—from the novella The Statues (winner of the TSMC Literature Award 2015), translated into English by Abel Han.
The instant it comes out, “it” becomes him or her.
Nowadays statues are made by machines. That’s a different journey from their ancestors who have a wooden base and soil body. Those statues are mainly Buddhas, with solid forms, and androgynous faces. They are preserved around attractions, being visited or worshiped from time to time. Students of fine arts surround them to draw pictures and middle-aged officials ask them for blessings.
Nowadays, these statues are all made by machines. One line produces the front, the other the back. The workers seal the two halves like Cupid binds lovers. The two parts are connected seemingly seamlessly with the intimacy of lovers, though the line of the seal would hardly escape observant eyes. Fire them. Glaze them. Put them in the stove and take them out. Finally, the rows of white-robed Mother Buddhas are ready, like a group of students, or a troop of soldiers. And then, packed up, sent off, as usual.
It is said that in the olden days, once Buddha statues were finished, monks would be invited to chant mantras to them. But now nobody has the time or the will. A tired worker jokingly asks: Aiya, is Guan Yin male or female? Guan Yin, standing still with a white face and a white robe, holds a jade vase or a baby boy. Another worker feels the statue up and down, and says: It is flat. I don’t know. They start to smoke again, waiting for the trucker in the toilet to take these goods away.
Some people said Guan Yin was the eldest son of Chakravartin, whose name means “perceiving the sounds of the world”. When he became a Buddhist monk, he vowed that whenever human beings had troubles and sufferings, they could recite his name silently, and all their worries would vanish. Others said Mother Buddha was the third Princess of King Miao Zhuang, Miaoshan. The first princess loved liberal arts, the second loved martial arts, but the third only loved Buddhism and attained enlightenment at the Fragrant Mountain. Guan Yin’s sites have since been established everywhere and Guan Yin’s name has been recited by everyone. But who is Guan Yin? Is it male or female?
But what is certain is that Guan Yin is now only a statue, and just like other statues made of clay. In the truck, packed in boxes, they bump along a country road made muddy by recent rain. In the villages, statues, Guan Yin always among them, are offered fruits and food. They have thousands of arms or feet, or hold jade vases or white babies. They grant all wishes, at least the simple ones of rural people. When a village woman tires from knitting a sweater, she may take a look at Guan Yin’s face, and be reminded of how white her own skin used to be. The truck grunts past. The woman realises that it is time to prepare dinner, and puts her half-made sweater down next to Guan Yin. She doesn’t know thousands of Guan Yins are passing by in a sea of faces, heads next to heads, feet next to feet. Among them is hay and newspaper. All the statues are counting mantras on beads, praying they will arrive soon. They didn’t know it would be such a long, grueling trip.
When they finally arrive at the market, their boxes are opened by hands eager to touch them. Some are sent to a Buddhist shop, dark and scented, its chants still echoing several streets away. They are put on the shelves. The other Buddhas and bodhisattvas, their eyes like missionaries, keep an eye on the new statues when no one is around. The old statues comfort the newcomers: Be patient! You will soon be taken away.
Others are sent to the city, put on shelves in shopping malls, or on the stalls of old vendors, right next to Guan Gong, Jesus, or a little dog. The vendors look different but talk the same. The statues fear children the most. They want to touch everything, know everything. Noisy, they come with hands ready to touch every face. But perhaps it is better to have your face touched, no matter how roughly or carelessly, than find yourself hidden away, year after year, in silence, in a box, wrapped in rough cloth, waiting for someone to take you home.
The young Guan Yin says to the old one: Being a Guan Yin is so hard. The old one counts his mantras on beads as usual: Is life easy? The young one says: How long should we wait? The old one says: You’ll just want to come back when taken away. They dare not speak aloud because the Buddhas around them are watching.
A woman lifts up the young Guan Yin. She carefully observes his eyes, his eyebrows, his clothes, his child, his lotus. She takes him, finally. He is packed in a box with silk and satin. The woman, heavy with child, holds groceries in her other hand. Sunlight pours into the box. He can hear what she says to others on the street, over and over again. At home, he is placed on top of a cupboard, where he will remain unseen by visitors, among other useless or forgotten items, like old pencils, used bags or hotel sewing kits. Family members will only look there when helplessly searching for something. Some other statues are there, as well as several toys and an incense burner. On the shelves below, Maitreya is covered in messy clothes and naughty kids. An ivory Great Mao in his Chinese tunic, waves his hand, faces his future. The Four Beauties, Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diao Chan, and Yang Yuhuan, stand in four-coloured clothes, smile behind obscured features. Next to the girls are characters from Journey to the West. If you take a close look, you may notice that Monk Pig is always watching one of the beauties. Guan Gong proclaims that he is made of jade and is perfectly transparent. However, how he holds the Green Dragon Crescent Blade makes it look like a mutton skewer. And everybody knows that he is made in resin, even if he won’t admit it. And a small Jesus. And a Santa Claus. And a Great Wall paperweight. And a pagoda-shaped thermometer. Other dirty toys come and go. A young man’s photo is put on the highest shelf, in a black photo frame. His smirk has developed into black and white, with blurry edges and corners.
There are four people in this family, the Mom, the Dad, the Girl, and in Mom’s womb, the Boy. In this way, the young Guan Yin lives in that family and never comes out, and then, he calls that house home.