“Immortality” is told in the first person plural by a narrator who represents an entire Chinese town over the course of the twentieth century. The narrator begins by going back to the time of the Chinese imperial dynasties, when members of the imperial family were served by eunuchs who attended to their every need. Eunuchs are men who have had their testicles surgically removed.
This particular town has a history of sending boys to be castrated and serve the emperor and his family. Serving in this way was considered an honorable calling, and the town is proud of the role it has played in producing what were called “Great Papas.” The tradition died out, however, when the last imperial dynasty was overthrown and replaced by republics. By the 1930s, most of the Great Papas lived in poverty in temples around the Forbidden City, which was the imperial palace located at the center of the capital city, Beijing.
In the late 1940s, the communists were victorious in the civil war, and the new rulers promised everyone a prosperous life. In the narrator’s town, a carpenter’s wife becomes pregnant. As the baby grows inside her, she keeps looking at newspaper pictures of the communist dictator. (Historically, the dictator was Mao Zedong, although in the story he is not named.) The narrator reports that there is a saying in China that the more a pregnant woman studies a face, the greater the possibility that the child will resemble that face. So it turns out. The baby boy soon begins to resemble the dictator rather than his father, who was executed by the communists after making some indiscreet remarks about the dictator in a pub. The dictator’s rule is a brutal one, but the townspeople are unaware of this, merely going along with whatever the authorities want them to believe.
The boy’s mother, widowed at the age of eighteen, is given a job as a street sweeper. No one wants to marry her, and she ages rapidly. By the time the boy is ten, she looks sixty. At that time, a famine comes and lasts for three years. (Historically, this is the famine in China that occurred from 1959 to 1961.) It is partly the fault of the communists, for mismanaging the economy. But when the authorities tell the townspeople that the famine is caused by sparrows and rats that ate all their food, the citizens believe them and attempt to kill all the sparrows. (This incident is based on Mao Zedong’s declaration during the famine that sparrows were pests and should be hunted down by the people.) The boy who resembles the dictator tries to sneak a sparrow into his sleeve and take it to his mother to eat, but a bigger boy grabs him and accuses him of stealing the property of the People. The boy is set upon by a mob and beaten until his mother comes to rescue him, telling the mob to look at the boy’s face. The mob freezes when it realizes that the boy looks exactly like the dictator whom they are taught to revere.
After this event, no one in the town ever utters a disrespectful word about the boy’s face, and the older the boy gets, the more he resembles the dictator. After he graduates from high school, the Revolutionary Committee discusses what would be an appropriate job for him. They eventually appoint him as the director of the advisory board to the Revolutionary Committee, which involves no responsibilities at all. The young man prospers, but no young woman will date him, because the word is that marrying this man will either bring the greatest fortune or the greatest misfortune.
When the dictator dies, the people in the town ostentatiously mourn. All entertainment is banned for six months. A year later, the young man, now twenty-eight, is whisked off in an official car to the capital city, where he is to audition as the dictator’s impersonator. His mother is proud of him. The young man spends days in training for his new role, along with other candidates for the position. He succeeds in getting to the final round of competition, with three other men, and wins because he is the one who is adjudged to have best captured the essence of the dictator.
After this, he becomes the sole face that represents the dictator to the nation. He stars in movies about the dictator, and flies across the country appearing in televised celebrations of national holidays. The town hopes that he will marry a local young woman, but it becomes increasingly clear that this will not happen.
Time passes, and the country undergoes social changes as a result of Western influences. People can now buy Western consumer items and watch imported movies. The people in the town begin to realize that their own lives are not as happy as they had been taught to believe, and the capitalist countries are not simply waiting for the Chinese communists to liberate them through the worldwide spread of communism. Biographies and memoirs of the former dictator begin to appear that present the dictator in a bad light. Rumors spread that under his rule, fifty million people died through famine or political persecution. Doubt runs rampant through the people in the town. They are no longer interested in the stories told to them about the dictator’s impersonator by his mother.
The present leader of the nation tries to reignite enthusiasm for communism, but a protest breaks out in the capital city. Thousands of people rally for democracy, but the army fires on the protesters. (Historically, this was the massacre in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in June 1989, in which between five hundred and seven thousand people were killed.) Shortly after that, the “big-brother country,” which is their neighbor, ceases to exist. (This is a reference to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.) The townspeople are confused by all these rapid changes.
The dictator’s impersonator, now in his forties, begins to encounter problems. He has never made love to a woman, and he starts to fantasize about his missed opportunities. He also thinks that no woman is good enough for him, since he is such a great man. He has time free now, and he takes to wandering the streets in disguise. At a stall in an alley, he buys a pornographic book and a biography of the dictator written by his physician of thirty years. The book was banned on publication abroad but has been smuggled into the country from Hong Kong and the United States. (This is a reference to the memoirs of Mao Zedong’s physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, published in the United States in 1994.) The man returns to his room and studies both books. He feels an emptiness he has never known before. He sees in the biography pictures of the dictator with attractive young nurses, and he realizes that being a great man means one can have whatever one wants in the world.
He goes out in the night and finds a prostitute in a karaoke-and-dance bar. They go together to a hotel. The woman’s pimp rushes into their room, impersonating a police officer. He handcuffs the man and photographs him. When the couple realizes who he is, they ask for ten times what they usually request in blackmail money. The man refuses to pay, thinking that his indiscretion will pass unnoticed. But rumors start to spread through the capital about his visit to the brothel. The incriminating pictures circulate until everyone claims to have seen them, and he is fired from his job as the dictator’s impersonator. He is in any case no longer needed, since a new leader has come to power and is seeking someone who resembles him rather than the former dictator to become his impersonator. On a winter’s day, the man returns to his hometown. His mother has died, and he goes to her tomb, where he castrates himself. None of the townspeople knows why he does this, although they all remember the stories of the eunuchs of old, the Great Papas. The man lives on in the town, facing a long barren life. He sits around in the sun and walks to the cemetery at dusk, where he talks to his mother until it is dark. The townspeople pray for him to live forever, as they had prayed for the dictator.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Yiyun Li, Published by Gale Group, 2006