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Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer (part 3)

The conclusion to a story ("In the building of the Great Wall of China") by this Czech man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Now the Empire definitely is one of our least clarified constructions.  Of course, in Peking among court society there is some clarity about it, however much this may be only in appearance rather than in reality.  Even the best schools' public law and history teachers pretend to have been instructed in these matters and, as it were, fully capable of conveying such knowledge to their students.  The lower one descends among the lesser schools, however, the more palpably recede the doubts about one's own learning, and a half-completed education towers over a few sentences rammed down one's throat over the centuries.  Even if these sentences have lost nothing of their eternal truth; even if they remain unacknowledged in this fog and mist.   

In my opinion it is precisely about the Empire that the people should be asked, since it is among the people that the Empire enjoys its last bastions of support.   Here I can only speak about my own homeland.  Apart from the field deities and their varied and fulfilling service, our thoughts belong solely to the Emperor.  But not to the present Emperor; rather, our thoughts would have belonged to the present Emperor had we known him, or at least known something about him.  We had, of course, always striven, with the only curiosity that ever beset us, to learn about Emperors.  And yet, however strange this may sound, it was hardly possible to learn a thing.  The ploughman who crossed over vast terrains could not tell us anything, either in the neighboring villages, or in the more distant ones; no more helpful were the mariners who rode over all our rivers, including our largest and holiest thoroughfares.  We heard many things, of course, but from these things could not really learn anything at all.   

So great is our land – no fairy tale could match its size, the sky itself barely encompasses it – and Peking is merely a dot, and the Emperor's castle an even smaller dot.  The Emperor as such is certainly great through all the levels of the world.  The living Emperor, however, a man like we are, lies like we do on a bed, which admittedly is more than enough for his size, even if it may be narrow and short.  He sometimes stretches out his limbs just like we do and is very tired, yawning with his gently drawn mouth.  How then are we supposed to know about this thousands of miles to the south, almost on the border of the Tibetan highlands?  Moreover, were a report ever to arrive, even if it actually reached us, it would be late and already long since dated. 

Around the Emperor swarms the glamorous and yet dark mass of the court: evil and enmity in the guise of servants and friends, the counterweight of the Empire, ever ready to shoot the Emperor down from his scale with poison arrows.  The Empire is immortal; but the individual Emperor falls and collapses; even whole dynasties in the end sink into the morass and choke on their own stertorousness.  The people will never know about these struggles and sorrows, just as Johnny-come-latelies and others foreign to the city stand at the end of the congested side streets peacefully gnawing on some food from their pocket, while in the middle of the marketplace in front of them the execution of their master proceeds.     

This relationship is expressed quite well in one of our legends.  The Emperor, as it goes, sent You – You the lonely, You the pitifully oppressed and cursed shadow so tiny in the farthest distance against the Emperor's sun – the Emperor from his deathbed sent You a message.  He had made the messenger kneel before his bed and whispered the message in his ear, and was so interested in the message that he had the messenger whisper it back to him.  The correctness of what was repeated to him was confirmed by a nod, and before all the witnesses to his death – all the obstructive walls were torn down and the dimensions of the Empire formed upon the stairs swinging high and wide in a ring – before all this he briefed and dispatched the messenger.  The messenger set out immediately.  He was a powerful and tireless man of the kind who sticks his arm out and clears a path through a crowd; whenever he meets with resistance, he indicates the sign of the sun on his chest.  In short, he moves forth as easily as no other.  And yet the crowd is enormous; there seems to be no end to their homes and hovels.  Were an open field laid bare, he would flee!  And soon you would hear the magnificent pounding of fists on your door.  Instead, how uselessly does he tire himself!  He forces his way through the chambers of the innermost part of the palace; he will never overcome them; and if he succeeded, nothing would have been gained; he would have to struggle down the steps; and if he succeeded, nothing would have been gained; the courtyards would have to be traversed; and after the courtyards, the second, surrounding palace; then more steps and courtyards; then another palace; and so forth and so on through the millennia; and in the end he would fall out of the outermost door – yet never, never could this happen – and only then would the seat of power lie before him, the middle of the world, overflowing with its sediment.  No one comes through here, much less with a message from a dead man.  And yet you sit by your window as the evening comes and dream up precisely such a legend.

And just as hopelessly and hopefully do our people regard the Emperor.  They do not known which Emperor is currently in power; there are even doubts as to the name of the dynasty.   In school a gamut of such information is inculcated, but the general uncertainty in this regard remains so large that even the best pupil will be caught in its undertow.  In our villages long-dead Emperors are placed on the throne, and that Emperor who lives on only in song recently made a proclamation which our priest left before the altar.  Battles from our most ancient history are only now being fought and, his face glowing, your neighbor falls over your threshold with such a message.  And the imperial women, overfed on their silken cushions, estranged from the sly courtiers of noble mores, swelling up in imperiousness, irritable in their greed, oozing with lust, commit their filthy deeds anew.  The more time passes, the more horrifyingly bright seem the colors, and in a loud wail of anguish, the village at last learns how thousands of years ago an Empress drank the blood of her husband in long draughts.           

Thus the people proceed with the past and present rulers, yet confuse them with the dead.  If ever once – just once – an imperial official were to visit our village by chance on his trip through the province, and impose some demands in the name of the ruler, verify the tax lists, sit in on classes at the school, ask the priest about our doings, and then, before he climbed into his palanquin, summarize everything in drawn-out warnings to the local authorities, then all our faces would be coated with the same smile and a stolen look at one another, and everyone would bend over their children so that the official could not observe them.  The thinking is as follows: he may speak of a dead man just as he may speak of someone alive, but this Emperor is surely long since dead, this dynasty destroyed, and this official is just making fun of us.  Yet so as not to hurt his feelings we will pretend as if we didn't notice.  Only to our present master will we pay any heed, for anything else would be sinful.  And in the dust of the official's rapidly departing palanquin, someone will rise from a broken urn and stamp out this dust as the new master of the village.     

Similarly, people here are as a rule hardly affected by national revolutions or contemporary wars.  I remember one incident from my youth.  An uprising broke out in a neighboring, and yet very distant province.  I cannot recall the reasons for the rebellion, nor are they particularly important for our context: new reasons for uprisings are produced every blessed morning; ours is an excitable nation. Then a flier from the rebels landed in the house of my father.  The flier had been brought by a beggar who had traversed that province.  It was a holiday, I recall, and guests filled our rooms.  In their midst sat a priest studying the flier.  Suddenly everyone began to laugh, the flier was ripped into little pieces, and the beggar – who, by this point, had eaten and drunk his fill – was shoved and chased out the room, scattering everything in his wake, and then went out into the fine day again.  Why?  The dialect of the neighboring province is markedly different from our own, and this is also evident in certain forms of the written language which for us have something of an old-fashioned character about them.  Hardly had the priest read two pages of such stuff when the matter was decided.  Old things, long since heard, long since overcome.  And although cruel life irrefutably spoke through this beggar – at least such is my memory – one shook one's head and laughed, not wanting to hear anything more.  So ready are we to extinguish the present.

Were one to conclude from such memories that we fundamentally have no Emperor at all, one would not be far from the truth.  Over and over again I am obliged to say: there is perhaps no nation in the south more faithful to the Emperor than ours, but this faith does the Emperor no good.  It is true that the holy dragon has stood there obeisantly since time immemorial on his small socle at the edge of our village, blowing his fiery breath towards Peking – and yet Peking itself is more alien to the people in the village than is the afterlife.  Is there really supposed to be a village in which house after house would stand together covering the fields wider than the view possible from our hill, with people clustered together between these houses day and night?  It is harder for us to imagine such a town than to believe that Peking and its Emperor could be one being, perhaps a cloud, transforming itself gradually beneath the sun during the grand course of time.

The consequence of such opinions is a relatively free and unrestrained existence.  Yet in no way without its customs and morals.  In all my travels I have never encountered such purity in this regard as in my homeland.  And yet it is a life not subject to any present-day laws, only heeding orders and warnings handed down to us from ancient times.

I refrain from generalizations and do not claim that this is the case in all the tens of thousands of villages in our province, much less in all five hundred provinces of China.  Yet I may say, on the basis of the many written works that I happen to have read on the subject, as well as on the basis of my own observations – especially during the construction of the Wall there was much human material available to the sensitive mind, as if he were surveying the souls of almost all the provinces – on the basis of all this perhaps I may say that the reigning conception regarding the Emperor indicates again and again and everywhere a certain, general commonality with the conception prevalent in my homeland.  Now this conception should not be classified as a virtue – quite the opposite, in fact.  Yet it is mainly imputable to the government, which in the earth's oldest realm until the present day has still not been able to develop the institution of the Empire with such clarity, or at least has neglected this in favor of other projects, so that the farthest reaches of this realm seemed immediate and unceasing.  On the other hand, there is certainly some weakness in the imaginative powers of a nation who does not wish to draw the Empire from its Pekinese morass to its tributary bosom with all livelihood and presence.  A bosom that wants nothing more than to touch the Empire this once and then to pass on by.    

Thus this conception is no virtue whatsoever.  All the more remarkable is that precisely this weakness seems to be one of the most important means of uniting our nation; indeed, one might even venture to say that this is the foundation upon which we live.  The thorough justification of a reprimand means not to jar our conscience, but, which is much more annoying, our legs.  And for this reason I wish to go no further in the examination of this question.

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