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  • The Lily Theater
  • Written by Lulu Wang
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780385489867
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The Lily Theater

A Novel

Written by Lulu WangAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lulu Wang

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The Lily Theater is a strikingly original debut novel-an international literary sensation-based on the author's experience growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution.

When twelve-year-old Lian Shui accompanies her mother to reeducation camp, no one imagines that Lian will receive an education. But detained along with her mother are some of China's greatest thinkers and they take an interest in young Lian. She in turn delivers lectures of her own to the creatures inhabiting a pond she dubs "The Lily Theater." These ideas inform her life when she returns to school and reunites with her best friend Kim, a peasant girl through whom Lian ultimately learns about the painful failings of Mao's teachings-and of life.



Trees were in full bloom, birds were busy courting, and the funny blotches were spreading all up and down my arms. I got up and rubbed the affected areas with the sticky, smelly brown ointment, just as I did every day. I felt lonesome and sad. Never again would I have clean sheets and clean underwear like other children--the ointment made everything filthy.

That morning, at the start of her weekend home leave, Mother took a bath, then put on her best clothes, the ones she used to wear before she was detained. How different she looked, suddenly, after months of slouching around in nothing but rags! I couldn't believe my eyes.

Mother drew a fine leather handbag from the wardrobe and filled it with delicacies that she had bought for a song from the peasants who lived around the labor camp. We were going to visit a former colleague of Father's, a dermatologist. He was retired, so that when the rest of the hospital staff was evacuated he had been allowed to stay home. Unlike Father, who had been exiled to the Gansu desert for six months now.

The dermatologist's wife was ecstatic when she saw the chestnuts and the pickled eggs. "We haven't tasted those in years! What are you bringing us this kind of extravagant present for? Aren't Lian's father and my husband good friends?"

The specialist examined me and then had a talk with Mother, in private. Half an hour later Mother dragged me back home. Her eyes shone with unusual determination and her feet smacked boldly on the pavement.

For weeks now Mother had been writing letters of petition to the various leaders of her university--the Teachers' University of Beijing--in hopes of persuading them that it was essential to have me live close by, so that she could keep an eye on my rapidly worsening condition.

Chemistry class was interrupted by a knock on the door. I was called out and saw Mother standing in the corridor. I was going to ask her how she had managed to return from the reeducation camp again so soon, but on seeing her tense face I decided to keep the question to myself. I had to run to keep up with her as she strode to the office of the director of the Teachers' University.

"Well, well, little Wine-Cup, in the six months since I saw you last, you have grown from a cheeky little girl into a charming young lady!"

I blushed. I wasn't sure how to behave in his presence. I knew him quite well, because he had supervised the project Mother had been working on for the past five years--the Textbook of the Modern History of China. I had often visited Mother's office after school. The director was usually there. He used to tease me about the dimple in my right cheek: "Well, well, if that little Wine-Cup were full of wine, and you were to drink from it until it was all gone, you'd have to go ask your neighbors, 'Remind me, what's my name again?' That's how deep that dimple of yours is, did you know that?" He was friendly toward me.

Mother nudged me forward. "Say good afternoon to the venerable head of the Party Committee of the University!"

Shyly I stepped forward to greet him. But the director had taken a pile of papers out of a drawer in his desk and was reading intently. He looked very stern. The mood in the room had suddenly turned somber; I hardly dared breathe. Without raising his eyes from the papers, he motioned us to two posh leather chairs. Gingerly we sat down.

After a few anxious minutes, he gathered up the papers and said in a hushed voice: "Revolutionary comrade Yang, your dozen or so petitions demand the impossible of me. How on earth can I cut short your detention? Just because you want to take care of your ailing daughter! In the five years since our university's reeducation camp was founded, fourteen hundred people have been sent there, and every single one has had to complete his sentence in full. Even if one falls seriously ill oneself during that time, one has to stay there. Professor Wu--don't you remember?--one of the physics faculty, died in camp of liver cancer. What's a little skin condition compared to that?" His face softened; he sent me a tender look. "Besides, who says that our little Wine-Cup is disfigured by this vitiligo? I only wish my own Laihui were half as pretty . . ." Laihui was his only daughter. She was four years older than I and in the fifth year of my former school.

The compliment did not sit well with Mother, apparently, because she was fidgeting nervously with her handbag. "Most highly respected leader, it is true that the patches have not yet appeared on any exposed areas, such as the hands or the face. But should the poor child be left to her lot much longer and her physical and psychological state continue to deteriorate, then it won't be long before the spots start appearing there as well. I have spoken with a prominent dermatologist, and he tells me that this is a psychosomatic condition. Only with loving care is there any hope of halting the progression of the disease."

The director shrugged.

"Merciful head of the Party Committee, if the illness continues to develop at this rate, Lian will soon find herself shunned in society, stigmatized by her appearance. You yourself are a father. If something like this were to happen to Laihui, how would you feel? Would you not move heaven and earth to save her from such a horrible fate?" She took out a handkerchief to dab at her tears.

"Oh, Yunxiang . . ." Suddenly he was addressing Mother by her first name. "Aren't you exaggerating just a little? A few spots on one's body, what difference does it make?"

"A few spots?" Mother's voice had gone hoarse.

After a pregnant pause, Mother stood up and said, "Lian, take your clothes off so the director can judge for himself whether I am exaggerating or not."

I almost burst out laughing at Mother's hilarious jest. Until I noticed the fierce, determined look on Mother's face. Her expression warned me that I had better not even think of ignoring her command. My eyes swiveled from one to the other: from Mother, who was forcing me to do something that made my flesh crawl--just thinking about it made me wilt with shame--to the man who was sitting there with an indifferent expression on his face. Evidently he thought Mother was creating a mountain out of a molehill. I hesitated, then reluctantly unhooked my belt and eased my trousers down, inch by inch.

When the director saw my skin mottled with unsightly, overlapping white blemishes, he blanched and started combing jittery fingers through his bristly gray hair. Mother, noticing that he was wavering, snatched the opportunity of finishing the business of convincing him. With a hand coarsened by hard labor, she smacked me so hard that I lost my balance and fell down. Without a moment's hesitation, she pounced again, pulling my underpants down to my ankles. Numb with shame, I just lay there whimpering softly. I was afraid the director would get angry with me if I started bawling out loud.

"Lian, child, don't cry," he said, rushing to my side and helping me to my feet. I was choking on my tears and completely forgot to pull my pants back up. "Yunxiang, I never knew you to be so rough with your daughter!"

But Mother was still seething. She gave me a firm kick in the bare ass, grabbed me by the braids, and started dragging me around the office. "You ungrateful brat! What are you sniveling for? Don't you see that I'm doing it for you?"

"Stop it!" the man bellowed, quite unhinged at the sight of my bleached skin and at Mother's hysterical, barbaric behavior. His booming voice brought Mother back to her senses. She put her arms around me, full of self-reproach.

"Yunxiang--" He did not bother to hide his tears. "Here, behind closed doors, I will let you in on my dilemma. If it were up to me, I would have let you come home the day before yesterday for the sake of this child . . . I can't believe my eyes! It's appalling to think that little Lian can have been so mucked up by this goddamn disease in just a matter of half a year . . ." Mother held her breath so she wouldn't miss a single word. "But . . . I cannot propose something that the university's Revolutionary Committee is certain to reject."

Besides students, Red Guards, and campus janitors and furnace stokers, the Committee was composed of second-rate teachers who had nothing better to do than to torment their more successful colleagues in the name of the Revolution. Driven by revenge, ambition and, in some cases, ignorance, they had sold their consciences to the Father, Mother, Lover, and Mistress All-Rolled-into-One. They would not hesitate to dismiss the director from his post and throw him in jail if he dared to show any bleeding-heart concern over some bourgeois intellectual.

"You don't have to revoke my detention. Yesterday I came up with a much better idea. Please give me permission to take Lian with me to my camp."

"Are you out of your mind? What is she to do in such a depressing place? How is she going to go to school?"

"I myself can teach her the basics. And you know as well as I do that my fellow detainees include some of the most brilliant teachers and professors in the country. My daughter will receive a much better education there. And when she is with me, she will feel better and calmer. I swear by Mao the Savior Star that her condition will not spread as quickly as it is doing now."

Helplessly, he shook his head and wrote a note, which he handed over to his secretary.

"Make a kowtow to the gentleman and thank him for his mercy," Mother commanded me. I just stared out the window, stubbornly mute.

It was close to six o'clock when Mother returned to the director's office a second time to pick up a typed document, which stated that as of May twenty-eighth, I had permission to stay in Mother's camp for an indeterminate period of time.

When Mother, singing, served up the evening meal, I refused to eat. I loathed myself. I had taken off my clothes in front of a man who was not a doctor; who, to make it worse, had known me well for four years and had often kidded around with me. I would never forgive Mother for making me do such a scandalous thing.

At night, safe in bed, where I had nothing to fear by way of insult or humiliation, I fantasized I was someone else. Someone who was free as a bird, happy as a little pink cloud in the sky, with normal-looking skin, just like other children. To keep my dream perfect, I decided to smash the mirror in the bathroom--"by accident."


When I arrived back at the Accommodation Center at seven a.m., I found all the other children green with envy. In their eyes, the prospect of leaving the Accommodation Center was tantamount to entering Nirvana. My hatred of Mother evaporated in an instant. It was Mother, after all, who was making it possible for me to leave this wretched place, and I was sure that I would get better once I was with Mother again. For the first time in weeks I found myself cracking a smile. But even in that split second of glee, I was haunted by the mental picture of myself standing in the director's office naked from the waist down. What a mortifying price I had paid for my freedom! Should I hate Mother for being such a mean witch, or should I be grateful to her for rescuing me from the sickening loneliness and the lonely sickness that had held me captive until now?

In the afternoon, I strode cheerfully down the corridor of the Western-Capitalists-Are-Grasshoppers-After-the-Harvest-Is-over Building. Now that I could look forward to leaving, relief settled over me. It had been a long time since I had felt so relaxed. Only now did I realize how little notice I had taken of what was going on with the other students around me over the past months--my affliction had sucked up all my attention. I suddenly realized that Qiuju, who used to look like a sturdy little peasant, was weak and pallid. Qiuju had all sorts of big and little paper bags lying next to her pillow. They were full of pills. I waited patiently until Qiuju was out of the room and then asked Zhuoyue what was the matter with her.

"Didn't you know? She's had nephritis for a month now. Didn't you notice her eyelids? As swollen as two walnuts! If you didn't know better, you'd think she was constantly bawling her eyes out. It's because of the edema, it's a symptom of her kidney infection, says Mrs. Liu. Want me to tell you how many times she gets up to go to the toilet at night? Eight times. I swear on the Little Red Book, it's true! I counted, once. Mrs. Liu takes her to the hospital once a week. She has to pee in a little bottle." She pointed to a fiery red scarf and whispered in my ear, "Grandpa Heaven! It's that color!"

I looked at Zhuoyue. I'm sorry, but you don't look all that well yourself, I thought. Zhuoyue's cheeks were sunken; her face was yellower than saffron.

"Oh, don't worry!" Zhuoyue, noticing my piercing look, slapped her cheeks to splash some color into them and raked her fingers through her lusterless hair. "I don't have jaundice, you mustn't think that. It's just that I'm beginning to look more like my father. He has naturally yellow skin. Mrs. Liu has taken me to the clinic to have me checked at least five times. It's only that my CT-count is a little high. The doctor says most patients suffering from hepatitis have high cholesterol, but the opposite doesn't necessarily hold true . . . What, don't you believe me? If a single word is a lie, may Buddha reward me with a cold sore on my lip!"

However strenuously Zhuoyue might protest that she wasn't as sick as Qiuju, it was as clear as daylight to me that Zhuoyue's health, too, left a lot to be desired. Only Qianru, the precious "little princess," still seemed fit as a fiddle. I would never have thought it of her. For Ru had always been the skinny one, as washed out as an anemic. How in heaven's name could it be that we, who had all seemed so much more robust, were laid low by illness, and not she?
Lulu Wang

About Lulu Wang

Lulu Wang - The Lily Theater

Photo © Thomas Berthold

Lulu Wang was born in Beijing in 1960. She lives in The Hague, Netherlands.


"Wang is an original, a writer of real talent."
--The New York Times Book Review

[I]n the wonderful tradition of The Secret Garden. Readers will laugh and cry in the magical world of her creation."
--Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain

  • The Lily Theater by Lulu Wang
  • November 06, 2001
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $16.95
  • 9780385489867

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