The Empty Map – Part II


Artwork: "Anatomy of a map" by Renée Reynolds

By William Ellis

At last, I said, “What secrets do you have to show me?”

She laughed: “No secrets, really. These are just a few things I have kept since I was young”.

“How much younger can you get?” I was pushing her a little, now.

“I mean”, she went on, without missing a beat, and still smiling, “from the time when I was a little girl, maybe six or seven years old. There is nothing special, but every time I see you, you always say that you are curious about how I lived”.

She opened the box on her lap. Inside, was a large plastic envelope, of the kind that can hold sheets of stationary without folding, and two smaller boxes: this was China after all.

She slipped out the large envelope first, and took from inside it a neat pile of shiny, brightly colored papers. They were small, a few inches across, rectangular, and, creased. Some were a solid color; most were multicolored, with vivid patterns of bands and waving lines.

“These are candy wrappers”, she said. “My sisters – my girlfriends – and I used to collect them. We would unwrap them very carefully so that they wouldn’t tear. We would spread them out and press them flat; we wanted them to be as smooth as possible.”

She set the papers on the tea table, then opened one of the smaller boxes. Inside were miniature plastic spoons that were not much longer than a toothpick: at one end, each had a tiny scoop; at the other end, each had a little molded shape: a horse-head, a body of a fish, a coin, a sun, a star, or some geometric design.

“We collected these too. They came inside another kind of candy. This was a kind of powder in a plastic package about the size of a matchbox. We would shake out the powder into our mouths. Each package had one spoon. I liked the spoons much more than the candy.”

She set the box on the table. I thought that I knew what she was doing: she was allowing me to inspect, against the poverty of her early life, her childhood yearning to find and keep safe some elements of beauty in the empire of drabness that is China.

She opened the last box. Inside it were cards the size of baseball cards, each with the picture of a heavily made-up man or woman. They were fuzzy at the edges from much handling. Below these were some clippings that I could not yet make out. She showed me the cards one by one. “These are movie stars, or actors on television, or singers that we liked. We thought the men were handsome and we wanted to look like the women. When we began to watch Western movies, we cut clippings of the advertisements and kept them too.” These were the clippings she now showed me. One seemed to leap out at me: Brad Pitt, from “Legends of the Fall”, his blond hair swept away from his forehead, dropping almost to his shoulders. I don’t look like Brad Pitt, but I noticed his hair, and it gave me courage.

“Lucky me”, I hoped, not wanting to wait any longer. I turned towards her. She responded – without hesitation, with a directness that I then did not have words to describe.

I think I have them now. An academic colleague of mine, who has lived long in China, a sixtyish muffen-top with red-rimmed eyes, a walrus moustache, and a taste for the incongruous, spoke to me not long ago of what he called “the wanton innocence of Chinese women”. The occasion of his comment was an article he handed to me, which reported how Western Strip-Club pole dancing has become a popular recreational activity for respectable housewives in Shanghai and Beijing. A photograph headlined the article: hanging from poles like bats, in a variety of positions, were a number of scantily clad Chinese women, some clearly middle-aged.

“They have no context for any of this”, he said. “Look at Batbabe here”. He pointed to a shapely matron hanging from a pole upside down, her hair a black cascade underneath her, her legs spread wide at right angles to her body, in a horizontal line, dead parallel to the floor below. “They hear about something that goes on somewhere else – and if it seems interesting, some of them will try it; they don’t research its social status in the place where it comes from. “And the same is true for how they approach sex. Even if most Chinese women – I actually don’t know – are virgins when they are married, a percentage of them certainly are not. And in China, even a small percentage translates into large numbers. For single women who want sexual experience, there is no settled tradition, as there is here, that tells them how they should behave. So they have to invent, with whatever ideas they’ve happened to come up with. Some of them invent very boldly”.

Diana was very inventive, with the shameless abandon of those whose inspiration for sexual behavior is literature. Her clothes slipped off with such speed it was as if they had been made for quick changes in a magic show. I found myself pressed backward on the couch by an animated, undulating body half the size of my own, which was still fully clothed. How I managed to undress and make it over to the bed with her I do not fully remember (I don’t remember which came first). What remains is the sensation of tumbling in a wave – now breaking over me, now pulling under me, now dragging me below the surface, now tossing me above it, as I gasped for breath. And then the sweat-soaked collapse, her small body sprawled over mine, wet hair in my face, and my shock at seeing blood spots on the sheets: wanton innocence.

Our last two days were like that first, except that each day was longer. She arrived in the early morning, and we left in the late afternoon. So as not to alert her parents, she had cancelled her other lessons, but she pretended to go to them. I do not think that she had many students; but it occurred to me only later that she was losing the income they would have brought her.

Between our sessions of love making, we lay in silence, side by side, embracing. She pressed herself against me, her arm about me, one leg threaded between my legs, her face against my chest, and her head beneath my arm, breathing in unison with my breathing. I did not want to speak, or shift my arm when it fell asleep and needles and pins began to dance and stab. Whenever we shifted apart, as we had to do at last, it felt like the tearing apart of something. I felt myself made smaller than I had been just a moment before. The questions I had asked about the details of her life and the answers she had given me were far away. The canopy was a translucent rose; the muted light it cast tinted our bodies, making them strange to us; I felt we had become different from what we were before

We still talked on our walks to her home – but we were less probing, less specific. I felt, and I think she felt, that vagueness was our friend. It was only near the end of our last afternoon that I broke the spell. We had shifted on the bed and lay side by side, hands held. I asked her why she had chosen me. I wanted to hear that I was wonderful.

“Oh” she said, “it seemed that it was the right time”. After a pause, she added “Of course, I like you very much. You are nice looking. You wanted me – you are not the first foreigner to want me – but you were patient and you waited for me, and that was important. You were interested in me. I also like you because you read books and so do I. You have travelled and I want to do that too. I feel that I am travelling by being with you.” By this time she had turned towards me. She had let my hand go and had raised herself on her elbow. As if in compensation, she placed her other hand on my chest. Her eyes, which I had not often noticed before, were, in the dim light, large and lustrous.

“I feel that too”.

“We are lucky then, no?”

“Very lucky. I don’t think I understand you though.” Actually, I thought that I did understand, well enough, but I wanted her to keep talking.

She smiled. “Because I am a Chinese girl? Or because I am me?”

“Perhaps both.”

“You know, when I first began to talk with Westerners, I noticed something about them. One of them, a nice older man, when I told him I lived in a courtyard house – well, he smiled, and then he said to me, ‘I am going to call you “Miss China”’. It was a joke, but it made me see that many of the Westerners I met were like him. They also were hoping to meet a Miss China, someone who could somehow actually become this country for them. I understood; I wanted them to be Mr. Westerners. Sometimes they asked me questions about Confucius and Buddha and Lao Tzu. I had not read them. Well, I had read Lao Tzu; his book is very short.”

“That’s one reason why so many Westerners have read it.”

“I think so too. But I had not studied Chinese philosophy. Not many Chinese do, only some professors and their students. I know that you have read some Western philosophy; you also want to become a professor. But how many other Westerners have?”

“Not very many”

“You see. But then I began to think. Why shouldn’t I be Miss China? I might like that. At least with some people, some of the time. I love books. I could read some Chinese classics; they weren’t forbidden. So I did. And I do like that. I live in a courtyard house – at first I wondered why my house was so interesting for Westerners, especially for that first old gentleman. But then I knew – they were looking for something different. I am looking for something different too, so it was fine. It was because they were interested in my house that I began to see my house clearly for what it was. I learned about old Chinese buildings and houses.”

“Do you like living there?”

“We have no space. No toilet. I would like to have a place of my own, with a real bathroom and hot water, like this place. But if I could have several rooms of a house like that for myself, and make them comfortable, that would be nice.”

“Is that how you would like to live, then?”

“If I stay here, maybe yes. It would be perfect for – Miss China. But that is not everything I want. For a long time I could not say what else I wanted, except – that I was certain that I wanted something else. It was an English writer who gave me the words. Just one word really. D.H. Lawrence. Have you read him?”

“I have read Sons and Lovers.”

“This is from another novel. Somebody says that he wants ‘singleness’. I knew when I saw that word that it was what I wanted too. Not to be like anyone. Just to live my own way.”

“Is that like Miss China?”

She smiled, with just the hint of a stifled giggle. Her body shifted, her small breasts quivered. “Maybe not.”

Diana had surprised me again, more deeply than before. I had pictured her as growing from her environment unself-consciously, her life unfolding like a leaf or blossom, as if she were a human plant or flower. Even her unexpected sexual ardor could be assimilated to this idea, as an unsophisticated spontaneity. I was much less prepared for the knowing self-creativeness that she had revealed. How did this stand in relation to the girl who collected all the keepsakes she still preserved inside the cardboard box?

Then I surprised myself. I was not disappointed by the loss of my simple sense of her; rather, I was charmed. Of course, I wondered if there was, within her, an underlying pattern that united her different sides. Or whether there was simply dislocation and contradiction between them. Then I surprised myself again. Not that the question was not interesting; it was. It interests me still. It was simply that I knew, whatever the answer to it was, I could not reasonably expect to find it out before I left. And I knew that in one sense, the most important sense, it did not matter. Each side she had shown me had pleased me. Whatever the answer might be, I was happy with Diana.

Before we separated that afternoon, she wrote out her address very carefully in Chinese characters. I gave her my mother’s address in Palo Alto. Neither of us had a mobile phone or an email address. This was 1997, in a time that now seems archaic, the dying days of snail mail.

She also gave me a small clay tea pot that broke in two in my luggage on the flight home (I still have the fragments somewhere). I gave her my copy of Leaves of Grass. After we had dressed, and sat again, our last time, on the sofa, I read to her the obvious poem, the first great poem in English, so far as I know, of urban sexual encounter, the one that begins with the famous lines, so prophetic for the experience of so many in the cities and years that have come thereafter:

Once I pass’d through a populous city, imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions,

But now of all that city I remember only a woman I casually met there who detained me for love of me …

I was conscious, as I was reading, of the self-consciousness and artificiality – indeed, the sentimentality – of my gesture. But I comforted myself by saying that I was taking my cue from Diana. She had learned a role, not as a form of deception, but as a way of satisfying the hopes and expectations of others. Her willingness to learn it was a complement to, and acknowledgement of, the legitimacy of those desires. It was also a way of understanding and accepting the legitimacy of the desires that she had within herself.

In doing all this, she had both found herself and added to herself. She had added to herself again by deciding to be with me. As I read Whitman’s poem, I was acting out the romantic role of the love-struck wanderer, but it was a role that followed naturally from the time that I had passed with her. I had been adding to myself as well, and now, as I read, I was learning a fact of life that is often forgotten: that a performance is not always insincere.


Back home, I rented a room in Oakland, to study for my GRE’s. It was tiny, but it had a view of San Francisco Bay, and it was a comfort to think that the waters of the harbor led to the Pacific and so on to China. Three months after my return, my mother called to say that a letter from China had arrived at her address: a personal letter. My mother, ramrod straight and thin, a divorced and apprehensive woman and with great reserves of bitterness – apprehensive and bitter about me, and my deplorable capacity for enjoyment – said: “I certainly hope that this letter doesn’t mean any nasty trouble”. When the line went dead, I felt that I would be obliged to scrape the frost from the phone.

There was no trouble. Diana’s letter was very short. She wrote:

“Dear Darrell – over the ocean in the sunny state of California. I hope that you are studying hard for your future as a professor of literature. I am well. My health is very good” (“she hasn’t fallen pregnant”, I thought). “I also am studying hard and I believe that my grades will be high this year. I will be proud to graduate.

I wanted to tell you that I am very happy that we met. For a long time now I have known that I wanted to fill my life with adventures. I feel that I have had a very fine adventure with you. You should not feel that you have to write or that you owe me anything. Take very good care of yourself, and please take very special care of your soft, thinning hair. Best Wishes, Diana.”

Eventually I wrote a short note of reply, and copied out onto the envelope her address in characters as carefully as I could. She did not write back. I wondered if the letter had reached her – China’s postal service, at that time, was famously unreliable. Two years later, I got my first email address, and wrote her again, asking her to email me. Again, there was no reply.


This summer I went back to Chengdu. I wanted to revisit Tibet, and Chengdu has a direct flight to Lhasa. I would need a few days in the city to take care of my Tibetan visa. Of course, I wondered what had become of Diana. None of the new internet connectors, Facebook, Twitter, and so on, had given me a clue. I wondered if I would be able to find her, or find out something about her. I did not think it likely.

My thoughts went back and forth. She had certainly moved long ago from her courtyard home, and probably so had her family. But her grandparents might still live there, I thought, if they were still alive. Her neighborhood might be gone; but the guidebook I bought informed me that the Dragontown hostel and its traditional street still existed. Perhaps Diana’s neighborhood had also survived: the guidebook even implied this, with a passing reference to older streets that lay south of Daci temple. I still kept Diana’s address and the map I had made of her quarter. I would revisit it. I also intended to take the same room I had rented years before in the Dragontown Youth Hostel.

When the taxi from the airport dropped me off at the head of the hostel’s traditional street, it was late, a grey afternoon. The street was and was not the street that I remembered. Upturned roofs, brick walls, and arching entrances were there – I seemed to recognize a doorway or two – but everything was new, and few of the buildings looked exactly as they had before. This was not a careful restoration project, of the kind that brought central Warsaw back into being after the Second World War, each building destroyed by the Nazis lovingly rebuilt in its exact details. It was rather a Disneyland imitation of the general outlines of the past, but with little regard for its actual grain.

I did not see a single bicycle repairman or seamstress. The street was filled with new restaurants; there was even a sign for a Starbucks. On the pavements, tourists had replaced the artisans, and they were mostly Chinese tourists. Still, I was able to make out the roof of the hostel, rising behind the wall where the old entrance used to be.

Used to be, but no longer was. The gate was gone. I held my guidebook in front of me, baffled. I saw a backpacker nearby; I walked up to him, and I asked him how to get in.

“Look behind you, mate”, he replied. I turned around. The hostel had moved across the street. So much for renting the same room.

The next day, another day of slate, I went to Daci Temple. I walked there following a route that I had often taken with Diana. Chairman Mao was still holding forth behind the great central square, still casting his destructive spell: the square had been changed beyond recognition. The grass was gone. Now the square was a crowd-filled place with modern fixtures, lamps, fountains, and pavements. In the center, reached by escalators, was a sunken shopping mall.

The city was modern in other ways – also, I thought, for the worse. The newer buildings were larger, more overwhelming, than the buildings that were new before, but I found them just as faceless. The streets were filled with buses and cars, with a density almost American. The sound of traffic was everywhere. I did not remember Chengdu as an especially silent city (except at night, when I walked in Diana’s neighborhood or in the street of the hostel); but now the level of noise had risen to a thoroughly contemporary din.

When I entered Daci temple, I saw that it too, like the hostel’s street, had been refurbished, but the changes had left it closer to the place that I remembered. I paused in front of the main temple building, imagining that a young woman would step out – out of nowhere, out of the smoke still rising, as it had twelve years before, from the sticks of incense.

As I made my way to the Temple’s South Gate, the gate to Diana’s neighborhood, I saw that the grounds had been enlarged and that the temple had more buildings than before. The expansion was in fact very pleasing; the new buildings and the new landscaping merged seamlessly with the old. This gave me hope. I thought, perhaps, that Diana’s neighborhood had indeed survived, and that, even if it had been redone, it might have been treated, not as the street of the hostel, but as the temple had been, with some care.

I walked out the gate; the neighborhood was gone. Gone completely. A blow struck my chest: the destruction was obviously new. I had missed the place I was seeking by just a few weeks. To my right were a couple of new, vaguely old-style structures, probably meant to hold shops. They clearly had just been built: they were not yet open, and rubble left from their construction still lay about. Before me and to my left was a maze of low-lying white-washed walls built to mask the razing of buildings. For several hundred yards there was only the zigzag pattern of these walls, until they reached a line of buildings that had not been torn down. None of these were of Diana’s neighborhood – they were generic concrete apartment blocks, and beyond them, a new cluster of high-risers that I supposed must be built near the river that divides the city in two, into northern and southern halves.

I walked through the streets between the walls. I was alone. From the distance came the muffled sounds of ambient city noise, but nothing sounded that was nearer: a kind of silence at last, but not a silence that breathed. There were a few breaks here and there in the walls; through these I could see weeds and garbage and debris: the decor of urban desolation. Once or twice, I saw charred places on the ground where someone had lit a fire. I thought that I came across Diana’s street, but there was nothing to mark it out. I did not take out my map.

I would not find Diana now, not even a trace of her. All I had to instruct me now was “Li Jie”, her very common Chinese name. Finding a Li Jie in Chengdu (assuming that she still was even there) would be a little like looking for a Mary O’Hara in Ireland. Worse: Chengdu has over twice the population of Ireland. I told myself that I had not actually expected to find her – besides, it was very possible that she would not want to be found. She would be over thirty now. Her life had gone on. Still, I would have liked to have seen her courtyard house again.

Having time on my hands, I kept walking, a little aimlessly. I walked out of the ruins and into the concrete quarters beyond, then out to the river. I looked over to the new high-risers. The one most imposing caught my eye; then I saw the name emblazoned on it: “The Shangri-la”.

“Wonderful,” I said to myself. “Nirvana in forty stories”. I knew what I wanted to do. I made my way along the river (which I barely noticed in my intentness) until I came to the building, and walked inside its looming entrance: the luxuriously appointed ground floor was filled with expensive shops and a café-restaurant. I would not attract any attention; I was not dressed like a backpacker: my hair was cut short (the better to hide thinning hair), and I wore a blue polo shirt and khakis. I got into an elevator, waiting until I could get on one alone, and I rode it to one of the upper floors. When I got out, the corridor was a world away from the flashiness down below. Just a functional high-rise corridor, beige, bleakly lit, with doors at regular intervals. It was clear that the building was not fully occupied: no one was bustling about.

Eventually, I saw what I wanted: an open door to an empty office. I took a deep breath and walked inside as if I owned the space. It was a large room; there was one person there, a cleaning lady, mopping the tiles. She turned a wrinkled face to me, then looked away, stirring a memory inside me.

I walked over to the window and looked down. I put my hands in my pockets. In one, I felt a folded paper. I had good luck in the view: far below, I could see Daci Temple and all of what had once been Diana’s neighborhood. I felt the shock again, with all its force, as if I not known what to expect. All that was left was a tracery of lines – of the streets and the walls that lined them. From this height, the rubble and weeds behind the walls were only a blur. Aside from the tracery, there was nothing: nothing at all remained of Diana’s past. It had literally been taken away.

The successors of Mao were completing his work. Soon, in all of their cubical cities, there would be no place for another Miss China – no one, by studying the home of her birth, would be able to find a surviving past to merge with a sense of herself. I found within me, welling up, a sense of indignation on Diana’s behalf. I wondered again, more sharply now, what after all might have become of her. I calmed myself at last: I summoned up a memory. However much Diana had lost, she would have kept one lasting thing. Her singleness. I thought of her singleness, thinking about it for what seemed a long time, and smiled. I felt sure it would be enough.