“Let all my subjects hear my decree,” the emperor commands his advisers just before the last sunset of the rice harvest.
Messengers, each bearing a sealed copy, set out on foot from the imperial city. Within three months, they must visit every place where civilized men have settled.
They stand in the village centers, just before the sun goes down, when the peasants return from the fields, when the fishermen moor their boats, when mothers gather their children, and when elders wrap robes around themselves to fend off the chill of impending night. In each place, the messengers read the emperor’s words, but never in exactly the same way. In the mountains to the south, the ceiling of the earth, they chant to a beat as slow as the movement of the heavens. In the deltas they sing in the up-tipped tones of the musical dialect used by those who live along the rivers. In the west, they shout and bang their chest at the end of every three sentences.
Near the capital they speak in a voice barely above a whisper – obedience is not an issue within a day’s ride of the emperor. In those places where the dialects have degenerated into mutual incomprehensibility, the messenger shares the stage with a local magistrate, who translates while the villagers look on in wonder. To them the emperor barely exists, yet they too listen obediently. In every province, in every village, the messengers deliver the proclamation:
The emperor, holder of heaven’s mandate, decrees that a corvee made up of one of every ten adult males be sent at the height of the illusion moon to that part of your province that is closest to the capital. They must arrive there before the next full moon.
Once at the border, the corvee will be met by imperial soldiers who will make a count. If you fall short, the army will execute the entire corvee and you will send a new one immediately. If you exceed your number, the emperor will send extra grain and live fowl to more than make up for any food lost from sending your strongest males.
Once the men are counted, the army will escort them safely to the project. There they will join with workers from all provinces to dig a trench. It will be the longest and deepest in the history of the world. It will span the entire border of the renegade province and be deep enough to pry it loose from China forever.
Each day, a thousand new men arrive at the great digging project. The nomads from the western desert, men who have never before broken the ground, appear at the site with waist high pointed sticks. The men from the plains bring wagons for hauling out the displaced earth. Their digging implements are made from bronze.
The delta peasants prove to be the best. Most have spent their lives building levees to control floods. Their strongest men work in tightly coordinated groups with iron-tipped shovels. The smaller workers pass the dirt out of the trench in buckets. Each man knows his task and they sing as they toil, the same song for hundreds of li. You can walk from one end of the line to the other then back again and hear each man join in just when the notes peak.
The northerners are bigger and more mechanical. They tie oxen to deep troughs, and pull out canyons of dirt twice each day-once in late morning and once before nightfall. Each group keeps to itself, paying attention to the others only on the days when the corvees from each of the emperor’s provinces race one another. The day before, a representative from each corvee runs from camp to camp placing bets on the outcome. Pottery from the north gets exchanged for a southwestern-forest root that restores sexual vitality. A brace of tender-marsh ducklings roasted in wild-sesame oil is bet against an entire field of silk spun into all colors of the rainbow.
Once a year, the emperor appears in his red-and-purple sedan chair. He has three full militia of guards, forty-seven concubines, and a hundred and nineteen eunuch attendants. Like other twelve-year olds, the emperor has a taste for the unusual. A flock of geese fly overhead. It’s a common enough sight in this part of China, but these geese are harnessed to a kite the size of a rice field. Thirteen eunuchs hold up a canopy that covers the emperor’s sedan chair to keep their master from being bombarded by the offal from the geese. Two armies of archers patrol the edges of the ditch, one to keep the diggers at their task, and one to keep the other army of archers concentrating on theirs. At the end of each digging season, the emperor stands inside the trench at a pre-designated-secret-spot to measure progress. Between visits, the workers pray that the emperor does not grow again. If the emperor shakes his head, new messengers scurry across the provinces.
“More men, bigger corvees, or face the consequences.”
In the fifteenth year, the quotas begin. As long as a province digs its share of the trench, they need send only as many men as it takes. The emperor’s ministers base their standard on the best, the chanting southern work-gangs. Some regions copy, making up their own chants, substituting baskets of dried rushes for the southerner’s brown-clay vats. Others are stubborn about their methods. Each year the northerners appear with a new solution. One year their hollowed redwood tree breaks and it buries thirty-seven men. In the twenty-seventh autumn of the digging, the men from the north divert a river and flood the trench to soften the dirt. Some say a hundred-thousand men drown, but the digging does go more easily. Within forty-seven years the trench spans a hundred mu wide and thirty-five mu deep all around the province. Still, the emperor is not pleased. “It will never be done in my lifetime.” He closes his eyes and shakes his white-hair. He stands atop a tower specially constructed in the imperial city so he can, with the aid of a mirrored lens, monitor the digging.
Walled cities appear next to the digging sites where camps once stood. In the fifty- third autumn of the project the imperial advisers establish a special academy in the northeast where students, men and women, construct models, design new tools, find new ways to organize. When for the fifty third time, the emperor’s messengers appear in far provinces, they need no translator. Even in those provinces beyond the western deserts, they have come to understand that they are citizens of China, diggers of the trench. They now approach the messenger with a thousand questions, “Was it true about the flood? What song do these southern men sing that makes them as strong as dragons? What new machines came from the north this season?”
After the emperor dies, his successor understands the real significance of the trench as the project that defines China. In turn so does the successor to the successor until the reasons for the digging are as forgotten as the pointed sticks once used by the nomads . Only the project matters and only the emperor, and the people of his empire, would dare to reshape the earth.
Generations pass, and the trench deepens enough to stand at least a dozen emperors on top of one another. In the middle of winter, the men at the bottom of the trench now have to dress as if they were working in desert sun, so different are the conditions at the bottom. Some claim to have felt the center of the earth tremble beneath their feet.
For twenty-five years, a plague spreads among the diggers, hiccups so violent they can not use their hands. Millions of bewildered men walk the edges as their echoed hiccups mock them from the bottom. More are sent, boys whose voices squeak, men with white hair and curved backs, women just past childbearing, anyone who might be immune, but the hiccups will not stop. When a northern province runs short of laborers, a levee system fails. Floods, famines, and revolts follow.
The new emperor watches from his high tower, the mirror lens now improved to the point where he can see the curved edge of the world. He consults his advisers, his shamans, his bureau of diggers (now the most powerful ministers in court).
They make suggestions. “Let us abandon the project,” insists the minister of canals. It has outlived its usefulness.
“We must refill the trench and start over again; we must regain the spirit of the boy emperor who started this project.” The minister of diggers suggests.
One minister claims that a woman from the forests has a potion to cure hiccups.
For a thousand mornings, the emperor hears new proposals before his noon meal of sweet quail eggs and blue-emerald tea. He tries some. An entire year’s crop of silk is dropped into the trench. Sheet by sheet the silk floats downwards, great subterranean butterflies. The silk is set on fire so smoke will smooth the workers’ throats, but their hiccups only smell of silk and ash. The same year, a million chickens are drowned in a lake of rice whiskey as a sacrifice to the gods, but only the rat god listens and hordes of rodents fill the trench while the workers hiccup from above.
For seven months, the emperor meditates. Just before winter, he emerges from his chambers, calls his advisers before him, and sends out new messengers dressed in robes of purple silk, the symbol of authority.
“The plague is a message from the heavens. We have dug enough. Time to pry the banished province loose.”
In secret, the advisers smirk. For months they have sent their favorite concubines, their younger sons, the best jewels off to their home provinces safe from what will be certain revolt. They tell one another that the emperor’s decree will accomplish nothing. As soon as the demand for corvees is read new rebellions will break out. And what of the millions of hiccuping diggers?
But the plague of hiccups stops as suddenly as it began. Within years, redwood trees said to be older than the oldest Chinese dialects are floated to the edge of the trench. Crews made up of men from every Province, the best graduates of the academy, set the trees in notches. Ropes thicker than a wealthy landlord’s waist made from rare desert hemp are tied to the trunk of each redwood. Provinces unaffected by floods share their surpluses, as the empire now feeds on possibilities – their generation will be remembered as the one that completed the task.
The optimism is short-lived. The ropes break. The trees snap into a thousand pieces, killing the men below and showering seed cones across the trench. Still, the banished province moves less than the width of a commoner’s fingernail.
The emperor journeys into the desert. He takes just thirteen camels and seventy three attendants. During his absence, bandits start a fire just two li from the walls of the imperial city then loot the market so thoroughly that even the rats abandon it. A rumor spreads that the emperor has fled. Inside the imperial compound, the ministers plan their own rebellion. They meet in the emperor’s favorite afternoon courtyard to discuss and prepare. They argue over rightful shares when the imperial city is thrown into darkness.
“An eclipse, an eclipse,” the imperial astrologer shouts.
Reassured, most venture back into the courtyard where the astrologer points at the heavens with a red lit divining stick, “It’s only the moon.”
Had it been only the moon, the faithless ministers would not have jumped the walls. Certainly none would take poison when it’s made clear that it is not the moon, but a horde of dragons each as big as a cloud. When the dragons land, the light returns. Only one dragon remains airborne, the emperor perches on its neck.
“I have made a pact with the dragons,” he announces as he glides just inches from his favorite observation tower. “They will pry the banished province loose and in exchange men will give up hunting them for teeth and bones.”
Only the magicians, whose most powerful potions depend on ground dragon bones, dare protest.
Even before they can announce it in the most isolated provinces, the messengers are overwhelmed with questions about dragons.
It takes three harvest seasons. The men devote the first to the design and construction of dragon harnesses. The dragons breathe fire over the metal to harden it. Thousands of men tan leather with horse urine, and sharpen ox bone needles with diamond-edged knives as the idle dragons wait by the trench, exterminating rats with blasts of fire-breath. At night, the beasts play simple gambling games with the workers, betting gold mines against a dozen maiden daughters, spare teeth and bones for a thousand catties of baby flesh. The games might have turned tragic had the men not determined that dragons do not count beyond twelve without difficulty. In a month, half the dragons are toothless.
In the second harvest season, the northerners divert yet another river and fill the trench with water. By then the dragons have given up gambling. Instead, they spend mornings learning from Chinese men how to sing in unison. In the afternoons, the dragons teach the men, introducing them to paper, showing them how to make their own fire breath from bits of sulfur and saltpeter. The dragons develop a taste for loquat wine.
The third season, the dragons harness themselves to the banished province and start to pull. The first day, just the width of a man’s hand opens up. Frustrated, the dragons breathe fire across the banished province, turning the rainforests and grasslands in its center to desert. On the fifth day, the earth shakes. The dragons strain at their harnesses. Two die from the effort, crumpling in mid-air and crushing an entire village, but the banished province breaks loose. A tidal wave, high as a mountain, leaves nothing but high rock for the province’s-northern coastline. The sky turns red and the earth cracks. Salt water fills the widening trench between the banished province and China. Dead fish cover the surface. The men of the south, too familiar with famine, recover the fish and salt it for future consumption.
Within a month, only the emperor’s special lens, mounted on the edge of the new beach, can see the province’s freshly-torn shoreline. By harvest season, the mackerel fishermen in their two-masted junks have lost sight of it.
Most believe that the province floated off the edge of the earth, but there are rumors. Forty-thousand years later, a eunuch admiral, first master of the magnetic compass, sets out with a fleet of a hundred ships in search of a lost province he believes to be Mecca. Even the Marinheiros, the first explorers from the west, equipped with lateen sails, and deep water keels, hear rumors of the floating island. One chart maker includes this El Dorado on his map: an island, a terra incognita between the Ancient Chinese Empire and the new world.
Inside China, a legend which no one doubts passes from mother to children, from children to father, and back again. A group of monks, they say, once set out in small boats and found a warm-water current. They landed on the lost province and made contact with its people, only to return in shock.
“They still looked like natives of the empire, but they had a kind of amnesia. They had forgotten their language, their true identities as men of China.”
They call it, “The Lost Province Curse.”
The second time the monks return, those from the first discovery party who stayed behind might as well have been natives. They could barely communicate in any dialect. The province, they reported, had docked, pressed against a land of which it is clearly not a part.
But the last bit, they tell only in whispers. “Only the ground remembers.”
“Only the ground remembers, sometimes it shakes violently with longing, struggling to break free again, to return to its true home.”