life in America is afforded by her country. Twelve years of mandatory Patriotic Education from elementary to high school taught her only one way to love her country. But since the pandemic, she has been watching on her tiny phone screen as her high school classmates are locked in dorms without enough food, her parents’ diabetic neighbor is forbidden from getting additional insulin, the day her cousin’s hot pot restaurant opened for business for the last time, and started to wonder to wonder if China, the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese people are four vastly different things, and she has been confusing them.

Phoebe turns to Google for help on her sign. The search yields lots of images from 1989, which she deemed ancient, irrelevant history, and some photos from Hong Kong—more recent, but she had disliked the protests in Hong Kong when they happened because curses of mainlanders circulated among them, though those protesters in black, beaten and teargassed, now twist her heart somehow. There are two photos of the Si-Tong Bridge in Beijing from last month, but in her designer’s eye, that’s too many words for the size of her sign. She keeps scrolling and scrolling, until one picture arrests her attention: two women holding up a flag in the color of dark menstrual blood, on which bold, white characters read “父权不死 极权不止.” Totalitarianism won’t end without the death of patriarchy. The picture is from the protest outside the Chinese consulate in London two nights ago. Only then Phoebe notices that the two women are wearing metal chains around their necks. She has seen such a chain around a female body before, but where? Woman, chains, patriarchy—she puts the key words into the search bar of her mental album. The Xuzhou woman comes up. The news about her, an involuntary mother of eight, came out at the start of the year, and Phoebe had forgotten all about it. She remembers now, in the most circulated video, the chained woman, her frostbitten fingers barely able to tear a strip off her cold bread, her mind having left her body long ago, saying a jumble of words that didn’t make much sense. The only sentence Phoebe could make out was “this world abandoned me.” Phoebe feels sorry for forgetting her. Forgetting is a cruel, terminal form of abandonment. She could say that too many tragedies have happened since then, but that would just be another insensitive comment.

With dark red markers, Phoebe outlines the eight characters on her sign. She hasn’t written Chinese for a long time, and the inherent movement in every stroke suddenly fills her with an unfamiliar feeling, a warmth that probes her body tentatively, as if testing its boundaries, asking for and granting itself permission at the same time. Slowly, her hand moves under the guidance of this feeling that she is too awed to name. A downward stroke, a short rightward stroke, another downward stroke to the left, a long rightward stroke at the bottom—Phoebe finishes the last character. The sun has drifted away from her window, but even without its light, the eight characters are glowing.

Phoebe pulls a pair of black jeans out from the closet. On her desk, her phone dings. She swipes away the message in her family group chat. She puts on her black coat, a black mask, and a black beanie. With her sign under her arm, pressed against her side, Phoebe feels an ache to be outside. It cannot wait. She opens the door, steps one foot out, then, impatiently, another.

[Jan 8th, unknown location]

This is a portrait of a young woman we don’t know. Voluntarily or not, she has left the whole world to wonder about her. No one knows where she lives. No one knows what she thinks. No one even knows what she looks like.

Some people do, surely—those who are responsible for her safety and her mysterious divorcee of a husband. But not you and me. We may read about her on the web, fictionalized narratives about her that are less trustworthy than what you’re reading now. We know much more about her parents, perhaps more than the young woman herself knows. Her father’s name appears in the headlines of state news every day, but I’m sure she doesn’t read it. She went to Harvard, after all. At Harvard, she realized that the rest of the world, perhaps America in particular, is as obsessed with her father as her motherland. At Harvard, she had ignorant friends, unmemorable dreams, and another name. She liked living under that name; with that name, life appeared softer around her. She liked Harvard and the surrounding town, where people cared more about knowledge than money or power, or at least they liked to pretend they did.

Nearing her graduation, she had asked her mother if she could stay in Cambridge and have a quiet life. No, not quiet in the literal sense, she corrected herself; her life anywhere else wouldn’t be quieter than home. She wanted an ordinary life, I suspect, like a Disney princess locked in the high tower of her castle, longing to slum with the common people. That day, before she saw her singer mother who no longer sang, our young heroine even powdered her apple muscles with a peachy blush, admiring those round and supple cheeks that seemed to have been transplanted from her mother’s face. But her mother didn’t even have to open her mouth before the young woman came to her senses. She apologized for being inconsiderate, absurd was the word she used. Her happiness didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. How could her father build the Chinese Dream for 1.4 billion people if his daughter dreamed the American one?

Though the world doesn’t know her, she knows the world and everything you’ve read so far. Since she left Harvard, other people’s lives have seemed abstract to her, and for the past three years, she has felt as if she lived in another dimension, without a virus, without a screaming fire, without blank sheets of paper. She likes this sanitized vacuum; it’s as safe as her mother’s womb. Her father has taught her the art of distrust, his most prized skill, and made sure she applies it generously and meticulously. She has watched the videos, too, but she can’t simply believe in what she sees. Not that those people in the videos didn’t go to the streets in the middle of wintry nights, but that they did it for the reasons they claimed. Self-righteous is what she thinks of them, not recognizing that her very own life rests upon the stilts of her father’s self-righteousness.

She watched those videos of Ürümqi Middle Road and Liangma Bridge in her bedroom. Let’s imagine a two-story red brick house, and perhaps our heroine’s bedroom sits in the corner of the second floor, where red mahogany railings lead to a balcony with a red mahogany French door. The videos played after she checked the connection of her AirPods because her husband, who had told her not to bother with the videos, was on the phone downstairs. She enjoyed the part where a guy with a dorky middle-part read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 in a Beijing accent. She also liked it when people sang: The Internationale, Farewell, even the song that she knew no one was supposed to sing. She couldn’t forget her fond memories of the musical it came from. Many lifetimes ago, she cried through Les Miserables in the darkness of a Broadway theater, wiping her snot on the sleeve of the sweater she had left in America with the person she used to be.

But she didn’t like the shouting. That kind of rage repulsed her; so did that one guy’s words from Si-Tong Bridge. Then she heard her father’s name. Step—down! Her fingers reflexively shucked the AirPods out of her ears but were too panicked to hold onto them. The small, white earphones trickled out of her hands, and one landed in a pool of sunlight, glistening like a precious pearl. She couldn’t see where the other pod went. She wanted to look under her bed, but for a moment, she couldn’t move, as if what she just heard was a spell that froze her in place. Something about the language—step—down!—its brashness, aggressiveness, almost barbaric, overwhelmed her with terror. It was no longer some lofty ideal they retorted; it sounded like a samurai’s last roar before a fight. If they could point their swords at her father’s throat, they would do the same to her when her time came.

You must make them pay, the young woman told her father many days later when she saw him in their dining room for half an hour.

Her father, having been trained to reveal nothing with his expressions, gave his daughter a private smile that the world has never seen, but said nothing.

Our heroine waited and waited. She got sick with the virus and recovered. She took care of her mother and her husband through their infections. Her vacation plan was approved. She dreamed of swimming with a shoal of manta rays and woke herself when dark blood started to stream from their eyes, the ocean turning unstoppably red, angry waves roaring like a chorus of tanggu drums. Finally, her father sent news. The arrests were underway. Interrogations, indoctrinations, charges, and sentences would follow. Those who chanted her father’s name would never chant it again; those who didn’t would never remember they had once heard such a chant.

Today, our heroine has forgotten what happened last month, last year, or three years ago; so have many people in her country. She never found her other AirPod and has bought a new pair. They sit in her ears as she waits for her private jet to take her to her vacation on a private island that her father has hidden from us. What is she listening to? We don’t know. The plane starts to move on the tarmac, and she bobs her head to the rhythm we can’t hear. She looks happy, perhaps imagining the warm embrace of the tropical water, manta rays that would shield the sun and not bleed, or the jolly fact that no one will speak of the videos she watched, no one will ask of those who disappeared, no one will ever chant her name. No one.