An excerpt from


by Xiaolu Guo

Chatto & Windus 2010




   At that time, the universe has two worlds – the earth with the Mortals and the heaven with the Immortals. At that time, the mountain is scarlet red and the sea flows with the color of blood. At that time, the animals crowd the land that humans have to fight for their space. At that time, the greatest quality a man could have is to be the best archer. At that time, on the red earth, there is a great archer named Houyi.

   With a large bow on his shoulder, Houyi walks rapidly on the wild grass like a leopard passing through the forest. He heads towards Village of White Elephant to help the locals shoot wolves. No animal, wolf, bull, or lion can outrun Houyi’s arrows. Houyi is indeed the master of all archers within the kingdom. 

     The sun is burning above the pine trees, and beneath them Houyi sweats like a young bull. He washes his face in a stream at the foot of the hills, drinking in the clear and sweet water from the mountain. He bites into the sour fruit from a wild pear tree, spitting the hard skin onto his grass shoes. He continues his hiking. He is a man with wild temper, his young beard is thick and strong, always erect in the wind on both sides of his cheeks. Like a sharp knife he will kill anyone who threatens him. And with his great silver bow against the arrows on his back, even tigers fear him and slink from his path.

   In the autumn afternoon, when the heat subsides, in the forest, Houyi manages to shoot three wolves. The first two are instantly killed, the third one is wounded and saved for the autumn sacrifice. The villagers cerebrate their hero. Some thank Houyi with the corn and fish, others offer smoked pork. Loaded with food, carrying his great bow, Houyi leaves the village.  

   Houyi’s young wife, Chang’e, is alone at home. Gathering silk from cocoons, she prepares to weave winter clothes for Houyi. Lonely and wilted, that’s how she feels after she has been married to Houyi. She is only 15, Houyi is 18. But Houyi is never at home, he is a wild man who loves to make war with nature. And Chang’e has been chased and won by him, there is nothing left to be done. Love absent from his mind, he hunts the forest animals.  So the young wife has no one to accompany her in each passing day. In front of their house, there is an old magnolia tree, Chang’e often contemplates its thick leaves and huge white flowers. She feels like a silent and weak petal of a magnolia flower, waiting for the seasons to bring her back to the earth, yet she herself has no weight and no power.

    Every night, Houyi the archer falls asleep straight after supper. His breath is solid and deep, yet beside her husband Chang’e feels a slow death wending towards a motionless life. She sees the shape of her own death beside Houyi’s earthy body. The shape of death, like an ink blot, expands and seeps into the clear area, and eventually swallows the whole visible space, leaving only blackness.



    Before marrying Houyi, Chang’e was a flower picker in the king’s palace. The king was very old. His kingdom was the Southern part of Han China, a land whose tribes ceaselessly fought each other. When Chang’e turned 12 years old she became a servant for one of the king’s wives, and had to look after a garden where three jasmine trees calmly grew. Her job was to pick those white flowers before they came to bloom, then to soak them with iced sugar in a jade jar. After some days the king’s wife would drink the sugared jasmine tea to cure her weak lungs.

   Each jasmine flower in that garden only grew one single petal, a single white petal in the shape of a heart. They were fragile. As soon as the slightest wind blew, the petals would fall like snow. Chang’e had to pick the flowers before the wind came. Chang’e’s young heart endured the monotony of life.

    One day, as Chang’e left the king’s palace to the market to buy sugar, she met Houyi, the man with the great bow. They fell in love at first sight. Very soon she left the King’s jasmine garden, and became the wife of the great archer. Being a young wife, Chang’e raises silkworms under the mulberry trees, cooks rice with chopped tree trunks, washes clothes in a nearby river. She  knows the archer loves her, but her heart drifts inside her empty chest. There is love in her towards him, but somehow it is fading away slowly each night while Houyi sleeps. She doesn’t know what she lives for. She feels again she is back in the old king’s jasmine garden, under the same burning sun, raising her arms, picking each tedious flower for no purpose from one day to the next.



     At that time, above the great Chinese sky, there is a heaven, where all the Immortals live. The Emperor of Heaven has the power to decide who can live there, and who cannot.
     Yet one man is different. Wu Gang, his fate, decided by the impulsive Emperor of Heaven, is to abide in that place between the immortal and mortal. He is the gate keeper holding an axe to guard the South Heaven Gate – the only passage from earth to heaven.

     Motionless and meaningless, Wu Gang leans against the South Heaven Gate, his mind reminiscing moments of his past life on earth. He used to be a woodcutter in a bamboo forest. Somehow the Emperor of Heaven judged Wu Gang to be no ordinary man, but rather the most trustful person on earth. So the Greatest Mind chooses Wu Gang to guard the heavenly gate. Since then Wu Gang has been living in the void. He misses his homeland and misses using his solid axe on solid bamboo. He misses the smell of the earth after the thunderstorms and the sound of the river flowing behind his grass shed. Now he is in limbo, in an interim space, in a lifeless zone where the earth ends and the unreachable heaven begins. He is in a world where there is no sound, no color and no weight in any object. Only Wu Gang’s axe has its firm shape, and perhaps, his own body as well. With the firm shape he can see but can’t feel his own weight. The people chosen by the Emperor of Heaven to become immortals merely pass Wu Gang’s gate.  No one has ever stayed with him, and besides, there is no concrete space by that gate where one could rest or stop for a bit. Wu Gang lives in a flow of air, from which he can only contemplate the earth through the ethereal clouds. Wu Gang is the loneliest being in the universe.

     One day, through deep layers of clouds, Wu Gang eyes catch sight of the beautiful Chang’e while she is standing under a jasmine tree in the King’s garden, the jasmine blossoms falling like snow in the wind. But Chang’e only leans by the tree, gazing at those petals covering her. Rays of light caress her hair and her neck. The gate keeper is stunned by her most delicate beauty. He starts to talk to himself, wishing he could become her companion, to comfort her and to embrace her through life. But how? He is no longer man of flesh, he is only half man half spirit, without any weight and gravity.

    The gazing from the South Heavenly Gate to the jasmine garden continues each passing day. The loneliest man rests against the Gate with his humble axe until the day that Chang’e disappears from the jasmine garden. Wu Gang tries to search for her with his half human eyes, but he loses his sight in the crowd of the human world, he loses his track amongst the smog, rain and smoke, among the shoulders in the market, the feet on the bridges, the hats on the fields. No signs tell Wu Gang where she has gone. In her earthly life, the gate man thinks, she has probably become someone’s wife and stays under a roof, cooking for her family. When he thinks of such a life, his heart grows even colder as his vision of the earth becomes blurred. The solitude of his heart is beginning to grow as hard as a granite stone, he can no longer feel the tender emotion that once possessed him. The day goes on, the night slips away. Wu Gang senses something sorrowful of the world beneath him, yet this sorrow is lost in the thin air and he recognizes no more of the human emotion.



      Then one day the earth becomes unbearably hot. It’s so hot that the hills at the Gobi desert start to burn like a volcano. The bamboo forests in the southern countries are all dry and dead from lack of rain, the pinewoods in the north are burnt into the black ashes. Not mentioning the humans on earth, even the old king has lost his last breath on that day, his corpse is being freezed in ice, to be put in the deep tomb which he has built and prepared for all his lifetime. When people learn that the old king has died,  the whole kingdom is crying in desperation.

     But Houyi the archer, raises his dark eyes towards the sky. He has the eyes that are as sharp as the arrow on his bow. Through the floating clouds and formless wind, he discovers that there are seven suns all together hanging in different directions. In the ancient time, sun is the transformation of the Heaven Bird, there are seven Heaven Birds living in the sky and they are the pets of the greatest Heaven Emperor. Every sun bird is only allowed to come out once every seven days from the heaven. But that day none of them are obedient and they all appear together, not awaring the damage they have done to the earth. The great archer Houyi can’t restrain his anger anymore, furiously he draws the arrow out from his leopard skin sack and places each one on his bow. Whizz, whizz, whizz…one after another, he shoots down six suns in one strike!

    The hills on the Gobi desert suddenly stop burning, and the pinewood gradually slows down its fire, the bamboo forest in the south immediately covered by the rain. Men and women in the fields recover from the terror, tigers and lions walk out from the deep cave and start to roam again in the landscape.
    The next day, the greatest archer Houyi is elected the new king of the country. With Chang’e, he moves into the old king’s palace. And now Chang’e is back in her one petal jasmine tree garden, all trees belong to her, all servants become her servants. She doesn’t need to make the jasmine sugar tea for another woman anymore, instead, King Houyi orders all magicians and herbalists to make the elixir of longivity from all sorts of rare herbs. For many centuries,  people try to make this medicine to live forever, but none of them succeed. Nevertheless each king orders his people continue to make this magic powder. The great archer wants to be immortal, as all the past kings in the history.

    But the Heaven Emperor is in rage. His six pet birds have been killed by the great archer Houyi, how dare that man! Heaven Emperor is pondering how to punish Houyi. In Heaven, there are four level of punishment: the lightest one, is Sorrow, then comes Fear. The third level is the absolute Loneliness. And the most cruel punishment is absolute Despair.  With an impulsive mind, the Heaven Emperor decides that the new king Houyi deserves the highest punishment. As a result, Houyi becomes the most despaired man on earth, he sees no future of the life, he distrusts everyone in the kingdom, he has no belief on love, and he keeps thinking of death in every quiet moment.

     Every night, lying beside Houyi, Chang’e inhales the new king’s most despairing breath,  as it has continued from their past, she perceives their own death – the flesh rotten in the airless tomb, the bones dissolved in the vegetable roots. The death ink is seeping into the night, darkening their life with the absolute obscurity. She fears, fears the future doomed by fate. One night, Chang’e gets up, steals the key from Houyi’s robe, enters the castle where the specialists make the elixir of longevity. She takes the glowing liquid. Then next night, she leaves her bed and does the same again, collecting as much as she can. After three hundred sixty and six days and nights, her task is complete,
she holds in her hand the essence of immortality. One night, she stands under the one petal jasmine tree and swallows all the precious medicine while Houyi lies in depressed sleep. Before the rooster breaks the dawn, she finds herself starting to float, she is flying, flying, and flying. She passes the South Heaven Gate, where Wu Gang is still asleep, and she enters into the shining moon.



   The Emperor of Heaven is angry again. This time he wants to punish Wu Gang for not paying attention to his job, and letting a human being enter the world of the immortals. So the Great Impulsive Mind decides to expel Wu Gang from his job and impose upon him the greatest Sorrow. He sends Wu Gang to the moon to chop a cinnamon tree. This is how the Sorrow comes – as soon as Wu Gang stops chopping the tree, it grows back and he never ends his punishment.

     Wu Gang only wants to be a mortal. Wu Gang hopes to return to the earth and to be a real man. But when he raises his axe on the lonely cinnamon tree in the space of silver, he discovers another human being – Chang’e, the most beautiful girl, the one he saw in a jasmine garden tree. The sight of Chang’e reanimates his heart with a vague emotion, as her face is the most lonely one he has ever encountered, his heart is clutched by that face, but his heart is withered from the long absence of love. He tries to remember how he felt towards people when he was on the earth. He tries to recognize Chang’e,  her human’s emotion, and perhaps, he guesses, the form of her heart that used to be his.

    For those shadowless days and nights on the moon, Wu Gang tries to recover the feeling of his heart while ceaselessly chopping down the stubborn tree. Perhaps, Wu Gang is no longer the most sorrowful man in the universe. He is with Chang’e, who reflects the only recognizable human emotion still remaining inside him. But while the cinnamon leaves keep falling on Chang’e hair, she transforms into a being of absolute solitude. Her soul dwells nowhere. In her formlessness, she understands that a chasm of separation exists between her and the earth, and that she must accept this absolute solitude, for death is no longer her destiny.

    As the image of the earth subsides in Wu Gang’s mind, all he does is to keep cutting that cinnamon tree. He sweats, sweats, and sweats. Then on the earth, there are rains from the sky, drenching the warm soil from time to time, rain that is the sweat of a man’s labour. King Houyi looks upon from his jasmine garden, he can perceive two human shadows on the moon with his great archer’s eyes. He senses that the rains on the earth are borne from that place of silver.

    Each moon lit night, in the absence of Chang’e, the despairing king Houyi steps silently on the withered, one petaled flowers which are deeply buried in his soil. He contemplates the moon, yearning for his long lost companion, in the abyss of absolute solitude.








  © 2004 - 2012 Xiaolu Guo