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(This story was written in response to the prompts:  ” Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “Commodity fetish” by Ian Rowan)

Qiang held the pen over the parchment.

There was a fruit flavor in his tea – was it mango? – and so he was having trouble concentrating. He’d gone to his villa in Xiamen specifically to avoid unhealthy environments, only to discover that peace and quiet were intolerable to him right now.

Write something he told himself. Write anything.

Beijing was so much more stimulating, but the air was so awful right now …

He stared at the page. His calligraphy was terrible, but he grabbed the first snippet of a phrase that came to his mind: “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.”

He stared at his handiwork, amused. So it’s come to this? he thought. But that was fine. Who was he to judge? It just needed a little editing, that’s all.

He reworked the phrase on the next line “Love for a community is greater than love for one.” Then tried again. “Love for one withers on the vine, love for community blossoms on the tree.”

No, too purple. “Question the love felt for one, honor the love felt for community.”

Perfect. He signed it “Confucius” – to indicate that this was the form in which it would be included – and tried the tea again. No, not mango, something else. The global economy made it impossible to know what you were tasting, anymore. Too many flavors.

The notebook was nearly full now, perhaps the peace and quiet had worked out after all, and he supposed he could type it up and send it off to the publisher’s soon. Good: his health, the Beijing air, had taken its toll, keeping him from work for too long.

“Work …” he had to laugh.

His father, who had known Beijing when it was clean … or so he claimed … had worked. Had been sent to work in a rural factory, making bricks, for the crime of having a classical education. Ten years of such work had ruined the joints in his hands, given him back spasms that would last the right of his life. Whether it had broken his spirit depended, Qiang supposed, on how you wanted to measure such things. His father, oldest son in a family of eight, had gone into re-education a man who loved the classics for their own sake, and had left it an empty husk that still loved the classics. Had insisted on passing down this toxic, ruinous, scholarship, to his young son. The only son the state would let him have.

Qiang had received the education, but not the love. Whatever wisdom there was in these ancient phrases and their commentaries had not kept him from being shamed by his teachers or beaten by his classmates or going hungry at home. It is a colossal joke, Qiang told himself again, always with bitterness, that a proudly atheistic country would still demand reverence for mystical thought.

But there it was. The same university credential that had gotten his father tortured had gotten Qiang a job preparing yet more useless editions of the wisdom that had never helped him. His fellow countrymen could not get enough of their ancient heritage – Qiang guessed this was because they didn’t really know a thing about it. Or, perhaps, just because it was theirs. Or maybe some combination of ignorance and provincialism. Whatever the reason, there was always money to be made putting one more paperback edition of the mystical wisdom of the master into the hands of the public.

It was better, of course, when these editions came from a scholar with impeccable credentials, and so Qiang was valuable to the publishers,. He earned enough to buy his father a better home, and provide nursing care, pain medicine.

The only trouble, the only ceiling, to the business was the fact that every one of these stupid books always says the same thing. There is only so much text that can be continuously recycled in new editions, like a trash pile reincarnating into new forms but never losing its essence.

Which is where Qiang had finally seen his opportunity. The public wanted more Confucius, the government wanted more classic scholarship, he had the credentials …

Who was going to say, really, that Confucius hadn’t presaged Spice Girls’ lyrics by 3,000 years? So many of the people trying to better themselves by reading Confucius were historically illiterate anyway.

The new editions flew off the shelves. Qiang started his own imprint. His “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times” App was rated #3 on the iTunes Chinese language store. Now he could afford luxury cars.

His father had stopped speaking to him, when he realized what Qiang was doing. Had said terrible things. So fine: no more nurse, no more pain medicine. How is it possible Qiang stormed as he finished his tea that the old man turns his back on the Confucius brand when it finally brings him something good? Does he just want to suffer?

He stood up and put the notebook by his laptop. He’d organize the ideas and send the new text to his publisher later in the week. He finished his tea and walked to the kitchen to get more. Was the added flavor kiwi? Qiang realized that he wasn’t entirely sure he knew what a kiwi tastes like. Was that a gap in his education? Should he care?

Some people … some people, Qiang thought, not for the first time, will spend their whole lives trying to improve themselves and, when a moment of decision comes, still stand in front of a tank, convinced that everything they have learned isn’t telling them to get out of the way.  They will sacrifice their future, as his father had done, for the sake of verses from the past.  They can actually look at the world with such intelligence and attention to detail and somehow not see that there is more wisdom in a bank account than in a book.

“Words do not get more valuable for being older,” he muttered to himself as he poured the tea. Why should I be held to 3,000 year old standards of virtue?  He was getting on a tear now, it was surprising. He did not usually let himself get angry. Perhaps it was all the peace and quiet?

No book had ever stopped a bullet. No ancient saying had ever turned a fist aside. These people who couldn’t recognize classical philosophy for what it was, one more kind of kitsch to be pedaled in cheap editions to the poor and between gilded covers for the rich … he hated them, and their smugness, and their condescension. The air is so clean out here. Let them condemn him, let them be jealous. With every book his published, didn’t he make them look good? More relevant? More popular with the public? More deserving of at place at the table?

He sipped his tea. What is that flavor? What had the market sold him? There was nothing about a foreign fruit on the package.

Damn father anyway! He rushed to pick up his pen, held it over his notebook.

But there was no way to ever make Confucius say that. No one would believe him. It could not be done.

He settled back down, and tried to be comfortable. It should be easy.

Like this?  Benjamin’s collection of short fiction “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City” is available. 

“Benjamin Wachs reveals a distinctive and highly personal flair for storytelling that will engage the reader’s total and rapt attention throughout.” – The Midwest Book Review