The Third Sister Has Returned

25 Sep

Cao Yingji was a Cantonese journalist who liked to be assigned to delve into stories that others ignored or failed to show interest in.

It was a surprise to him when the Canton Newswire Service sent him down to Guanqxi Province, on the border with Viet Nam. This was the Zhuang Autonomous Region, a quiet, sleepy zone with comparatively little industry, whose main occupations were in agriculture and tourism. What of interest and importance ever happened among the population of China’s largest minority ethnic group, the Zhuang? most reporters were apt to wonder.

Short, bright-eyed Yingji was a typical-looking member of the majority Han, but he had always felt fascination with China’s eighteen million Zhuang, with their ancient culture, language, and separate identity.

I will find something of value for my wire service down here in the deep south, he told himself on his train journey across Guandong Province into Quangxi. There must surely be a good story in this growing phenomenon of folk religion revival among the Zhuang, and he intended to uncover and write about it.

Yingji left the bullet train in the northwestern Quangxi city of Guilin and caught the local to Yangshuo, a little to the south. Here he took a room in a hotel and then sought out a correspondent he knew at a city newspaper.

Ma Qibao was a heavy, slow-moving man of Zhuang ancestry. He would have full, intimate knowledge of what was happening here in Yangshuo, Yingji told himself. He found his friend in a small, airless office at the main district newspaper.

The two greeted each other and shook hands. Yingji sat down across a small metal desk from the reporter and began to explain his presence.

“I have been drawn to your city by the coming celebration of the Liu Sanjie tradition. There will be new, additional crowds there to see the ceremonies and dramatic presentations. Reports say that the magnet drawing the Zhuangs by the thousands to Yangshuo is the expectation of the reappearance of the young woman who was the renowned singer of your historic tradition. The idea is spreading to all areas of this province and revivifying the ancient myth concerning Liu Sanjie, the third sister who is remembered for her beauty and heroism.”

Qibao seemed to take on a dreamy look in his eyes. “Every Zhuang child is taught the story of what happened to her. Have you not read the tale of what happened to Liu Sanje, the third sister of her family?”

“Of course, I know the general outline of what makes her so remembered. Sanje was a beautiful girl who sang with a heavenly voice. She created her own songs, as well as singing the classics of her people. She was able to compose songs that are sang to our day as folklore ingredients. She lost her parents when she was a small girl and was raised by her older brother. Her songs sang of the green mountains and sparkling, pure rivers of Quangxi.”

“How did she suffer great evil?” inquired Qibad impatiently.

“It was a rich, powerful landlord who fell in love with her and attempted to take possession of the maiden. His name was Mo and he acted as the local warlord. But Sanjie came to fall in love with a young peasant who was an inspired singer. The two of them swore never to separate, but the evil landlord succeeded in killing her beloved, say some versions of the tale. But most scholars and the masses of Zhuang do not accept that as the true account of her history.

“Others, though, say that the landlord arranged to have Sanjie kidnapped, but that her lover organized the villagers to rescue and save her. The landlord frustrated them by ordering the drowning in a pond of the unfortunate Sanje. That became her tragic fate and the core of her story.”

Qibao smiled with pleasure. “You have read a lot about who she was and what happened to her. I believe you understand the depth and strength of the Zhuang identification with this rebellious songstress.”

“It has been reported that the festival singer who fulfills the role of Sanjie is claiming to be the ancient hero reborn into our time,” softly declared Yingji, leaning forward and staring at the other.

Qibad quit smiling. “The top singer who sings the role of Sanjie is named Tan Jia. She is beautiful, although small and pale in color. A very delicate, finely formed young woman. But she has told many that she is Sanjie reincarnate, that she has returned to life in order to carry forth the ancient mission of the heroine to victorious fulfillment.

“Jia has captured the minds of many who have heard her and threatens to become the leader of great numbers of the Zhuang. No one can foresee how far she shall go and what her goals might become, in time.” Qibao raised his eyes, as if studying and examining the ceiling. “I will take you to the festival site tomorrow, Yingji, so that you can see for yourself where she is going to enact the part of the one she claims that she is.”

“It would help my understanding of what is going on to see the spot where the annual show takes place on the Li Jiang River,” said Yingji with a wide grin. “I will be greatly indebted to you, Qibao.”

The Zhuang newsman drove his tiny auto on the river road toward oddly-shaped Yangshuo Mountain. The landscape was placid and inspiring in its green beauty. Qibao did the talking while Yingji admired the magnificent scenery with awe and wonder.

“We, the Zhuang, make up one-third of the population of Guanxi Province. In ancient times, before the invasions and migrations of the Han people, we were the majority. Our numbers are highest in the western half of Guanxi. Our people form the largest minority ethnic group in all of China, but we have never united into a national movement or political faction of our own.

“The singing festival called the Impression of Liu Sanjie, held in March, is our great holiday occasion. Over 10,000 visitors make up the audience. Many more are expected this year because of the claims made public by the young singer, Tan Jia. Over a hundred singing groups will gather to take part in the grand performance depicting the life and death of Liu Sanjie.

“The natural stage arranged for the performance is over two kilometers long. Twelve mountain peaks form the overwhelming background. Nature itself will create the theater along the Li Jiang River.”

Yingji, thoroughly wonderstruck, gazed with awe at the location where the Singing Festival would soon occur. There was potential for a big, intriguing story concerning the claims of this young singer, Tan Jia, he realized.

The person that the two went to see first was the manager and director of the Liu Sanjie celebration, Zhu Biao. He was a tall, haggard-looking older man of sharp mind and dominance.

He operated from a large, spacious office near the site of the approaching festival. As soon as the two newsmen were seated, he began to describe the startling revelations pronounced by his main singer.

“Tan Jia is unlike any woman who has ever sung this role, for she embodies the very soul of the original Liu Sanjie. Her presence will throw a magical spell over everyone who witnesses it. She shall raise high the consciousness of every single Zhuang here in Guanxi and the neighboring provinces. We will recover much of what has been lost over the endless centuries of time.” He smiled with glowing pride.

Before anyone could continue, the door to the office opened. A small, slender young woman in a long yellow gown-like dress stood there looking in, a look of surprise on her wan face.

All three males stared at her for several moments.

“Do step in, Jia. These two persons are news reporters and they are vitally interested in the coming Festival of Song. I am certain that they will be overjoyed to be introduced to and meet our star singer, the one we know as our Liu Sanjie.”

The singer moved in so that Zhu Biao could go on to introduce her to Yingji and Qibao. She presented a warm, radiant smile to both of them in turn.

The two visitors sat down again, while Biao went on speaking to the three now in his office.

“I have arranged for the televising and internet-transmission of the climax of the Singing Festival. Your voice will reach all of South China, dear Jia.

The latter turned her face to the two reporters. “I hope that my message is able to reach our Zhuang brothers and sisters everywhere. My dream is one of communicating to all of them the love and harmony that I aspire to exemplify and embody. My mission is going to be the restoration of what has been lost by my people, their ancient tempo and spirit of life. That has to exist as it did so long ago.” She seemed to have a mist in front of her ebony eyes.

“I think it would be a good idea for all of us to have dinner together this evening,” proposed Biao in a cheerful tone. “We can meet together at about seven at the Li Jiang Hotel. It is very close and possesses a panoramic view of the entire valley and the range of mountains.”

The correspondents agreed to be there as suggested by the manager.

Biao, in a white tuxedo, and Jia, in a bright red silk dress, were already seated beside the panoramic window overlooking the Li Jiang Valley. Yingji and Qibao took the two vacant seats looking out over the river. When a waiter immediately appeared, all four diners ordered local mountain trout.

“Our Zhuang villagers continue to weave their black and blue folk costumes,” said Biao. “And the younger generation is going back to the ancient traditional clothing, food, and pastimes, dropping the modernism that came from Europe and America. They want to find their almost forgotten identity in old Zhuang culture and folkways.”

Jia continued his train of thought. “Our people spoke many differing dialects of our common tongue, but now we are seeking unification in a single form of standard literary language. And this has become a process in progress everywhere, in all aspects of our life.”

“As the reborn soul of Liu Sanjie, the young singer sitting with us at this table is becoming the symbol of our new-found national unity as one people. The Zhuang know who they are, for they share the memory of the life and message of Liu Sanjie,” declared Biao as their waiter appeared pushing a cart containing their plates of trout.

The diners began eating at once, no one unoccupied enough to say anything.

Only when all four of them were finished, did Biao make a proposal for the rest of the evening. “Why don’t we go down to the river dock and take out one of the motor launches tied up there? There will be a full moon tonight lighting up the whole valley. It should be most impressive indeed.”

Jia said yes, as did the newsmen as well.

The four of them rose and made their way out of the hotel restaurant, Biao and Jia leading the way. In the eastern sky, the reddish moon filled the night sky with a lurid light.

“Stop where you are!” cried an anonymous shouter from one side of the hotel entrance. All at once, men in tan suites emerged from the lawns and bushes on both sides. The foursome halted in their tracks and looked about in shock and alarm.

A huge figure with an ugly, threatening face came up to where the frightened Jia stood next to the festival manager.

“With the authority of the Guoanbu, I place you under arrest. Please move away with my team of associates, Miss Tan.”

Biao and the pair of correspondents stood frozen in position as Jia did as she was ordered to. The three men passively watched as the songstress was taken into custody by agents of the Ministry of State Security.

The Guoanbu team took her to a minibus and drove away without any statement or explanation.

Driving the correspondents back to Yangshuo, Zhu Biao was the one who did most of the talking about what had happened to Jia.

“This has been an historical pivot tonight. The Zhuang nation will not accept the outrage committed against them. Whoever ordered this arrest will regret it, once it is widely known.

“That is where the two of you must play an active part. It will be up to you to see that this does not fall into some dark hole. Your moral task will be to see that there will be widespread knowledge of what happened to the reborn Liu Sanjie, for that is her genuine identity.

“The honor of both of you now depends on what actions you are brave enough to undertake immediately. What do you intend to do for her?”

It was Ma Qibao who gave a first answer.

“I do not see any way that we can do anything positive, none at all. We are all aware of the conditions of media censorship in our society. How can employees of the public press come to the rescue of an arrested individual? It is impossible. I am certain that my colleague here agrees on that.”

Yingji then spoke. “Every newsman is aware of the power of GAPP, the General Administration of the Press and Publication. They can cross out anything that either of us write about this incident. The GAPP will, of course, consult with and follow the advice of the Party Propaganda Department.

“We are unable to help Jia in any way whatsoever.”

An uneasy pause followed, till Biao broke it. “I believe there is a way around the official organs of censorship,” he muttered in a muffled tone.

The newspaper headlines in Guanxi Province and throughout South China were shocking and startling.

“Star singer of Zhuang Song Festival, Tan Jia, suffers sudden death.”

“Liu Sanjie performer unexpectedly expires from unknown causes.”

“Zhuang ethnic population loses its prime symbolic figure to early death.”

In print, over internet cables, by radio and television, the tragic message was broadcast to hundreds of millions in all parts of the PRC.

The public in Quanxi Province felt profound shock and loss.

Crowds gathered on many streets to express and share its grief. Many activities came to an abrupt end.

What did this mean? What was to follow?

Trains and busses heading toward Yangshuo and the Li Jiang River festival site became packed with mourning passengers.

Tens of thousands who believed that Tan Jia was the reborn Liu Sanjie walked about as if lost, without hope or direction of any sort.

Days passed, with Yingji and Qibao remaining close to Zhu Biao, the only person who pretended to know what was going on and what might soon happen.

Within a few days of the arrest of the singer, she was returned home to Yangshuo, her personal freedom restored.

No governmental agency made any public announcement concerning her arrest or subsequent release.

Jia climbed out of an ordinary automobile and walked into the office of the Festival Manager, Zhu Biao.

The latter rushed up to the confused, disheveled singer and embraced her, tears of joy in his eyes. “I know this would happen,” he cried out. “I realized that it had to be proven and established that you were not dead.”

Yingji and Qibao stepped over to where the two stood with arms around each other.

“Guoanbu had to show that you were alive,” murmured Yingji. “How could they allow millions of Zhuang to think that the re-incarnated Liu Sanjie had suddenly lost her life?”

“What happens next?” asked Qibao.

“The Zhuang will now proceed to complete autonomy and self-identity. We shall become an independent, self-governing nation,” declared Biao. “There is nothing that can stop us now that we have our Liu Sanjie back.”

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