The Heavenly Kingdom
No one would guess that the chubby guy with the frizzy flyaway hair and the kung fu beard sitting at the blackjack table and smelling like a homeless man was China’s most famous international artist. But that’s who he was. A limo had brought him the eighty miles down from Manhattan to Atlantic City—not because he was Xu Fanzhi the famous artist, but because he was Xu Fanzhi the rated blackjack player. Casinos set him up with suites and booze, and for years all he had to do was make a call and a car would pick him up wherever he was in the City and drive him down for a night of gambling.
That night, he was meeting up with his old blackjack buddy, Dingo the Kid. The two went way back to the days before Xu’s stunning ascent into stardom. Dingo had spent the last ten years behind bars with hardened criminals, because he was himself a hardened criminal. He was sharp and fast, and the ugliest guy most people had ever seen. While Xu was chubby with a face as sweet as a Buddha’s, Dingo’s was wizened and mean. Recently released from prison, Dingo had given his old friend a call, and they’d agreed to meet up like old times.
Except it wasn’t old times– since now Xu was rich and famous.
“Are you trying to tell me a famous artist can’t buy himself a decent pair of jeans?” Dingo asked. “Christ, you stink. Why don’t you take a shower?”
They were sitting at a table in Xu’s favorite casino, Lucky Jim’s. The place was a dive. Around its rickety metal tables with grimy felt tops sat some of the grubbiest-looking gamblers in Atlantic City. It stank of $7 gin and cheap cigarettes. But what it lacked in atmosphere, it made up for in gambling. It was still early so the other five spots at their table were empty.
Xu laughed. If anyone could see through his celebrity, it was Dingo. “Do you wanna play cards or not?”
Dingo’s pock-marked face burst into a wicked grin. He placed a 10 chip down and nodded toward the dealer, an ancient looking guy who went by the name of Lucky Jim. No one knew whether he owned the place or not.
Xu put down a 50 chip.
Lucky Jim slapped down the cards in front of them. Dingo had a 3 and a 2. Xu a jack and a king. The dealer had a 10 showing.
“Here we go,” said Dingo, tapping the table for a hit, drawing a queen. Dingo tapped again. Xu frowned at his friend as the dealer put down a seven. Busted. Xu stood, and the dealer turned over a 5. Lucky Jim busted with a seven and tossed a chewed up 50 chip to Xu.
Xu rarely lost, and he probably would have become a pro if his art career taken off. The Europeans in particular loved his stuff –but so did the Americans. Xu found it ironic. When he first came to America in the mid 80s, everyone told him he couldn’t paint. He was practically living on the street before he found he had a knack for Twenty-One.
He didn’t remember exactly how it happened, but one day in the early 90s Xu stopped painting and starting taking photographs. First, he’d traveled back to China to get the shots he needed. Then, returning to New York, the real work would begin. Digitally altering the photos, he played around with things. In one of his earliest pieces, he’d inserted old political slogans from back in the day: Have Fewer kids, raise more pigs, or Let a hundred flowers bloom, in the form of graffiti on the walls of the forbidden city. And in another early work he depicted the gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs at Tiananmen Gate being flown away by a gaggle of geese. Academics wrote papers discussing the way his juxtaposition of iconic images of Chinese culture with those found in Western art history worked to uncover the political and social upheavals of contemporary China. Before long, people were calling him the “Andy Warhol of China.” He wondered what Dingo would say if he told him that one of his recent photographs achieved a record at Sotheby’s selling for over $500K.
Dingo eyed Xu’s stack of chips. “I’m supposed to believe you got famous for digitally tagging Chinese buildings with political slogans—and what, you sell the photos?”
Xu put down a 100 chip. He saw Dingo sheepishly slide a 5 chip into his box. The dealer looked bored.
“But why would people pay thousands of dollars to buy that stuff?”
Thousands of dollars? More like hundreds of thousands of dollars. He thought better of telling that to Dingo, though.
The dealer slapped down more cards. Dingo got a 7 and a 9. Xu drew 5 and a 6, and the dealer showed an 8. Dingo stood. Xu doubled down and drew a jack. The dealer showed his 10 card, collected Dingo’s generous bet for the house, and reluctantly pushed two gleaming 100 chips into Xu’s box.
“I guess I just don’t get it,” Dingo said.
“It’s not like I plan this stuff—it just evolves.”
When Dingo didn’t say anything, he added: “My old man was a well-known calligrapher from Hunan Provence.”
“What does your old man have to do with this?”
“He lost everything during the Cultural Revolution.”
“So, you got a problem with the Communists? At least they fed people.”
They needed to place their bets, but Xu couldn’t help himself. “Yeah—when they weren’t starving people like my old man or shooting people in the head.”
“Is that what happened to your old man?”
“No, but when I was a kid he was labeled an Enemy of the People, and we were all sent to live in China’s Wild West. He spent day after day practicing his calligraphy.”
“Why would he do that?”
“I guess he thought if he could just get the calligraphy right, then everything would be okay.”
“Not really. Before he died, I flew back to China. He said, ‘Son, this is your country. Stop being so polite.’ So I decided to up my game and really DO art. For my old man, you know?”
He knew he’d been lucky with his art. But there was passion behind his work. A convergence of forces.
“But lately, Dingo, I feel like my work is no longer making a difference.”
“I’ll take you at your word that it ever made a difference.”
Xu decided to ignore that crack. “These days, it is the elite buying my stuff. And, well…it doesn’t feel like I am doing anything important anymore. I’m more of a corporation now than an artist.” He would never tell Dingo this, but he had just dropped a new signature dinnerware collection.
“Sounds like you need a new cause? Something to get you up in the morning.”
“Are you two here to play cards or not?” Lucky Jim had grown impatient. “There’s a bar around the corner if you want to yap all night.”
“We’re here to play, don’t worry about us” Dingo said. He glared at the dealer, daring him to say more.
Xu was feeling lucky, so he slid four gleaming royal blue 100 chips into the box. Dingo might as well have whimpered as he offered his only 100 chip for the sacrifice. The dealer gifted Dingo with a 7 and a jack, Xu with two Aces and an 8 for his own up card. Dingo stood, Xu split, and the dealer’s face was stone cold as he gave up a face card for each of Xu’s hands. Double blackjack. After showing his own king, the dealer scooped up Dingo’s chip and constructed two perfect towers of six royal blues each, gliding them into Xu’s box. It was almost too easy.
Roxanne, the waitress who had been around the longest, arrived at their table with a second round of their usual. Dirty martini up for Xu, and a pineapple daiquiri, with an umbrella, for Dingo.
Xu downed his drink while Dingo sipped his daiquiri.
“Time for my break, guys.” Lucky Jim left the table.
“Why does he get breaks? Doesn’t he own the place?” Xu asked.
“Probably doesn’t want the house to lose more to you just yet.” Dingo stood. “I’m going to hustle up some food and get another round of drinks started.”
Xu nodded as his friend walked off. He was tempted to mess with Dingo’s pink umbrella when something across the room caught his attention.
A flash of imperial yellow silk.
What the hell? No one else seemed to have noticed. A figure—was it a ghost?—dressed in imperial yellow robes like a mandarin from the Qing Dynasty was heading his way from the slot room. Xu stood and waved it over.
And with large, steady strides, it marched across the casino and sat down next to him. “Allow me to introduce myself,” it said. “I am Hong Xiuquan.”
Of course. Xu remembered reading about him as a kid. The leader of the most dramatic peasant uprising in all of Chinese history.
It had happened in the mid-1800s, when China was under Manchu rule and the Europeans vultures were trying to nibble off as much of the Empire as they could. The British had even stooped to peddling in opium. But Hong had intervened: after failing the imperial examinations, he set out to transform China into a Christian theocracy. Twenty-million civilians and soldiers had died. And what was even more bizarre was that the man who started it all—the apparition who was now sitting right in front of Xu—had believed himself to be the younger brother Jesus Christ.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Not one to mince words or waste time in formal greetings, let alone worry that Hong had been dead for over a hundred and fifty years, Xu asked: “So, Jesus Christ, eh?”
“No, I am Hong Xiuquan. It is my older brother who is Jesus Christ.”
Xu’s eyes crinkled with delight. “Remind me, Brother Hong, how the hell you came to see yourself as Emperor of the Heavenly Kingdom and Son of God—the Christian God, no less. Mao might have loved you, but, most Chinese think you were batshit crazy.”
“I am not the slightest bit interested in what most Chinese think. Should heaven and earth pass away, even that would change nothing of what happened.” He gazed steadily at Xu. His features were as perfectly proportioned as Xu’s were casually assembled.
Dingo was missing this—though maybe Hong had waited until Xu to be alone to approach him. “So what happened, Brother?” he asked. “You saw a vision? Or was it just a dream?”
“Yes—visions and dreams. Unlike you, Brother Xu, I was born of a very humble background. A family of farmers, we were Hakka people from a village in southern China.”
“My father always held up the Hakka people. Like we Hunanese, there were many great Hakka revolutionaries.”
“Yes, Sun Yat-Sen, Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping…”
“The Soong sisters…”
“Yes, the Soong sisters. But my family were peasants. My father, however, got it in his head that I would become the first Hong to become a scholar. Mainly, it was for no other reason than because I showed such talent–teaching myself to read by the tender age of six. I was a small child. My head was so small my brothers teased me that surely my brain must be small as well… imagine everyone’s surprise when one night at dinner I recited the Four Classics from memory. “
“I bet no one called you ‘small head’ again after that.” Xu couldn’t stifle his laugh.
“Quite so. My father had little choice but to scrimp and save to hire a tutor. Aunts and uncles helped where they could. Before long I passed the First Degree.”
“You must have been way too busy to get tangled up with the Christians. What happened? Was it a foreign woman?” Xu thought of Miranda, an American woman he had met online. What a handful of trouble she was becoming, he thought.
Hong smiled wistfully and shook his imperial head. “No, no. In those days, missionaries were not permitted to bring their wives to Canton. They were confined with the foreign merchants to a small compound located beyond the southern section of the old city wall, alongside the Pearl River. Strictly forbidden to preach outside the compound or to try and convert the native population, they did so on pain of death.”
“Well, telling a missionary they can’t preach is like telling a cat it can’t chase mice.”
Hong nodded thoughtfully. “Verily, that is so. All it took was one or two local converts before these Chinese preachers were risking life and limb to ply the rivers and deliver the Good Word.”
Xu noticed Roxanne was coming with the drinks, but she didn’t seem to notice the apparition sitting next to Xu at the table. Instead she looked him up and down and said: “Dingo told me to tell you he’d be back in ten. He’s waiting for the food.”
“Food?” He popped the olive in his mouth.
“Yeah, he ordered two big steaks– said you are rich and famous now so you can afford it.” She eyed his hair with obvious distaste.
Xu nodded, and after she walked away, he turned back to the apparition and said, “So, what happened?”
The apparition took a deep intake of breath. “It’s hard to say. It was early spring, 1836. I was still deliriously happy after passing the qualifying exam six months prior in Hua, not far from my family village. It was like I had died and gone to heaven. The minute I put on my student robes, people treated me like a celebrity–the honor of the entire village was at stake. And, I was only twenty-two years old.”
“You should have been busy studying all the time, so how the hell did you get tangled up with the Christians?”
“In the city, Chinese converts would stand in the markets or outside pubs handing out pamphlets and preaching. And some handed their pamphlets to students. One day, I took one.”
“But how could a tract on a foreign religion make sense to a Confucian scholar preparing for examinations?”
“Indeed, I scarcely glanced at it at first. But that day, it was hot. I had time to kill before my class, and waiting under an old banyan tree outside the examination hall, I opened the book and briefly read what was an altogether incoherent account of a terrible flood.”
“So, you dreamed about this?”
“No, I thought it was foreign nonsense and promptly forgot every last word. Didn’t I have bigger fish to fry?”
“Certainly you did. What happened next? I read you failed your top-level examinations.”
“I shamed my entire village. I was so dejected I was unable to walk home afterward. I had to hire a sedan chair to bring me back. By the time I arrived, I was delirious with fever. My condition was grave and my family scarcely left my side. It was then I saw the most miraculous vision. My family said it lasted three days and three nights. Of course, you realize the number three is significant to my tale.”
“Not really, but keep going…”
“In my vision I saw a great sedan chair, covered in yellow silk. Attendants in black robes wore elegant Manchu-style satin hats with fur brims with peacock feathers adorning the backs. There were three of these attendants on each side of the sedan, and each carried Manchu bow and arrows. They indicated I should climb into the sedan, which I did. After a short distance, the chair was set down in front of a fantastic gate. With vermilion roof tiles decorated with gilded statues of dragons and phoenixes, the gate led into a garden of great refinement with flowering plum and apricot trees. Before I could feast my eyes on the landscape beyond the gate, however, the most supremely beautiful lady approached the sedan chair. Dressed in light blue silk robes, she had a lavender sash tied around her tiny waist, and she was bathed in a fragrance so exquisite that I suspected I had died and was now in paradise.”
“That certainly sounds promising.”
“Instead of addressing me as Brother, she referred to herself as my “Mother” and said that before my “Father” could see me, I must be cleansed. Her beautiful white hands then reached for her sash whence she removed a short sword. With a decorative handle covered in gold inlay tigers, the sword gleamed like the finest steel swords of ancient Japan. And as I watched in horror, two of the attendants gently held my arms while she plunged the knife into my belly.”
“So, you were in Hell, then, Brother?”
“No, I knew it wasn’t Hell because, though she slit me open like a dead fish, there was no pain, and more than anything, her fragrance was indescribably heavenly. I felt myself in a cloud of perfume– camphor wood, aloeswood, sandalwood, and roses.
“Yes, that is more like paradise—except for the fact that she slit your gut open.”
“That is quite correct, Brother Xu. With her exquisite hands, she scooped out my dirty guts and plopped them in a wooden bucket for disposal. Glancing over to the bucket, I could see worms writhing in the dark mass of my insides. The stench threatened to overpower her delectable perfume. Then, replacing my organs with new ones, she reached for a ceramic vessel. At first it appeared like the most ordinary kind of storage jar people in my village often used to store wine or vinegar…”
“Let me guess: it had a brown glaze with two dragons emblazoned on its surface.”
The ghost of Hong Xiuquan bolted upright as if he had also seen a ghost! “Yes. How do you know? Tell me what you know about this jar.”
Xu downed the second martini and took a breath. “Well, at the time I didn’t think much of it—I meet so many crazy women, you know?”
“Being an artist –and a dissident at that– women often find me irresistible. Anyway, last year—it was mid-winter—this crazy American woman living in Tokyo emailed me. My old buddy who is a poet and literature professor at Peking University apparently had given her my email address. She said they had been lovers. She was extremely eccentric. And unhappily married. This caught my attention, of course.”
“Yes, go on, Brother. I am most interested in this story.”
Xu took a moment to scan the room and wondered where Dingo was. He had no idea how he would explain the apparition—or even if Dingo would be able to see it—but he could really use that drink. He should have asked for a double. The apparition was looking at him expectantly.
“I’ll tell you what I know. The woman, her name is Miranda, was enmeshed with this online pervert. You know, he liked asking women to do things on a webcam and was kind of scumbag, promising to marry them if they did this or that?”
“But in addition to his online occupation, he also had a day job at a museum in Borneo.”
“Yes, at the National Museum of Sarawak in Kuching. The place is famous for its magnificent ethnographical collections—including heirloom jars and Chinese ceramics. And it is this man Larry who discovered the jar.”
“Well, yes. His wife owns the jar. It has been in her family for hundreds of years.”
“So Larry did not exactly discover the jar, then, did he?”
“No.” Xu conceded.
“And what is Miranda’s interest in the dragon jar, exactly?”
“She studies tea ceremony in Japan. You know it?”
“Ah, the tea masters of Japan. Now those fellows really appreciate ceramics.”
“That’s what Miranda said. And it turns out that Larry is not only an insufferable pervert, but he has an endless appetite for bowls and jars. And this jar is the great object of his desire.”
“Yes, I have heard stories of the legendary jars of Borneo. The native peoples have long counted their wealth in the jars. They are said to have magical properties. Lining the halls of the great longhouses upriver, the jars are part of all the great ceremonies of life—from births and weddings to death. Some have even suggested they function as portals into unseen dimensions.”
Xu appreciated Brother Hong’s faith in the jars. “If you think about it,” Xu said, “those large high-fired water-tight vessels must have seemed miraculous when people began hauling them on their backs in baskets over the mountains or paddling them in boats upriver into the forests hundreds of years ago.”
“So then, what is the problem?”
“Not surprisingly given his proclivities, Larry’s wife left him and took her jar back upriver into the rainforest. He wants to get the jar at all costs and has some scheme of getting it designated as an important cultural property.”
“What does Miranda think?”
“She thinks the jar must remain upriver in the forest with Larry’s wife.”
“I see. And what do you think, Brother Xu?”
“I think Borneo is in trouble. People say the forests will be long gone in another two or three decades. From logging and mining to palm oil—and now art, Borneo is being picked clean by vultures.”
“Just like the China of my time, brother.”
Xu was getting worked up: “The tribal art market alone, is worth over $100 million a year. And so people are stealing everything they can get their hands on. I have heard stories of priceless treasures being traded for a Swiss Army knife or a bit of cash only to be sold later in America or Europe for millions.”
“In my day, thieves stole right out of graves.”
“Nothing has changed in the world, has it?” Speaking these words, Xu realized how angry he was at the state of the world. A world where absolutely everything was for sale. Something had to be done about Borneo. After a pause, he continued: “I suppose Miranda wants me to lend my weight –that is to say, my great wealth–to help keep the jar safe in the rainforest. She’s mobilizing all of her ex-lovers to help.” Xu then began to laugh. It started off slowly—like far off thunder—before picking up volume and speed, and before long he was doubled up in laughter.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Brother Xu?”
“I say, you travel to Borneo and meet this pervert.”
“And do what?”
“Make sure that the emperors lose this particular battle.”
Xu was thinking that this was just the cause he had been looking for. Like Dingo said, something to feel excited about. “You’re on,” he said.
The ghost stood up and bowing deeply said, “Farewell and safe travels.” And without another word, the ghost of Hong Xiuquan silently walked back into the slot room.
Dingo the Kidd finally returned with more drinks. “Sorry it took me so long. Steaks are on the way now. And here’s your drink.” He put another dirty martini in front of Xu.
“No problem buddy, I managed to amuse myself,” Xu said. He took a sip.
They spent the rest of the night drinking and playing twenty-one. Dingo managed to win a few hands, and Xu didn’t feel the need to explain his art anymore. In the morning, he would book a ticket to the city of Kuching, on the northern coast of Borneo.
Yes. He was anxious to get this show on the road.
Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, documentary film, and poetry. Her creative writing has appeared in Gulf Coast Journal, the Kyoto Journal, River Teeth/Beautiful Things, Hedgehog Review, Entropy, the Dublin Review of Books, and forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine. She has a monthly column at the science and arts blog 3 Quarks Daily. Her short story “Bare Bones” won the 2020 Calvino Prize, judged by Joyce Carol Oates.