Li’s collection of stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers , in which “Immortality” appeared, was greeted with universal acclaim. Reviewers admired Li’s treatment of the different ways in which Chinese people came to terms with the dramatic changes in their society during the 1990s and also her many portraits of Chinese immigrants adapting to life in the United States. Publishers Weekly calls the book “A beautifully executed debut collection. . . . These are powerful stories that encapsulate tidily epic grief and longing.” Many reviewers also singled out “Immortality” for comment. Fatema Ahmed in the New York Times Book Review describes it as the most ambitious story in the collection, in which Li takes the reader “on a virtuoso tour” through the turbulence of China’s twentieth century history. Ahmed comments that “The collective first-person narrators, reminiscent of the bereaved neighborhood boys in Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides , are a striking symbol of endurance; like Eugenides’s narrators they, too, outlive the subjects of their story.” For Rodney Welch in the Washington Post “Immortality” is the best story in the collection. Welch writes: In England’s Guardian , Michel Faber comments on the story’s “disquieting blend of realism and fable.” Calling it “the most overtly artful piece” in the collection, Faber writes: “The doppelganger’s career in propaganda movies is handled with deadpan humour, but we are kept off-balance by a piteous parallel narrative about imperial eunuchs and by the sheer horror of quotes from the tyrant’s speeches.” In the Village Voice , Rebecca TuhusDubrow describes “Immortality” as “eerie” and draws attention to the unusual point of view from which it is told: “[T]he first person plural, convey[s], better than any description could, a sense of community that subsumes its constituent selves.” Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on contemporary literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses, first, China’s traditional practice, now discarded, of employing eunuchs as imperial servants; and second, the cult of personality associated with Mao Zedong.
In its short twenty-four pages, Li’s story “Immortality” manages to provide a condensed yet illuminating tour of some of the most bizarre and disturbing aspects of Chinese political culture as it hurtled from one violent change to another through the twentieth century. Much of what Li describes may strike the Western reader as strange, repellant, and sinister, and it will be no surprise that the author chose to leave her homeland and live in a society where freedom and individuality are prized more highly than passive obedience to collective authority. This essay discusses two aspects of the story that are most foreign to the American mind: first, China’s practice, discarded only in the early twentieth century, of employing eunuchs as imperial servants; second, the cult of personality associated with Mao Zedong and the associated limitations of thought that are demanded in a totalitarian society.
Li’s account of the role of eunuchs in China’s imperial dynasties, which takes up the first four pages of “Immortality” is fact not fiction. As Mary M. Anderson explains in her book, Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China , eunuchs were an irreplaceable part of the Chinese imperial system. Since eunuchs were unable to father children and, therefore, had no sons to whom they might seek to hand down political power, it was considered that they would be completely passive and loyal to the emperor. Only eunuchs were allowed to attend the emperor and the ladies of the imperial family as well as the emperor’s large harem. One of the eunuch’s duties was to ensure that no male took advantage of the concubines, since it was considered essential that all the children the concubines bore were fathered by the emperor. As Li makes clear in the story, and as Anderson confirms, some eunuchs, since they were so close to the emperor, did attain positions of power and influence, as well as accumulating considerable wealth. Eunuchs were often put in charge of young princes and would make sure that they exerted as much influence as they could on the future emperor to further their own ambitions.
Eunuchs, who could easily be spotted by their high falsetto voices and characteristic walk— leaning slightly forward, taking short steps, toes turned outward—were resented by the mandarins, the elite members of the Chinese civil service, who could not attain such personal closeness to the emperor. Anderson points out that since it was the mandarins who wrote the histories of China, it is not surprising that eunuchs were presented in such histories as having exerted a bad influence on the country. Despite the bias of the mandarins, however, Anderson regards it as undeniable that the disloyalty of powerful eunuchs, particularly those who served weak emperors who mistrusted their own political advisors and, therefore, became dependent on their eunuchs for advice, did cause great harm to China in various periods of history. This, of course, is a conclusion that the humble inhabitants of the anonymous town in “Immortality,” who are proud of the eunuchs they sent to the palace, would reject as malicious fabrications. They persist in referring to castration as being “cleaned,” a tidy euphemism that disguises the horrific and repellant nature of the practice.
When China’s last imperial dynasty was overthrown, in the early years of the twentieth century, the practice of castrating boys for the purposes of serving the nation’s leaders ended. By mid-century, the most populous nation on earth had adopted communism and was determined to modernize its society and become a great power in the world. It was during these years, from the 1950s to the 1970s, that the so-called cult of personality emerged in China, associated with the towering figure of Mao Zedong. This is the period described in “Immortality” “when the dictator becomes larger than the universe in our nation.” The personality cult was a feature of twentieth century totalitarian regimes. A single leader was elevated to quasi-divine status and was presented as the great liberator of his people. His image appeared everywhere in statues and on billboards, posters, and murals in public places, for the people to contemplate.
The leader was often represented in different guises, in military uniform as revolutionary hero and in civilian clothing as gentle father of the nation. His slogans and teachings were also ever-present, either accompanying the images or quoted by Party officials as well as ordinary people. Bookstores, schools, and libraries were filled with volumes of the leader’s speeches and other writings. For those living in the midst of such a cult, it became almost impossible to think of their country except in terms of the indispensable leader who was the very soul of the nation. Thus in China, as Jonathan Spence explains in his book, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolutions, 1895–1980 , Mao was hailed by the masses as the “great helmsman,” and little books of his sayings were distributed everywhere.
When the Red Guards burned the British legation in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, they chanted that Mao was “the red, red sun in their hearts.” Spence quotes a poem written by a young female textile factory worker that refers to the time when Mao saluted the marching Red Guards from the terrace of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in 1966. The poem conveys the feeling that the great man had the keys to the future in his hands: “Chairman Mao waves his hand at the Gate of Heavenly Peace; / In an instant, history has rolled away so many centuries.” China under Mao Zedong is only one example of the cult of personality. Before Mao, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), who wielded absolute power in the Soviet Union from the 1930s until his death, established a similar cult. Stalin was regarded as virtually a demigod; numerous places in the Soviet Union were renamed after him; writers and artists were compelled to depict him in a heroic light; and schoolchildren were taught that everything valuable and good came from their great leader. As the historian Roy A. Medvedev explains, “The deification of Stalin justified in advance everything he did, everything connected with his name, including new crimes and abuses of power. All the achievements and virtues of socialism were embodied in him.”
The cult of personality was designed to convince the people that the leader was kind and just and wise and did everything for the benefit of the people. Stalin was often known as “Uncle Joe,” for example, which gave him a benevolent image. The truth was markedly different, though, since both Stalin and Mao were responsible for the deaths of millions of their fellow countrymen and women. But for the most part, the brainwashed masses were unable to entertain the notion that their kind and noble leader might also be a man who ordered or condoned mass murder and was indifferent to the value of human life. This was in part because in a totalitarian state the Party controls all the sources of information, so the masses know only what they are permitted to know. But in addition to this limitation, they are trained to think in certain limited grooves. If they are presented with evidence that their leaders are not quite what they seem to be, or they suspect as much, they immediately repress the thought or reinterpret the information they have received.
The classic analysis of the kind of thinking that goes on in totalitarian societies was made by the English novelist and essayist George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four , published in 1949 and set in Oceania, a future totalitarian society in which the cult of personality centers on the infallible, all-knowing leader known as Big Brother. In Oceania, the people are trained from an early age in what is called “crimestop,” a kind of unconscious self-censorship in which a person automatically stops short of any thought that might lead in a heretical direction. Should that process break down, the result is “thoughtcrime,” which is not an actual crime or any act at all, but simply a thought that does goes against the interests of the Party. Should it be discovered, a person can be arrested for thoughtcrime. In “Immortality,” there is a clear example of what Orwell meant by both these terms. When the people from the town visit the memorial to the dead dictator, they see a mass of white paper flowers around the coffin, and some of them, just for a moment, wonder if the flowers are collected each night and resold the following day. But they instantly repress the thought and feel ashamed of themselves for thinking it. In other words, just as a “thoughtcrime” pops up, “crimestop” comes into play. The people have been conditioned and are now incapable of thinking a negative thought about the Party.
Other elements in “Immortality” show how the masses have had their ability to think in a rational manner blunted by the propaganda of the Party. When they discover that their beloved leader is willing to sacrifice half the population of China to American bombs, they direct their anger not at the dictator, to whom they make ostentatious displays of loyalty, but at the United States. Perhaps even more disturbingly, later, when cracks start to appear in the monolithic cult, the people seem indifferent But for the most part, the brainwashed masses were unable to entertain the notion that their kind and noble leader might also be a man who ordered or condoned mass murder and was indifferent to the value of human life.” to the dictator’s crimes. Rumors circulate that fifty million may have died from famine and persecution during his reign, but when the people realize that this is less than the number of people the dictator was willing to sacrifice in a nuclear war, they say, in a matter-of-fact way, “So what is all the fuss about?” Still without the strength to call their leaders to account, they soon acquiesce and even applaud the statements of a later leader who says he is willing to sacrifice many thousands of lives in exchange for social stability. It seems that the long habit of subservience to authoritarian leaders is not an easy one to shake off.
Bryan Aubrey, 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