Family and Friends · music

Guest Of The Sea (or The Gecko’s Virgin Blood)

In the Tang dynasty geckos were crushed in mortars to prepare a potion, which was then applied to mark a young girl’s arm. If she lost her virginity, its red color would change. This fantastic potion was used to regularly inspect and discipline women. The poet Li Shangyin wrote:

The red Shou Palace lies in Baling’s night time city
In other homes bloody spots marked the arms of wasted beauties.

Li Shangyin was one of the earliest poets to rail against the oppression of women, long before anything comparable emerged in Western literature. Aided by an ambiguous and androgynous language, his poems often evoke the POV of a woman. In doing so, he brings fresh meaning to the notion of a modern poet, or should I say an emancipated poet.

Modern is the most anachronistic of adjectives. It becomes dated and fusty the moment it is said. Modern Times is as modern as a Charlie Chaplin movie. Furthermore, I am so sick and tired of the phrase modern woman. I call for a better label, one that is timeless and prescient. I propose the affirmative woman. This is one who is ambitious, powerful, forward looking, progressive and hopeful – and emancipated. In the 21st Century the emancipation of women radiates eastwards from the United States. Travelling further east, it diminishes as paternalism takes hold. Southwards, towards the Mediterranean and Africa, it largely vanishes into a sea of beliefs that value women as men’s property. Implicit chauvinism here often turns into violent suppression. I associate the West with blue, and the other regions with red. America and Europe become bluer as transgenders and gay families take their places in society.

On a whim, I asked my wife for her personal stories of sexual harassment here in Shenzhen. “Men whistle at me,” she said, “Many times each week as I am walking on the street.” I was shocked because I had never seen it. We men tend to blur our eyesight, softening the edges of a harsh reality. We only have to open our eyes to see it all. However, I refuse to be a perpetual witness, for there would be too many impossible obligations in my mind. I am not that strong a man.  “It’s normal,” she continued, “… for a woman.” She spoke calmly – as one might order a ham sandwich with a hash brown somewhere in a Narragansett deli.

China is a purple country. Shenzhen women are liberated women, although Shenzhen’s liberalism is an outlier among most Chinese cities. Women are regularly pressed to marry before they are thirty, and expected to tend to children and the home. Female infanticide is still practiced in the hinterland. Red traditions (in my sense of the word), together with the recently abolished one child policy, have resulted in more men than women in China.

“I remember my grandmother’s bound feet,” someone said to me. “They were shaped like ice-cream cones. They were bound when she was a child. She was from a good family. She couldn’t walk, and her husband carried her everywhere, even though he was poor.” The woman talks quickly, her eyes surprised – as though she is realizing this strangeness for the first time. However, she has told me this story before. The red stain creeps beneath the fabric of even Shenzhen as it marches ahead. Some subjects, such as wife-beating, are glossed over or ignored.

Here in China, the purple veers between violet and magenta. I am a chauvinist. I instinctively open doors for women and find it hard to cook, although I am trying to change. Chinese women have great strength, and could do fine without the men. My wife is half my size and yet she could lay me flat in an instant, or hoist up my 160 pounds without losing a breath. The women of China also have a back breaking work ethic, and a devotion to the family as they lasso their invisible, silver chains or wifi signals across the country. They also laugh from the belly. It is a pure and healthy bellow, or a radiant, knowing, smile that is rich with understanding and empathy. Mao was incorrect. They hold up more than half the world. Behold the affirmative woman!

海客乘槎上紫氛,  hǎi kè chéng;shèng chá shàng zǐ fēn,

星娥罢织一相闻。  xīng é bà;ba zhī yī xiàng;xiāng wén。

只应不惮牵牛妒,  zhī;zhǐ yīng;yìng bù dàn  qiān niú dù,

聊用支机石赠君。  liáo yòng zhī jī shí zèng jūn。

Above your boat, purple skies and bamboo trees

The Spinning Girl[1] casts a single glance

She should not fear the Cowherd’s jealousy or plans

She offers the King her weaving stone – that’s all

Musical Interlude: Chopin, Barcarolle Op. 60 (Pianist: Mark Obama Ndesandjo)


A masterpiece evoking the gondola songs of Venice as well as fireworks of the spirit, this is perhaps Chopin’s most exuberant composition.


[1] The Cowherd lived in the Milky Way and met his lover, the Spinning Maiden, once a year on a bridge of magpies.

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