Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.
To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything
“I refuse to be nothing…”
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, on sale 07/20/2021.
The days ground on. The Zhu family’s yellow beans were running low, the water was increasingly undrinkable, and the girl’s traps were catching less and less. Many of the remaining villagers set out on the hill road that led to the monastery and beyond, even though everyone knew it was just exchanging death by starvation for death by bandits. The girl’s father alone seemed to have found new strength. Every morning he stood outside under the rosy dome of that unblemished sky and said like a prayer, “The rains will come. All we need is patience, and faith in Heaven to deliver Zhu Chongba’s great fate.”
One morning the girl, sleeping in the depression she and Chongba had made for themselves next to the house, woke to a noise. It was startling: they had almost forgotten what life sounded like. When they went to the road they saw something even more surprising. Movement. Before they could think it was already rushing past in a thunderous press of noise: men on filthy horses that flung up the dust with the violence of their passage.
When they were gone Chongba said, small and scared, “The army?”
The girl was silent. She wouldn’t have thought those men could have come from that dark flowing river, beautiful but always distant.
Behind them, their father said, “Bandits.”
That afternoon three of the bandits came stooping under the Zhu family’s sagging lintel. To the girl, crouched on the bed with her brother, they seemed to fill the room with their size and rank smell. Their tattered clothes gaped and their untied hair was matted. They were the first people the girl had ever seen wearing boots.
The girl’s father had prepared for this event. Now he rose and approached the bandits, holding a clay jar. Whatever he felt, he kept it inside. “Honored guests. This is only of the poorest quality, and we have but little, but please take what we have.”
One of the bandits took the jar and looked inside. He scoffed. “Uncle, why so stingy? This can’t be all you have.”
Their father stiffened. “I swear to you, it is. See for yourself how my children have no more flesh on them than a sick dog! We’ve been eating stones for a long time, my friend.”
The bandit laughed. “Ah, don’t bullshit me. How can it be stones if you’re all still alive?” With a cat’s lazy cruelty, he shoved the girl’s father and sent him stumbling. “You peasants are all the same. Offering us a chicken, expecting us not to see the fatted pig in the pantry! Go get the rest of it, you cunt.”
The girl’s father caught himself. Something changed in his face. In a surprising burst of speed he lunged at the children and caught the girl by the arm. She cried out in surprise as he dragged her off the bed. His grip was hard; he was hurting her.
Above her head, her father said, “Take this girl.”
For a moment the words didn’t make sense. Then they did. For all her family had called her useless, her father had finally found her best use: as something that could be spent to benefit those who mattered. The girl looked at the bandits in terror. What possible use could she have to them?
Echoing her thoughts, the bandit said scornfully, “That little black cricket? Better to give us one five years older, and prettier—” Then, as realization dawned, he broke off and started laughing. “Oh, uncle! So it’s true what you peasants will do when you’re really desperate.”
Dizzy with disbelief, the girl remembered what the village children had taken pleasure in whispering to one another. That in other, worse-off villages, neighbors would swap their youngest children to eat. The children had thrilled with fear, but none of them had actually believed it. It was only a story.
But now, seeing her father avoiding her gaze, the girl realized it wasn’t just a story. In a panic she began struggling, and felt her father’s hands clench tighter into her flesh, and then she was crying too hard to breathe. In that one terrible moment, she knew what her fate of nothing meant. She had thought it was only insignificance, that she would never be anything or do anything that mattered. But it wasn’t.
It was death.
As she writhed and cried and screamed, the bandit strode over and snatched her from her father. She screamed louder, and then thumped onto the bed hard enough that all her breath came out. The bandit had thrown her there.
Now he said, disgusted, “I want to eat, but I’m not going to touch that garbage,” and punched their father in the stomach. He doubled over with a wet squelch. The girl’s mouth opened silently. Beside her, Chongba cried out.
“There’s more here!” One of the other bandits was calling through from the kitchen. “He buried it.”
Their father crumpled to the floor. The bandit kicked him under the ribs. “You think you can fool us, you lying son of a turtle? I bet you have even more, hidden all over the place.” He kicked him again, then again. “Where is it?”
The girl realized her breath had come back: she and Chongba were both shrieking for the bandit to stop. Each thud of boots on flesh pierced her with anguish, the pain as intense as if it were her own body. For all her father had shown her how little she meant to him, he was still her father. The debt children owed their parents was incalculable; it could never be repaid. She screamed, “There isn’t any more! Please stop. There isn’t. There isn’t—”
The bandit kicked their father a few more times, then stopped. Somehow the girl knew it hadn’t had anything to do with their pleading. Their father lay motionless on the ground. The bandit crouched and lifted his head by the topknot, revealing the bloodied froth on the lips and the pallor of the face. He made a sound of disgust and let it drop.
The other two bandits came back with the second jar of beans. “Boss, looks like this is it.”
“Fuck, two jars? I guess they really were going to starve.” After a moment the leader shrugged and went out. The other two followed.
The girl and Chongba, clinging to each other in terror and exhaustion, stared at their father where he lay on the churned dirt. His bloodied body was curled up as tightly as a child in the womb: he had left the world already prepared for his reincarnation.
That night was long and filled with nightmares. Waking up was worse. The girl lay on the bed looking at her father’s body. Her fate was nothing, and it was her father who would have made it happen, but now it was he who was nothing. Even as she shuddered with guilt, she knew it hadn’t changed anything. Without their father, without food, the nothing fate still awaited.
She looked over at Chongba and startled. His eyes were open, but fixed unseeing on the thatched roof. He barely seemed to breathe. For a horrible instant the girl thought he might be dead as well, but when she shook him he gave a small gasp and blinked. The girl belatedly remembered that he couldn’t die, since he could hardly become great if he did. Even with that knowledge, being in that room with the shells of two people, one alive and one dead, was the most frighteningly lonely thing the girl had ever experienced. She had been surrounded by people her whole life. She had never imagined what it would be like to be alone.
It should have been Chongba to perform their last filial duty. Instead, the girl took her father’s dead hands and dragged the body outside. He had withered so much that she could just manage. She laid him flat on the yellow earth behind the house, took up his hoe, and dug.
The sun rose and baked the land and the girl and everything else under it. The girl’s digging was only the slow, scraping erosion of layers of dust, like the action of a river over the centuries. The shadows shortened and lengthened again; the grave deepened with its infinitesimal slowness. The girl gradually became aware of being hungry and thirsty. Leaving the grave, she found some muddy water in the bucket. She scooped it with her hands and drank. She ate the meat for rubbing the pot, recoiling at its dark taste, then went into the house and looked for a long time at the two dried melon seeds on the ancestral shrine. She remembered what people had said would happen if you ate a ghost offering: the ghosts would come for you, and their anger would make you sicken and die. But was that true? The girl had never heard of it happening to anyone in the village—and if no one could see ghosts, how could they be sure what ghosts did? She stood there in an agony of indecision. Finally she left the seeds where they were and went outside, where she grubbed around in last year’s peanut patch and found a few woody shoots.
After she had eaten half the shoots, the girl looked at the other half and deliberated on whether to give them to Chongba, or to trust in Heaven to provide for him. Eventually guilt prodded her to go wave the peanut shoots over his face. Something in him flared at the sight. For a moment she saw him struggling back to life, fueled by that king-like indignation that she should have given him everything. Then the spark died. The girl watched his eyes drift out of focus. She didn’t know what it meant, that he would lie there without eating and drinking. She went back outside and kept digging.
When the sun set the grave was only knee deep, the same clear yellow color at the top as it was at the bottom. The girl could believe it was like that all the way down to the spirits’ home in the Yellow Springs. She climbed into bed next to Chongba’s rigid form and slept. In the morning, his eyes were still open. She wasn’t sure if he had slept and woken early, or had been like that all night. When she shook him this time, he breathed more quickly. But even that seemed reflexive.
She dug again all that day, stopping only for water and peanut sprouts. And still Chongba lay there, and showed no interest when she brought him water.
She awoke before dawn on the morning of the third day. A sense of aloneness gripped her, vaster than anything she had ever felt. Beside her, the bed was empty: Chongba had gone.
She found him outside. In the moonlight he was a pale blur next to the mass that had been their father. At first she thought he was asleep. Even when she knelt and touched him it took her a long time to realize what had happened, because it didn’t make any sense. Chongba was to have been great; he was to have brought pride to their family name. But he was dead.
The girl was startled by her own anger. Heaven had promised Chongba life enough to achieve greatness, and he had given up that life as easily as breathing. He had chosen to become nothing. The girl wanted to scream at him. Her fate had always been nothing. She had never had a choice.
She had been kneeling there for a long time before she noticed the glimmer at Chongba’s neck. The Buddhist amulet. The girl remembered the story of how her father had gone to Wuhuang Monastery to pray for Chongba’s survival, and the promise he had made: that if Chongba survived, he would return to the monastery to be made a monk.
A monastery—where there would be food and shelter and protection.
She felt a stirring at the thought. An awareness of her own life, inside her: that fragile, mysteriously valuable thing that she had clung to so stubbornly throughout everything. She couldn’t imagine giving it up, or how Chongba could have found that option more bearable than continuing. Becoming nothing was the most terrifying thing she could think of—worse even than the fear of hunger, or pain, or any other suffering that could possibly arise from life.
She reached out and touched the amulet. Chongba had become nothing. If he took my fate and died . . . then perhaps I can take his, and live.
Her worst fear might be of becoming nothing, but that didn’t stop her from being afraid of what might lie ahead. Her hands shook so badly that it took her a long time to undress the corpse. She took off her skirt and put on Chongba’s knee-length robe and trousers; untied her hair buns so her hair fell loose like a boy’s; and finally took the amulet from his throat and fastened it around her own.
When she finished she rose and pushed the two bodies into the grave. The father embracing the son to the last. It was hard to cover them; the yellow earth floated out of the grave and made shining clouds under the moon. The girl laid her hoe down. She straightened—then recoiled with horror as her eyes fell upon the two motionless figures on the other side of the filled grave.
It could have been them, alive again. Her father and brother standing in the moonlight. But as instinctively as a new-hatched bird knows a fox, she recognized the terrible presence of something that didn’t—couldn’t—belong to the ordinary human world. Her body shrank and flooded with fear, as she saw the dead.
The ghosts of her father and brother were different from how they had been when alive. Their brown skin had grown pale and powdery, as if brushed with ashes, and they wore rags of bleached-bone white. Instead of being bound in its usual topknot, her father’s hair hung tangled over his shoulders. The ghosts didn’t move; their feet didn’t quite touch the ground. Their empty eyes gazed at nothing. A wordless, incomprehensible murmur issued from between their fixed lips.
The girl stared, paralyzed with terror. It had been a hot day, but all the warmth and life in her seemed to be draining away in response to the ghosts’ emanating chill. She was reminded of the dark, cold touch of nothingness she had felt when she had heard her fate. Her teeth clicked as she shivered. What did it mean, to suddenly see the dead? Was it a Heavenly reminder of the nothing that was all she should be?
She trembled as she wrenched her eyes from the ghosts to where the road lay hidden in the shadow of the hills. She had never imagined leaving Zhongli. But it was Zhu Chongba’s fate to leave. It was his fate to survive.
The chill in the air increased. The girl startled at the touch of something cold, but real. A gentle, pliant strike against her skin—a sensation she had forgotten long ago, and recognized now with the haziness of a dream.
Leaving the blank-eyed ghosts murmuring in the rain, she walked.
The girl came to Wuhuang Monastery on a rainy morning. She found a stone city floating in the clouds, the glazed curves of its green-tiled roofs catching the light far above. Its gates were shut. It was then that the girl learned a peasant’s long-ago promise meant nothing. She was just one of a flood of desperate boys massed before the monastery gate, pleading and crying for admittance. That afternoon, monks in cloud-gray robes emerged and screamed at them to leave. The boys who had been there overnight, and those who had already realized the futility of waiting, staggered away. The monks retreated, taking the bodies of those who had died, and the gates shut behind them.
The girl alone stayed, her forehead bent to the cold monastery stone. One night, then two and then three, through the rain and the increasing cold. She drifted. Now and then, when she wasn’t sure whether she was awake or dreaming, she thought she saw chalky bare feet passing through the edges of her vision. In more lucid moments, when the suffering was at its worst, she thought of her brother. Had he lived, Chongba would have come to Wuhuang; he would have waited as she was waiting. And if this was a trial Chongba could have survived—weak, pampered Chongba, who had given up on life at its first terror—then so could she.
The monks, noticing the child who persisted, doubled their campaign against her. When their screaming failed, they cursed her; when their cursing failed, they beat her. She bore it all. Her body had become a barnacle’s shell, anchoring her to the stone, to life. She stayed. It was all she had left in her to do.
On the fourth afternoon a new monk emerged and stood over the girl. This monk wore a red robe with gold embroidery on the seams and hem, and an air of authority. Though not an old man, his jowls drooped. There was no benevolence in his sharp gaze, but something else the girl distantly recognized: interest.
“Damn, little brother, you’re stubborn,” the monk said in a tone of grudging admiration. “Who are you?”
She had kneeled there for four days, eating nothing, drinking only rainwater. Now she reached for her very last strength. And the boy who had been the Zhu family’s second daughter said, clearly enough for Heaven to hear, “My name is Zhu Chongba.”
Copyright © Shelley Parker-Chan 2021
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