Once on a Moonless Night
The intricate narrative of Dai Sijie’s Once on a Moonless Night is composed of stories within stories, arranged so as to give the impression of a timeless tapestry. These various storieswritten texts, tales told, and histories recountedrange from tales of ancient China to twentieth century stories of the last dowager empress and the last emperor of China. They include episodes that take place during Mao Zedong’s China, as well as glimpses of the new, capitalist China.
All this material is contained within the elegant and erudite consciousness of a young, unnamed Frenchwoman. A scholar of the Chinese language, she serves as the narrator of not only her own personal journey but also that of modern China. Her liquid and hypnotic storytelling, in the manner of a modern Scheherazade, invites readers both into her personal life and into an archive of historical incidents and episodes crucial to twentieth century Chinese history.
In addition to its unnamed narrative consciousness, the other unifying feature of this novel is a mysterious ancient scroll on which is written one of the sutras of the Buddha, the first lines of which are also the novel’s title. This scroll, written on an eight-hundred-year-old bolt of silk, relates a Buddhist fable about a man who has stumbled off his path and who finds himself hanging from a single tuft of grass, below which he can see only a dark and unfathomable abyss. There is no way to know what happens next because the scroll has been torn in two. The whereabouts of the missing half are unknown.
The fate of the scroll is mirrored in many of the stories the Frenchwoman hears or readsand by her life as well: Much that she encounters or experiences is incomplete, broken off, or left hanging. The Frenchwoman’s own life is broken in two as a result of what happens to her during her stay in China. Her visit is shaped by her involvement in a quest for the missing part of the scroll and by her love affair with a Chinese man named Tumchooq, who is intimately concerned with the mutilated scroll as well. The story of Tumchooq and his French father Paul d’Ampère are at the heart of the Frenchwoman’s complex narrative.
Another important thread of the narrator’s story concerns the fate of the last emperor, Puyi, who was a puppet of his conniving aunt, the Dowager Empress Cixi. Puyi was deposed in the early twentieth century when a major modern revolution toppled the old imperial system. The story of Puyi, another example of a life broken in two, is integral to the situation of the scroll, which increasingly over the course of the novel becomes a symbol of China itself. The near-mad Puyi took the scroll with him when the Japanese attempted to set him up as their puppet in the province of Manchuria. He impulsively tore it into two pieces with his teeth, throwing the second half from an airplane in mid-flight.
The portion of the scroll that Puyi retained is eventually purchased by a wealthy French scholar, Paul d’Ampère. Here, the story advances some years later into Maoist China and examines the consequences of the revolution, which has led to totalitarian control, absurd mismangement, fanatic persecutions, and harsh punishment for anyone perceived as a dissident. D’Ampère, whose love of China has led him to take Chinese citizenship, is punished both for purchasing the scroll and for his status as an intellectual. He is arrested and imprisoned in a dehumanizing labor camp.
Living in freezing weather, served inedible food, and forced to work mining gems in a suffocating and filthy mine shaft, d’Ampère is still dedicated to understanding the silken scroll, which is written in an ancient tongue called Tumchooq and which he has sewn into his sheepskin jerkin. Despite the ghastly conditions under which he is forced to live, he spends as much time as he can working on this language. He teaches it to his son, named after the language, who has discovered his father’s whereabouts and faithfully visits him. Even though Tumchooq’s hair features some of the red strands that indicate an exotic, red-haired father, he spent his childhood without knowledge of d’Ampère. His mother, now working for the government, kept his father’s disgrace hidden from him.
On a visit to the Forbidden City, once home to Puyi and Cixi, Tumchooq and his boyhood friend Ma come upon a torture chamber. During a playful interrogation, Ma taunts Tumchooq with information about his father, upsetting him to such an extent that he tortures...
(The entire section is 1850 words.)