“Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” by Ken Liu

The title of this story is taken from a Chinese idiom built from two literary allusions. A slightly modified version of the historical tale behind “knotting grass” is told by Green Siskin; the historical tale behind “holding ring” refers to a Han Dynasty man who rescued a siskin injured by a hawk, only to find out later that the siskin was the avatar of an immortal who thanked the rescuer with a few jade rings. The idiom usually refers to a deep, abiding sense of gratitude.

The Yangzhou Massacre of 1645 destroyed one of the greatest cities of Ming China and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. It is but one of the many atrocities of the Manchu conquest of China, the total death toll of which has been estimated to number 25 million. For the next two and half centuries, during which the Manchus ruled China under the Qing Dynasty, memories and facts about the conquest were suppressed. As a result, the exact number of victims at Yangzhou may never be known.

Most of what we know about the massacre comes from a small book called An Account of Ten Days at Yangzhou, an eyewitness report of the massacre by a survivor named Wang Xiuchu. The book was proscribed in Qing China, and we know of it only from copies preserved in Japan. Most of the details concerning the massacre in this story are taken from it.

One scene from the book has always haunted me: a description of a few women who apparently survived the massacre by becoming mistresses of the Manchu invaders. What these women did was considered shameful under the cult of chastity that prevailed among some members of the elite culture of late Imperial China, but I believed that there was a story here, suppressed in the margins of a book that was itself suppressed by those whose power was built upon slaughter and rape.

This story is dedicated to the memory of all the victims and heroes of the Yangzhou Massacre, men and women, rich and poor, remembered and forgotten.

~ Ken Liu