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The Valley Spirit


by midgardmetal

The way which can be uttered, is not the eternal Way
The name which can be named, is not the eternal Name

Dao De Jing

One can walk in the shadows for his entire life, knowing not the light or the life, yet assuming that there is little more to the world, that the life itself is akin to the shadows, always changing, ever-present, ever-moving, yet still devoid of colors, any meanings that could be put into it by an observer living in the sun. One can simply assume - or one can simply know, leading a dance into eternity that is life itself which cannot be described with mere words, but only with the movements themselves, shades of graceful pirouettes and ballet jumps that tell the story without words, only with the music and the movement. Life is little more than a dance, always was, and will always be.

There were some who insisted that there are more chances not yet taken - but to some, the very idea was alien, just like a thought that there is anything but the land, the sky, and the Middle Kingdom in between the two. Some others claimed that they knew the way, and could put it into words and phrases, giving new meaning to the same routines or constantly redefining the new ones into a shape more easily understood, only to see it crumble under the weight of unpredictability that was reality itself. But life was a dance - and some took a long time to learn that simple truth.

Zhou Lan was born a simple farmerís daughter a short time after the war, in an unassuming village some distance away from civilization of any kind, the very picture of pastoral stability and peace on the edge of nowhere - hardly a place where one has much time to think of dao and the matters spiritual, but a place where oneís life was governed as much by tradition and superstition as it was by the heavens, where the time itself seemed to have stopped in some kind of idyllic representation of the golden past. Sure, the villagers said, scratching their heads in a momentís amusement, there were all these newfound contraptions sailing the sea, crossing the sky, or traversing the great expanse of the land; there were new ideas in the air, new thoughts on the roles the people were expected to play - but sure, they reasoned, this had nothing to do with their simple lot. As long as the crops were good, they said, who cared for the new age dawning outside of the village, so small that even its name was known only to those who paid undue amounts of attention to the maps of the province?

Elsewhere, the Emperor Guoxing spoke of China awakening; men and women alike fought the Japanese and worked in the factories, providing the nation with the backbone it sorely needed to ascend again; in the sleepy village, these changes were often frowned upon. A womanís place, the elders said, was to toil in the fields and give her husband strong children, who would put yet another generationís sweat and blood back into the soil that gave life to all - not to read, write, think, or have objections when her husband took another, younger wife to share their life with. They danced without knowing it, and the dance went on and on.

"It is your toil in life, daughter," Zhou Lanís mother told her one day as they were sitting near the fireplace on a cold winter night. "Just like it was mine, and my motherís before, and her motherís..." The older womanís thoughts seemed to have trailed away as she watched the embers dance a movement of their own, like a legion of unholy fireflies born out of the fire and the sadness.

"But there has to be more to it," Zhou Lan said. "It simply canít be all."

"Believe me," her mother said, "it is all there is to life. When you are old enough to be married off, and you will have a man and children of your own, you will believe me."

They never spoke of the matter again, the bleak reality of it weighing down on young girlís mind for a long time to come. Summers and winters came by, one by one, drifting through life as it spiraled around them, around the village, around the world that it was completely oblivious to. The election officials came by every few years, and even though the women of the village were told they could now vote, the few that chose to do so only did what their husbands and fathers told them to; otherwise, there were no changes.

It was in the spring of Ď61 that the officer came to the village, rousing it from its sleepy existence for a few moments before the adults went back to their business, and children had to console themselves with the stories of war, adventure, and the world outside that they would forget as mere fairly tales when they themselves were adults, and had to put their own children to sleep. Jiang Qi was a handsome man, with a few scars on his face doing little to diminish his masculine charm to the villageís womenfolk; he was around forty, or so it seemed - a living embodiment of the Empireís strength in war and peace, a veteran of the war that finally decided to return to the village of his birth after spending half of his life in the service of the Emperor. He was a single man, he said, his wife having died some time ago during the war; when asked further about what happened, he grew sullen, and the question was never brought up again. Yet, the stories he told, the wealth he brought with him from his travels - all of it made the fathers with unmarried daughters do their best to arrange for such a son-in-law.

By now, Zhou Lan was sixteen, at the time in life when her features were beginning to grow into adulthood, still tempered with the remnants of childhoodís innocence - just the right age, her father said, for her to be married off. She never even thought of a possibility of what would have happened had she said no; the women in the village were told to obey their men, with no questions asked, yet privately she wondered why it had to be so; Jiangís stories had women fighting side by side with men, working side by side with them - surely, she thought to herself, those women had a say in their destinies. Even the obvious charm of this outsider that her father spoke of as a prospective husband could not make her wonder - was there a place in the world where one could choose their own fate?

But it was life, in all of its unglamorous details; it just went on, no matter what one tried to do. In June, Zhou Lan was married off to Jiang Qi; by December, she was expecting. It was the pattern of life that went on for centuries, and that would not have been broken for centuries more, the eternal cycle that is independent of who is observing it, the powers that be outside of the quiet little world or even those inside of it; all that mattered was the dance.

"Do you read all of these?" she asked of her husband, looking at a collection of books on his shelf, weathered and battered, yet still carefully preserved through the years.

"Why would you need to read them more than once?" he asked back, surprised that she was taking any interest in the books.

"Have you ever heard a story," she said, "that, when told to you a second time, meant something different from the first time youíve heard it?"

He did not say anything, thinking for a moment. Had he been just another one of the villagers, she thought, he would have probably hit her that very moment for questioning him; but Jiang Qi was silent.

"Did I say something wrong?" she queried cautiously, wondering if he had the same attitudes hidden deep inside of him as the rest of them did; the village life had a certain way of drawing one in, even if one was averse to it in the first place.

"No, Lan," he replied, still deep within his thoughts. "Sometimes, you just have to learn to accept that which is coming your way - reliving it again makes little sense."

"Will you teach me how to read, then?" she asked, hoping that she was not trying his patience.

"Not like youíd ever need it in this place," he chuckled, and the sound reverberated through the room. "But, I suppose, why the hell not?"

By the time Zhou Lan gave birth to their daughter, she could get through some of the simpler texts; within the next year, she thought that she could try to handle a more difficult text. It was not an easy life; work on the farm by day, caring for young Wei at night - leaving very little time for her to read. The circle was continuing - yet for the first time, Zhou Lan thought that there was a new factor in the equation, that perhaps, there was indeed more to the world than old wivesí tales - and that one day, she might actually see more of it.

It was some time in Ď63 that she began thinking of what might lay ahead. One future was clear and obvious - take the life placed in front of her, just like her mother has done years ago, being a wife and a mother - and nothing more. Perhaps it was the youthful idealism still living within her being; perhaps it was something else. But Zhou Lan rarely stopped to contemplate these things; it was a matter of different choice that she thought of.

It was a shame, she thought, to be confined to the village for the rest of her life. For a moment, she considered sharing these thoughts with Jiang Qi - then, deciding against it. He certainly seemed happy in his simple existence, living like an aristocrat in a village where even his modest pay seemed like a kingís ransom; he did not want change. She wondered what made him decide to come back to the village; had she ever heard of Caesar, she might have found a saying attributed to him apt. But for her, she thought, there had to be something more.

She was eighteen now, already a mother; she wondered how long would it be until she would be telling the same thing to Wei, now sleeping in her crib. Zhou Lan was angry at the thought; it made her want to scream in impotent frustration. It was the same line of thinking, she realized, that enslaved all of those who chose to submit to it - everyone she knew. Even Jiang Qi was a subject to the circle of life, and, she thought, he was the worst one of them all - for he had a chance to escape, and chose to come back instead. Then, she knew that the second choice was the right one.

Zhou Lan spent much of the next year thinking and planning ahead, counting days until the election officials drove through in their vehicles, stopping only to collect the ballots before heading back to civilization. The roads leading to the village were best described as makeshift, with modernization of the rest of the nation stopping somewhere beyond the visible horizon; there was no regular traffic coming in or going out, other than a few trucks that somehow made their way into the interior. Even if she could take one of them, she thought, she could not drive it.

One might have considered Zhou Lanís struggle futile if told of it; some might say that plans, contemplation, and efforts might be for naught if one does not find peace within themselves. But to her, it mattered little; there was a chance at freedom, and she was going to take it, even if she had to sneak out of the village in one of the officialsí own vehicles.

The tale of Zhou Lanís escape could have probably made a good story in itself - but it is hardly a pivotal point of her life, or of what followed. It would suffice to say that in Ď65, she found herself in Nanjing, barely able to make the ends meet for herself and her daughter by working at a textile factory, operating machinery that would have made anything in her home village seem like miraculous works of the gods, yet that was about as mundane for the city dwellers as it got.

The city life was even more different from that in the village than she had imagined, she thought as she lay in bed staring at the ceiling of her tiny apartment. Yet, for the first time in her life, she thought that she had something that was always denied to her, and that would not be denied to her child - freedom, an ability to choose for herself. Zhou Lan wondered what her husband was doing back in the village, if he was still looking for her; she hoped she would never be found and made to go back to that place.

It might have been a long exhausting day; it might have been the cries of baby Wei that kept her up all night before; it might have been simply that she felt like she was falling into the same trap that captured the lives and minds of her family. That night, she decided that freedom mattered little if one could not take advantage of it - and she was determined to do exactly that.

Some people try to take life not for what it is, but for what it might be; some simply live. Zhou Lan could do neither - but she did not need to. It would be still some years before the Children of Wensheng made their presence a fact, and even more time before a woman of humble birth could have realistically hoped for much more than achieving status through being a mistress to a man in power, but it was little deterrent to her; after all, she thought, no one thought that escaping the village was possible either.

She was twenty, still in the height of her natural beauty and health, unencumbered with fears that keep much older people down; she was alive, and she decided to make the best of it. For a brief moment, she considered finding herself a man that would offer her a quick, easy way up - then, she reconsidered. There was no one but her daughter with her when she made her escape from the nearly medieval world she was born into; she did not need someone else to propel her upwards.

Perhaps it was this pride, or the sheer stubbornness that kept her afloat and moving forward; but the next time our story catches up with Zhou Lan, she was an owner of a small grocery store, clawing her way out of the loans taken to pay for it, and hoping for a better tomorrow. It was already 1970, and the world kept on moving on - Cold Wars, nuclear detonations, space launches, the grinding gears of politics moving along as liberal Kang Sitong, soon to be Emperor Wensheng, was preparing to take over the reins from his ailing father.

The last five years made Zhou Lan into a harder, stronger woman; gone was the childish innocence that once made her ask of her mother what could have been. A more sentimental person might have kept on wondering what happened to her family; she did not give it much thought. After all, Zhao Lan reasoned, business was business, and nothing could have stood in a way of her dream. She turned away many a would-be suitor; there would be time for pleasure later, she thought. Now, only one thing mattered.

It was already late, and the store was getting ready to close for the night; Zhou Lan has dismissed the clerk, and was checking the register when the door bell rang. She raised her eyes, and saw an older woman with a dignified air about her standing just in front of the stand, studying a magazine.

"May I assist you, Maíam?" she asked, silently cursing herself for thinking the day was almost over.

"Most certainly," the lady smiled coldly. "May I speak to a manager on duty?"

"That would be me," said Zhou Lan with a tired smile of her own. "The manager, and the owner of this establishment."

There was a look of surprise on the older womanís face. "Then, I must comment," she said slowly, "you have done rather well for yourself. I was going to complain about seeing a pretty young lady such as yourself working all the time."

"Thatís just life," Zhou Lan said. "It demands some sacrifices."

"It is different," the old woman said, "now that you mentioned it. I am Xie Bingying," she introduced herself, offering a hand in a Western manner. Zhao Lan shook it; the handshake was firm.

"THE Xie Bingying?" Zhou Lan asked in amazement. "Please take no offense to it, but I would have thought that someone with your reputation would have been frequenting a more... prestigious establishment."

"I like it here," the older woman said. "This place is well-ran, the service is always good, and what you donít have in selection, you make up for with prices."

They talked for much of the next hour, surprised at the length of their conversation as much as at the thoughts they might have had in common. The famous author was a pleasant person to talk with, Zhou Lan thought; she felt like that woman understood at least some of her struggles and predicaments. At the end of the conversation, they exchanged phone numbers, with a promise to continue it at a later time.

Time went on; Zhou Lanís business began to prosper, much in thanks to the publicity provided by Xie Bingyingís latest book. Unwittingly, she became somewhat of a poster child for the Wensheng generation, embodying the principles that it chose to adopt, married with the core of the previous generation, born out of struggle, war, and chaos. She managed to finally pay for a divorce from her one-time husband, making it legal in word as well as in deed; still, she never managed to keep a relationship going even as her daughter was beginning to enter her own teenage years.

There were days when she wondered if there was any meaning to life, as she browsed through Weiís school grades with a disappointed eye. It was becoming clear to Zhao Lan that her daughter did not possess the same kind of fierce determination that she herself had; Wei was more interested in all the things teenagers tend to take for granted, the music, the films, the boys... To Zhou Lan, much of these were alien; she had no idea who some of the actors and actresses on the posters in Weiís room were, her own favorite, Ruan Lingyu being nowhere to be found on them. She was not even thirty two yet, and yet, she began to feel rather hollow inside.

She sat on her Anji sofa, absent-mindedly switching the channels on a television; for once, she could afford the creature comforts that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable for her. Wei was at a friendís apartment; now, she did not need to deal with much of the day-to-day business of running the business, leaving it to subordinates of various kinds. She was getting ready to open her third store, this time in a more prestigious part of the city, serving a different kind of clientele; the plans were all packed into a large folder, yet she had little inclination to go over them.

She took out her copy of "Dao De Jing", similar to the one that her former husband once had on his bookshelf without even pondering on the nature of things within.

The Valley Spirit never dies
It is named the Mysterious Female.
And the doorway of the Mysterious Female
Is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang.
It is there within us all the while;
Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry.

The words have given her inspiration on more times than she cared to remember - for the softness carried on a secret strength, the strength that never goes away no matter which pirouette of the fate came up next. She has heard somewhere that the Emperor himself was an admirer of the philosophy; it certainly fit the spirit of the age. Yet the words did not answer the most important of all questions - why? What for?

Zhou Lan has rarely questioned the things that drove her - life either was, or it was not, and there was little point in arguing. Had she been of a more philosophical bent, she would have probably identified with the Valley Spirit, holding the yin and the yang in balance, yet taking on the aspects of both. Some people may think they know what the answer is; she was not one of them. Ah, but had we known it all along, would not have someone told it to all the world?

She watched the images replace one another on a television screen, going from news to a commercial, from commercials to a sports event, and then to something different yet again. Life was going on, whether or not anyone cared, and oneís understanding of self as a central piece of it was slipping away, only to be replaced by a vision of a yet larger universe that is not caring.

It is possible to become one with the universe - but not for the universe to be contained within one. It was then that Zhou Lan thought that she was beginning to grow old.

She began dating, at first sporadically, then, committing herself to a longer relationship. His name was Evgeni Nikolaev, a descendant of the White Russian family settled in Yakutia that she met during a business deal; he was the very antithesis of what Jiang Qi once was, a man with somewhat of an interest in the mystical aspects of life, possessed of a somber disposition and vivid imagination that was much unlike the men raised in the Confucian tradition. He was a bit younger as well, by a magnitude of almost ten years, and still filled with the kind of idealism that only comes from someone who had a safe, reasonable upbringing. Wei did not take kindly to the idea of her mother in a committed relationship, but Zhou Lan reasoned that her daughter was simply going through a rebellious phase, and decided to placate her with an addition to her allowance.

Evgeni moved in some time around Zhou Lanís thirty fourth birthday; previously, the idea of an unmarried couple living together would have been scandalous, but in 1979, it was quickly becoming an accepted norm, even in a society where the patriarchal dominance was as established as it was in China. His family has long been in the business of providing energy to nations across Asia, an increasingly more profitable endeavor ever since the oil scares that plagued the news and kept the stock market on the edge. Ironically, it was his involvement with the business that prompted Zhou Lan to invest in a little known company developing alternative fuels, when the very idea seemed preposterous; as much as Evgeni fumed over this "lack of trust" in his business, even he came to see the wisdom of her decision as the company grew rapidly in the next decade.

But still, the questions remained; one could draw strength from the well of introspection, but for how long? The world kept on moving on, and even the people that thought to have advanced it in some way or the other were still merely parts of it.

"What do you think freedom is," Zhou Lan asked of Evgeni one night, as they lay together, exhausted after making love.

"Who knows?" he replied, holding her close in his arms. "Some might say it is simply an ability to do what you want, with no restraint."

"In your peopleís religion, I believe, it is called ĎGodí", she said, withdrawing somewhat from his embrace. "But is your God free?"

"Maybe it is one of those things that you can think of," he said, "that you can always recognize when you see them, but that are never quite describable."

"The way which can be uttered, is not the eternal Way," she quoted, puzzling him.

"Is this something from that book of yours?" he queried. For all his ability to speak her language, he was still barely competent in reading Mandarin; "Dao De Jing" was still years beyond him.

"It is," she acknowledged. "Sometimes I ponder on what it is supposed to mean."

"Have you figured it out yet?"

"Just the second I think I have," she smiled, "something else comes up, changing my outlook completely. And then, I donít know."

"Maybe it is not to know," he said, drawing her closer to him and kissing her on the forehead. "It might be just to feel."

She thought about it long and hard in the following years, that one simple conversation with a man of the alien, strange society that was her companion in life. She could never admit to herself that she loved him; he never said it to her. They never went through a proper marriage ceremony, even if they acted as if they were husband and wife in public and in private, Weiís objections aside - and when a plane crash in Ď89 took Evgeni away from her, Zhou Lan could reflect on the years they spent together as quite possibly the happiest years of her life.

Sometimes, she wondered if she could have ever answered his question - has she figured it out in any shape or form? The further on it went, the less certain she was that she could ever know what it meant.

It was in Ď91 that the world woke up to the news that a cheap, efficient fuel cell was created in a Beijing laboratory; almost overnight, Zhou Lanís holdings in the company that developed it put her on the list of a hundred wealthiest people in China. By then, her chain of grocery stores has all but exorcized most of the competition from Nanjing, tempered in its spread across the country only by the anti-monopoly regulations the government placed on the business; even without her newly profitable involvement in the energy business, she knew she was going to leave Wei a virtual corporate empire.

By now, her daughter was no longer a scrawny teenager of years past, growing into a young woman who never had to face the adversities of her motherís youth, independent and carefree. Wei was now living in Los Angeles with an American man she met while at college in the United States; last Zhou Lan heard, they were planning on getting married some time in the next year. The times when Sinophobia ruled in the United States were now long past, and the ability to freely visit most of the world was simply one of the advantages of being a Chinese citizen.

And still, Zhou Lan had no answer, choosing instead simply to do what she knew how to do best. Sales, financial statements, charts, projections - all of these were set in a neat, organized fashion on a desk in her office, where some of the employees almost openly wondered what drove this slim, fragile, and still attractive-looking even at forty six woman to keep on achieving.

She worked just as hard, if not harder than she has before; sometimes, when her lack of formal education made it difficult to deal with the more complex issues, she simply delegated the duties to the others. Several times over the last year she tried to talk Wei into joining the business, every time meeting with the same kind of rebuttal. Zhou Lan had a hard time reconciling with her daughter after her loverís death - but after all, she reasoned, Wei was blood; there was no one else left to take over. Zhou Lan hoped that perhaps her future American son-in-law would be able to talk some sense into Wei at some point or the other; so far, the hope seemed vain.

She looked at the stack of letters piling up in her inbox, frowning at the idea of a mess. Some were from the business associates; some were the kind of junk mail that tends to penetrate even the most dutiful, observant secretaries. All useless, she thought, browsing through them until one particular letter attracted her attention.

It was a small, unassuming envelope with an address written out as to barely make it legible; apparently, the sender did not have a very good command of the written language. Zhou Lan looked at the return address, and almost instantly, her heartbeat rate jumped up.

She opened the envelope, holding her breath at the kind of news it might have carried. Over the years she has practically lost any kind of contact with the village she was born in, having not thought much of the people she left behind, yet here was a reminder of her roots, just where she came from. Evgeni might have said some kind of nonsense about the angel of pride, taken down through abandonment of his promises; Zhou Lan was not in the least missing his presence now.

It was a simple note, merely stating that her father had recently died, and her presence was anticipated at the funeral. She put the note down, covering her face with her arms, not sure what to do. Somehow, she has just assumed that the entire life she left behind was in some other, different world not connected to her own - and yet in one moment, the illusion came crashing down, exposing the very frailty of its essence and bringing its shattered skeleton back to life. She wished someone - anyone were here to advice her on what to do.

Then, she straightened herself up, turning her face into a perfectly attuned mask all over again; there was no need for anyone to see her crying. Life was simply going on, an eternal dance that even the Valley Spirit herself could not stop - how could she, Zhou Lan, attempt to do that?

She took a private jet as far as she could, switching the method of transportation to automobile as she got closer. It was getting close to winter, and the sky breathed with promises of the coming snow, hanging just overhead, not far above the fallow ground; the fields were strewn through with the threads of power lines. It has been twenty six years, she realized, since she left the village, never thinking her path would lead her back towards where she came from; twenty six long years during which she rose from a nearly illiterate single mother working a factory job to become one of the wealthiest women in China - nay, in the world, she thought. And yet, something inside was still the same - the drive, the ambition, the desire to do something with her life that morphed not only into simply doing the one thing she knew how to do, but also into asking the never answered question - why?

Therefore just as we take advantage of what is,
We should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

She disembarked from her vehicle on the main street of the village, now paved. The houses themselves seemed a little cleaner, less rugged than she remembered them; there were power lines throughout the entire settlement. She noticed a few children with looks of innocent curiosity examining her and the vehicle that brought her here, surrounded by a small herd of pigs. At least one thing certainly did not change, she thought wryly to herself; first and foremost, this has been a rural village where the people still put much time into raising livestock.

By now, there was a small crowd gathered around her; none of the faces seemed familiar. The clothes they were wearing were now much more akin to those worn in the cities, the ever-present jeans and shirts with the symbols of companies and musicians both Chinese and foreign having replaced the garments she remembered. The people themselves were largely young, for the most part not exceeding Weiís age, as she realized. There were only a few that could have remembered her, and she recognized none.

"Lan?" she heard a voice of an old woman, barely able to walk. "Youíre here, daughter!"

"Mother?" Zhou Lan asked, almost surprised to see her.

"So you have come to pay last respect to your father?"

"Yes," she said, and knew it was truthful. She might not have had much admiration for an old man - but it was the only way that he knew. She wondered what Wei might think at her own funeral.

"You are late by a week," her mother said. "Heís been put to rest already."

It was an awkward moment, Zhou Lan thought; there were so many things they could have talked about, and yet, she could not bring the words to her tongue. Finally, she forced the words out.

"Mother," she said. "Do you remember when I thought there was going to be more to life?"

The old woman nodded. "You were always the wild one," she said, reminiscing. "Looks like it turned out all right for you."

"There is more," Zhou Lan said. "So much more than I have thought there will be."

"Are you happy?" her mother asked. "Really, Zhou Lan, did the knowledge make you happy?"

"I donít know," she replied, and in a moment, she realized that she was telling the truth. Her entire life was unfolded before her inner eyes, the times that were happy, the times that were not; the struggles that went on in her world, and the knowledge that she was simply a part of the larger world, just like this village was, just like... Just like she was when she was still there, a frightened youth wanting to make her steps outside of the four walls, out of the shadows and into the sun, dancing the jig of eternity on the cold stones of time.

In silence, they went to a grave where the old manís body was buried, placing flowers by the headstone and reminiscing over all that was, all that has gone to become a part of their story. It might not have been glamorous; it might not have been valiant, or any other term that could have been attached to it by the posterity - but it was theirs. Zhou Lan spent much of her life running away from this place, escaping its legacy, only to find herself drawn back to it, if only for a short time - but the truth was, she thought, the village has never left her. Her entire life was an attempt to leave the village behind, to become one with the times that kept changing, moving on forward; the times never stood still.

The dance continued, shadows turning into light and light turning into darkness, and she still did not know what the dance was, or even what the next move was going to be; she simply moved on, in unison with the billions of other dancers in one insane fandango that was the very nature of life, death, and everything in between the two. The Valley Spirit moved on without thinking, without contemplating. Perhaps, she thought of what Evgeni, now deceased, once said, it was not about knowledge of what you are, what you might have become, or what you are placed on this earth to do - but simply about feeling the rhythm of the unholy melody pulsating about, and moving along with it. And then, she knew what the answer was, fleeting, ever-present, and ever-moving. For sometimes, the only thing you can know with absolute certainty is that you do not know.


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