The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Marko Fong

Part1: Salt and Porcelain

       Thanks to my grandmother, I may be the only person who knows the real origin of General Mo’s Chicken. Even though I’m not much of a cook, I may also be the only person who knows the proper recipe for the popular dish that combines boneless balls of chicken with a hot sweet sauce. While far too many people claim to know the original recipe, none really know the story that goes with the dish. It doesn’t occur to most that the lost history of China is recorded in its food.
      I have found General Mo’s Chicken in Chinese restaurants everywhere. Sometimes the balls of chicken are deep fried in batter. In many places, they are stir fried, but it’s common to find forms of the dish where the chicken is steamed or baked. There’s even a version in a restaurant outside Chattanooga in which the meat is bloody. It happens that this variant is closer to the original dish in spirit. Americans generally won’t eat this Tennessee take on General Mo’s legacy. The dish stays on the menu because a handful of Chinese families order it regularly. They insist that they’ve been making it this way for generations.
      The sauce for General Mo’s Chicken varies even more. Between New York and Boston, it is orange and includes maple syrup. In the Southwest, the sauce is brown and opaque with flecks of jalapeno. In the Midwest you find both colors, but they top it with corn. In Budapest, the General Miao’s chicken has bright red sauce. The owners claim it came west with the Mongols. This doesn’t explain why General Miao’s chicken includes paprika. For that matter, it doesn’t explain how a restaurant in Mumbai has General Mung’s chicken soaked in a sweet curry with pineapple, supposedly brought by the Mughals.
      Not only am I the only person in the world who knows the origin of General Mo’s Chicken, but my knowledge is tied to sublime irony — my father’s restaurant may have been the only Chinese restaurant in the world that never served the dish. My grandmother, an extraordinary cook herself, forbade it. Even on those occasions when she would consent to go out to a restaurant in San Francisco, Yin-Yin wouldn’t let any member of the family or their guests order the dish, Brown sauce, orange sauce, doesn’t matter. This family will never eat General Mo’s Chicken.
      She would then redirect us to paper-wrapped chicken, black bean chicken, gold coin chicken, steamed chicken with oyster sauce and scallions. These taste better and better for you.
      If we asked why, Aunt Cheryl would warn us, “You don’t have to know why to listen to your grandparents.”
      “Does that mean that you don’t know why either, Aunt Cheryl?”
      She would break out her Sonny Liston stare, “We’ll do the ordering. You don’t seem to be ready to do it yourselves.”
       Our game was to get our younger cousins or other kids we brought along to try to order it in my grandmother’s presence. When the innocent would ask, Could we maybe get General Mo’s Chicken,” Yin-Yin’s eyes would widen, she’d turn her head without moving her shoulders like some character in a horror movie, and she would hiss, No, you try something else. Next time you go somewhere with your family you have General Mo’s Chicken, but our family does not eat that dish.
       I knew I had to try General Mo’s Chicken. My first chance came when I was nine on an overnight with Jeff Feinstein. Dr. Feinstein had to work late, so Mrs. Feinstein packed us into their station wagon with the tailgate that opened in three different ways to meet him at Sammy’s, the much more popular Chinese downtown restaurant my father considered his major competitor.
      The Feinsteins didn’t yet know Dad owned a competing downtown restaurant. For non-Chinese, Sammy’s was the Chinese restaurant to go to because the legislators ate and drank there. Dr. Feinstein was a public health administrator who depended on contact with the Assembly's health and science committee. If the Feinsteins wanted Chinese, they went to Sammy’s instead of Dad’s restaurant, The Lost Province.
      The politicos liked to talk business at Sammy’s because none of his waiters understood English well. At least a dozen Sammy’s waiters and a couple of the busboys put children through college on real estate tips gotten just from pretending not to understand English.
      Chinese complained that the food at Sammy’s was sub-standard. Most of Sammy’s menu wasn’t Chinese at all. It was chicken and pork cubes in sweet and sour sauce, chow mein with fried noodles that came out of a can, mock chicken drumsticks, and chop suey that mixed won ton noodles with what appeared to be Campbell's chicken stock. About the only thing edible to a Chinese palate at Sammy’s was the fortune cookie.
      However busy the restaurant happened to be with Fan Yin clientele, no self-respecting Chinese family booked their own wedding, funeral banquet, or six week baby celebration at Sammy Wong’s. Sammy didn’t care whether local Chinese ate his food or what they said about his restaurant: he was too busy making money. My father’s favorite complaint was, How can he have a restaurant and not care about the food?
      For years, he would recite the dozen reasons that the food at the Lost Province was better. He, however, never did the math. The Chinese population of Sacramento was under six thousand. The other hundred thousand people knew little to nothing about real Chinese food. Like Willy Tang with his supermarket business, Sammy Wong just had a better sense of when to be Chinese and when not to be Chinese than my grandfather.
       Yeh-Yeh’s legitimate businesses never made profits. Mostly, they served as immigration cover for the twenty-five year procession of “cousins” he “saved” from the Communists. In his own restaurant, my father couldn't fire key employees until Yeh-Yeh deemed it safe.
      Before the Feinsteins, I’d never been to Sammy’s. I was relieved to learn that Sammy’s was dark and windowless; I couldn’t see Dad’s less busy restaurant a block away and no one could see me. My sense of duty told me that I should say something to the Feinsteins. I didn’t. I had convinced myself that either God or Buddha was allowing me to glimpse the forbidden through the Feinsteins.
      Jeff had spent the night at our house last Saturday. Dad made Sunday breakfast and Jeff ate five strips of bacon.
       I had heard that white families ordered individually at Chinese restaurants and each would then drop a scoop of rice on a plate then eat only their dish. Before we started, Mrs. Feinstein turned to me, ”Lucky, when your family goes to a Chinese restaurant, what do they order?”
      Dr. Feinstein jumped in, “Yes, we see Chinese families eating and I can never figure out where those dishes are on the menu.”
      “That’s because they’re eating cats,” Jeff’s older sister giggled.
      Mrs. Feinstein scowled. They returned a minute later.
      “I’m sorry Lucky. I know you don’t eat cats,” Myra apologized.
      I looked around. I was the only Chinese person sitting at a table.
      I chose not to tell the Feinsteins about the time I’d had to taste something at the apartment of an herbalist. The broth the old woman was giving me was supposed to help my stomach after I’d found out that I’d happily had three bowls of octopus soup at a banquet.
      “What is it?” I asked before I had to take my sip of the old lady's curative.
      “Just taste it, It’ll make you feel better,” my mother told me.
      Before we left, I passed the old woman’s kitchen and saw three wire cages stacked on top of one another. A very unhappy looking cat sat in each. I’m not sure why my mother would have me eat cat if I’d gotten sick from eating octopus, but I suspect that she convinced herself that I’d gotten sick from something in the octopus, not from finding out that the rubbery meat in my soup had tentacles and looked like Diver Dan's talking pal.
       When my turn to order came, all the Feinsteins looked at me. I told the waiter, “Could I have a hamburger please?”
      The Feinsteins couldn’t stop laughing.
      “I like hamburgers.”
      “You’re sure that’s what you want?”
      I nodded. The red-vested waiter gave me a knowing look.
      “It’s what I order here,” he told the Feinsteins.
      Jeff’s parents laughed so hard people were staring.
      “We’re sorry Lucky. We’re not laughing at you. We just never expected you to order that!”
      As he left for the kitchen after the sizzling rice soup, the Sammy’s waiter whispered, “You very smart boy. Tell you grandfather, Tang Sae Woo say hi.”
      It was Jeff who offered me my first taste of General Mo’s Chicken in exchange for Fritos that came with my hamburger. I had tricked him into ordering it by whispering, “General Mo’s Chicken is made with bacon.”
      The General Mo’s Chicken at Sammy’s was soggy-fried and soaked in murky-brown sauce.
      “How do you like the General Mo’s Chicken?” Doctor Feinstein asked.
      “It’s fine,” I murmured, pretending not to care.
      I doubt that any of the Feinsteins suspected that this was my first taste of General Mo’s Chicken. Even if it was as bad as the hundreds of variations on General Mo’s Chicken get, it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten.
      I saw my grandmother the next Sunday when we came to Paperson for dinner. As soon as I walked in the door, she began clucking, “Hai La! How this happen?”
      She looked accusingly at my mother as I tried to figure out what about me was so obviously different.
      Moments later, Yin-Yin rushed into her kitchen where metal pots clattered and cleavers chopped. My parens pulled me into my grandfather’s office, “Lucky, when you stayed at Jeff’s, did you go out to eat?”
      “I told you, we went to a restaurant.”
      “What restaurant?”
      “Some Jewish restaurant.”
      “Lucky, they don’t have a Jewish restaurant downtown. If they do, no one calls it Big Jew Steakhouse.“
      “Well, I thought that was the name. You don’t expect me to remember everything.”
      “Lucky, you can tell us and you do remember everything.”
      “Why’s Yin-Yin so mad?”
      “She says you must have eaten General Mo’s Chicken.”
      Blood ran to my face.
      “You didn’t go to Sammy’s with them by any chance? It’s all right if you did.”
       “I only ordered a hamburger,” This became, “It was just chicken. I just wanted to try it.”
      Mom sighed and my father’s voice softened, “It’s okay Lucky. Your Grandmother is superstitions…She thinks that if anyone in our family eats too much General Mo’s Chicken, that person will be cursed.”
      “If you eat General Mo’s Chicken, you’ll never want to go back to China.”
      For a child who just wanted to be American, that didn’t sound like a bad deal.
      “Well, it tasted terrible anyway,” I lied.
      From that point on, if I ever wound up at a Chinese restaurant away from my family, I always ordered General Mo’s Chicken. I’ve still never visited China.

Part 2: The Grandchild Who Remembers

      My grandmother put me in front of a porcelain bowl containing a single steamed chicken’s foot, something I liked even if I knew where it came from. I sat down near Grandfather’s “Man Soda” cabinet, his name for whiskey.
       She reached into the bowl, grabbed the chicken’s foot, and dipped it into a shallow porcelain dish that held gray powder.
      “Eat this! Don’t chew any longer than you have to.”
      “What is it, Yin Yin?”
      “It’s chicken.”
      “Not the chicken, what’s the powder?”
      “Eat first.”
       I took the powder-dipped chickens foot, tore the skin and meat with my teeth and swallowed. The salty powder sat on my tongue broke into tiny explosions. It was delicious, complicated in a way American food never seemed to be.
      “Yin-Yin, can I have some more?”
      She shook her head then grabbed the dish, but not before I had the chance to slip my finger into the powder.
      “No more. It’s bad to have too much.”
      “You promised to tell me.”
      My grandmother was tiny, not much taller than I. “I only tell you this once. If you want to know, you have to listen. It’s called General Fa’s dipping salt.”
      I took pride in telling people that my grandmother had been born in San Francisco. I was an adult before it ever struck me as strange that she spoke English with a thick Chinese accent. Now, I couldn’t hear her accent. She was speaking Chinese and by some magic I understood perfectly. I could answer in Chinese too.
      No Chinese restaurant in the world offers General Fa’s dipping salt either on or off menu. If you have a pinch of General Fa’s dipping salt, all food tastes better for days because it evokes the memories in your tongue just below the thresholds of taste and words.
      I tried to move more gray powder towards my tongue, but Grandmother stopped me. I still smelled it though, and I recognized the scent of an unrolled firecracker.
      Yin-Yin gave me the powder three more times. The last time, she closed the blinds and pulled an old scroll from the inside of a rolling pin, “I need to show you something.”
      I tried to touch the scroll, but she grabbed my wrist.
      “What is it?”
      “It’s the oldest cookbook in the world.”
      “Are you going to show me a recipe?”
      “No, I’m going to tell you the secret of General Fa’s dipping salt and General Mo’s Chicken, so you don’t forget who you are.”
      “Why me?”
      “Because, you are my grandchild who always remembers. This scroll is passed by Grandmothers to their grandsons and in turn to their granddaughters. Anyone who sees it may never reveal its secrets to outsiders. Do you promise?”
      I nodded solemnly.
      “Before China had writing, it had food. With every recipe there is a story. With every story there is a mystery. As soon as they invented their own way of writing, the women of this family kept those mysteries in this cookbook. It is our food that makes us Chinese,” she recited as if the words were music.
      “But Yin-Yin, I don’t know how to cook.”
      “Doesn’t matter as long as you remember.”
      “That's all?”
      “Not quite.”
      “What else?”
      “If I teach you, you must rewrite one recipe for your granddaughter. Each generation rewrites one recipe...”
      The stories of General Mo’s Chicken and General Fa’s dipping salt are joined. The only thing known about General Mo today is that his name became a recipe for chicken that changes its ingredients wherever it travels and thus bonds to that place. The only way General Fa is remembered is as Fa Mu Lan, known by way of Disney as the Woman Warrior.

Part 3: The Woman Warrior's Cook Book

“All political power comes from the barrel of a gun.”
                                                                                    Mao Zedong, Problems of War and Strategy

“Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skillful.”
                                                                                    Sun Tzu, The Art of War

      The monks and travelers who first found Jing Po were shocked that men had settled there in any numbers at all. They were more surprised to learn that the men of Jing Po were not hunters but cultivated the mountainside. Their labors had been so effective that Jing Po had a surplus of cherries (crunchy and succulent all at once) and pine nuts (fragrant yet firm) that they traded with districts at lower altitudes. In addition Jing Po men traded one other commodity, a legendary kind of porcelain.
      Jing Po men's exceptional ability to work with rock made their crews valuable for the construction of the First Emperor's Tomb. They quickly became the most sought after workers for the project to honor the first ruler who might unite China’s remaining seven kingdoms.
      Unfortunately, Jing Po men's toughness carried into personal affairs. The men of Jing Po too readily expressed anger with fist and feet. To make it possible for Jing Po men to work productively on the Emperor's tomb, supervisors segregated JIng Po workers. Jing Po men ate, slept, and washed their clothes at different times from all other work crews.
       Few outsiders ever saw a Jing Po woman up close. Those who did reported that the women often had bruises and flinched just at the sound of any male voice. Outsiders had observed Jing Po women cooking, cleaning, carrying water, but no one had ever heard a Jing Po woman speak. They were not mute, however. After nightfall, anyone camped near Jing Po could hear women's voices singing to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. Because the altitude of their villages made trees scarce, the people of Jing Po made the bodies of stringed instruments from porcelain instead of wood. Jing Po porcelain could be fired so thin that pipas could be as resonant as their wooden counterparts. While the fundamental of a Jing Po instrument might sound much like a wooden instrument, their unique overtones haunted the ear long after plucking. When Jing Po women sang, they harmonized with those overtones so exquisitely that it was said that their music could make rock weep.
      Jing Po men played the same instruments. They would bring them to their tomb construction duties each year, but they never sang even while working. Though Jing Po men played with great facility and danced with unexpected grace, most believed that Jing Po men's inability to sing was heavenly punishment for their rough nature.
      Music was not the only use for the unique qualities of Jing Po porcelain. While not able to take the subtle glazes characteristic of Shang pottery, Jing Po porcelain was the only substance known to be even tougher than Jing Po men. The alchemists theorized that because the soil of Jing Po was all but solid rock, porcelain made from it was stronger.
      The first time General Mo learned of the strange district of Jing Po was at a street exhibition. A man tried to break a vase with a thick block of granite. The vase did not shatter. Instead, the granite broke into seven pieces, each piece a different size. The young Mo spoke up,” Look at the shapes!”
      “What of it?” answered the crowd.
      “The granite broke into seven pieces.There are seven remaining kingdoms in China. The pieces took the shapes of those kingdoms.”
      “And how does someone so young know this?”
       “Every boy dreams of making those seven kingdoms one. I know their shapes.”
      The crowd needled young Mo, “Yes, someday we will bury you in the Tomb of the First Emperor.”
      Mo kept one thought from that day. Years later Mo came upon a tea cup merchant from Jing Po. Mo offered to buy more than he could use.
      Surprisingly, the trader protested, “Captain, please remember that these cups do not break. They will never need replacement unless you lose them. Do you really wish to buy so many?”
      Mo asked, “Is it possible to make a suit of armor from Jing Po porcelain? If I had such armor, my men would conquer the six other warring states.”
      The trader shook his head, “The women of Jing Po are the only ones who know how to fire this porcelain. For generations my fellow District men have tried to beat the secret out of them, but they resist. They will only make vessels for food, liquid, or sometimes musical instruments.”
      Captain Mo's thoughts scattered like chickens set upon by a fox, “But surely, it must be possible to duplicate. You eat together, you raise children together, you accompany their singing at night.”
      The trader shook his head, “It's said that the women of our District will never share. Captain Mo, surely you did not believe that you are the first person to have considered the possibilities of making armor from our porcelain?”
      “You tell me that the women of Jing Po refused to share secrets that would have kept their District from conquest by the Northwestern armies?”
      The trader laughed. “As a merchant, I travel. I've seen the benefit of gentler ways between men and women. Most of the men of my District have not. They remain a rough lot. Our women do not much like us.”
       “They preferred the Emperor of the Northwest's rule to risking their secret.”
      Captain Mo smacked his own forearm, “You come from a strange place.”
      The trader responded, “Please, now that you know this story if you do not wish to purchase so many cups, I will not be offended. I sell as many as I can carry out of my district. I just wish my wife would let me have more. I treat her with exceptional kindness, especially by the standards of my District but she refuses to bend on this one matter. In Jing Po, we say that the only thing more unyielding than our porcelain is our women.”
      Even without armor, the men of Jing Po were the fiercest fighters in China. It had taken the Northwestern Emperor thirty seven years to bring Jing Po into his empire and that had only been made possible by an army a hundred times larger than the entire population of Jing Po. It took another three generations to subdue Jing Po after conquest. Rebellions persisted until the current Emperor negotiated rather than send another army.
       The emperor regularly sent more luxuries to Jing Po than the Duke of Jing Po sent back. Each spring a camel caravan would arrive in Jing Po loaded with items that could not be produced in so mountainous a place. Barrels of fresh tender greens, herbs that cured fevers, silk, teak furniture, a stone that unerringly found the north star all came to Jing Po in the guise of a caravan sent to pick up Jing Po’s tribute for the Northwestern Emperor. The camels would return to the capital with a few cherries, a sack of pine nuts and a handful of tea pots. The Northwest Emperor was renowned throughout the seven kingdoms as a leader who knew how to save face both for his rivals and himself. It worked, until one year Jing Po failed to send its corvee to work on the First Emperor’s tomb.
      No one imagined that just thirty-three laborers could make such a difference with so immense a project, but Jing Po men understood stone like no others. The Northwestern Emperor summoned his most talented general.
      General Mo marched to Jing Po with an army of eight thousand men. Just as the army crossed the river that marked nine days journey from Jing Po, he encountered the first refugees. A small group of men, one carrying a porcelain-bodied musical instrument approached a scout, "We surrender to the Emperor of the Northwest. We will work on the Emperor's Tomb for the rest of our lives. We ask only safe passage east."
      What had brought such fierce men to so pitiful a state? They refused to answer any questions about why they fled.
       The Jing Po men were unbound and one of General Mo's lieutenants made a last offer, "Help guide our army safely to Jing Po and we will take you wherever you wish. The emperor will grant you land in a fertile valley. Your sons will be excused from labor duties."
      The man with the musical instrument spoke, "We do not wish to face our wives or daughters ever again. If the general knows what's best for his army, he should head back to the Northwestern Capital."        General Mo's army continued anyway until they camped at a river village.
       The closer General Mo's army got to Jing Po, they encountered fewer men with one peculiar exception: the males between fifteen and thirty five years old who remained were eunuchs. While eunuchs were common near the capital where they guarded the wives and daughters of the powerful, they were rare in the countryside.
      General Mo personally questioned one of the eunuchs, an old man selling shards of broken pottery near a once thriving riverfront market.
      "You must turn back to the capital or horrifying things will happen to your army," the eunuch warned, "I have seen with my own eyes."
      "Seen what?"
      "The power of the army in Jing Po."
      "But all the men have fled. Who is there to serve in this army?"
      "You can’t imagine warriors so fierce. No army of men is a match for them, even yours honorable general."
      "What do you know of my army?"
      "You have the bravest, most disciplined soldiers in China. You have never once been outflanked in battle."
      "But how does a eunuch in a distant province know these things?"
      “You don't remember me?"
      It was clear that the man had once been large and perhaps well-muscled. Mo spoke softly, "I'm sorry. My journeys have led me to meet many individuals I should remember."
      "Do you remember asking about making armor of Jing Po porcelain?"
      "That can't be you!"
      “My wife and I were blessed only with sons. After she died, I had no source of Jing Po porcelain. I got too close to uncovering their secret.”
      "The women of Jing Po are an invincible army. Even if outflanked, they will destroy you."
      "An army of women drove out the garrison?"
      The eunuch opened his hands as if releasing pigeons.
      "But few women have the strength to even pull a bow or wield a spear."
      "They do not need spears or bows."
      “Even if armored with Jing Po porcelain, how would they have the strength to attack? Surely they do not throw shards of porcelain."
      "General Mo, I have not traveled beyond nine day river in years. Still, I say this out of the respect that comes with thirty years of trading with your people, ‘The Jing Po women are too strong.’ "
      Perhaps castration had driven the old merchant mad. Women had occasionally fought in battle, but only in emergencies. An army of women would only be an invitation to mass rape after their inevitable defeat.
      Mo’s scouts located the Jing Po women's army with suspicious ease. "General Mo, a line of a hundred women holding long poles waits in a clearing near the approach to the village. We see no signs of fortifications or even bows posted ahead of this unfortunate looking brigade. They have no shields or armor. They clearly do not understand the Art of War."
      Mo dispatched three units of bowmen, then ordered three squadrons of camel-mounted lancers into position. As soon as the bowmen let loose their arrows, the lancers would charge and shock the single line of pikes into disarray.
      The archers took their position just out of bow range. The line of women did not scatter; they knelt and pointed their poles towards Mo’s advancing unit. The two armies looked at one another as they waited for Mo's archers to start the engagement. Did the women seriously expect to repel two armies of Mo's best soldiers with a single line of pikes? Infantry units waited on the flanks, shields ready. The foot soldiers wore leather armor made from rhinoceros hide and dipped in dragon’s blood.
      The archers advanced. Ten steps quickly became twenty as the line of women did nothing but point their poles at the archers. Mo was close enough to see their bare arms and legs. The image of his men slashing so many of these daughters and wives to pieces sickened him. Away from battle, Mo even cried over opera. Once in battle, he was known for being oblivious to carnage. No sight unnerved General Mo. To feel such a thing before battle was strange indeed. In later years, Mo called it the “first omen”.
      Mo's commanders overestimated the length of the battle. Before the archers could take their positions, there was a burst of sparks, the sound of a hundred cracks of thunder broke out, then a cloud of black smoke so thick that General Mo could no longer see the line of women, but there was no rain. Even though they were well out of the range of the strongest man's arm and tautest bowstring, soldiers fell over screaming in pain and terror.
      At the sound of thunder, fully-trained animals reared and threw off their riders. Those who moved forward fell as quickly as the archers. The field between the line of women with their poles and the Emperor's army filled with screaming men and shrieking camels.
      "Witchcraft," they screamed. "We are fighting demons!"
      General Mo felt the shame of seeing his own army turn their backs from battle. His commanders slapped at their soldiers with the flat of their swords, "Fight, fight. We serve General Mo. We serve the Northwestern Emperor, ruler of the one China. We are men. Where is your pride? There can't be more than a hundred of these women."
      It was to no avail. Archers threw down bows and ran towards the river. Infantry men dropped their spears. Some were stampeded by fleeing camels. The black smoke lifted enough for General Mo to see the opposing army. A second line of pole bearers had stepped forward while the first had stepped back to drop something into the top of their poles.
      General Mo had started with nine thousand men. Only a few hundred remained to take orders. He still likely outnumbered the women's army, but he knew that it would be pointless to attack until he determined what magic terrified his bravest men. By the time his army regrouped, Mo was not sure how many men he had left.
      An envoy moved towards the Jing Po army line carrying a white capon, the Shih symbol of truce. Mo followed on horseback, "We wish to take care of our wounded and bury our dead. We ask the rest of the daylight to complete the task."
      A young woman stepped forward. This was the first time any outsider had heard a Jing Po woman speak. Or was she a Jing Po woman? She spoke with an accent foreign for Jing Po prefecture. “I am Fa Mu Lan commander of these Women Warriors.”
      Mo dismounted, took the chicken in his own hands, and bowed. The woman continued, "We have no dead of our own, but will grant your request, Do not come within bow range or we will unleash our magic again."
      "I am General Mo. Your soldiers fought well and with great courage. (he took care not to refer to gender) Perhaps my men will have learned from their humiliation today and acquit themselves better tomorrow when we resume the engagement."
      Fa Mu Lan did not step back, "Do not attempt to advance. My army will hold their line here, but please make no further attempts to come near this District."
      The woman removed her headgear and let down her hair, “Jing Po will remain a place forever more where men will not force their will on women."
      General Mo nodded, then half-bowed. For the first time noticed that the women soldier's poles did not have spearheads nor were they made of wood. They looked ceramic and hollow. In the meantime, the odor of burnt sulfur, like rotting eggs, sat in the air.
      Fa was not a common name here. Mo had heard of only one Fa before, General Fa, the Chou Emperor's most creative military mind. It occurred to Mo that his army had not been defeated just by powerful magic, but by tactics as sophisticated as these new weapons were mysterious.
      "We have no intention of forcing our will on women," he said. “I never have.”
      The battle went on as General Mo was under Imperial order not to retreat. Each day though the battle became less deadly. Mo sent fewer archers to an engagement line that slid two steps back each morning. By the fiftieth day, no lancers mounted camels. By the sixtieth day, the battle had stylized to the point that a handful of archers would take three steps forward then one of the women would fire her magic pike at a cloud. After each ritualized battle, the horse with the white chicken rode forward from the ranks of General Mo's soldiers. The conversations between General Mo and General Fa Mu Lan got longer. After nightfall, the women sang and Mo's army would applaud in return.
      On the seventieth day, Fa Mu Lan invited the General and his captains to dine with her. A red tent went up between the lines of opposing soldiers. Inside the tent, Fa Mu Lan, now dressed as a woman, stood before a table covered with a pillowy bed of white rice, salted fragrant cherries, yams mixed with pine nuts, and one peculiar delicacy (a pile of spherical objects covered in brown batter and a sauce as red as blood). The only way to describe the spheres was for General Mo to compare them to his own testes. Despite his legendary poise, General Mo could do nothing other than stare.
      Was Fa Mu Lan trying to shock him? Was she even aware of what the spheres looked like? Mo flashed on the eunuchs his army encountered while approaching Jing Po. Horror seized his face.
      Popular accounts have it that Fa Mu Lan was exceptionally beautiful. She was not. She was sturdily built and her face was round and flat, like most of the peasant women of the region. Her father, General Fa, had been defeated in battle after being betrayed by one of his officers. Before his execution though, he pleaded for the safety of his only daughter Mu Lan. One look persuaded her new caretakers that there would be no bride price for such a girl. She was sent to a mountain district where her capacity to work in rough conditions might be appreciated. They had no clue that Fa Mu Lan's father had shared all of his tactical secrets with her.
      General Mo, who had never married, quickly realized that Fa Mu Lan might not be conventionally beautiful (plump figure, angular face, long neck, and graceful hands) but when she smiled her attractiveness multiplied. “General Mo, does this one dish worry you in some way? Be assured that we have no knives inside this tent.”
      Just as Fa Mu Lan was not beautiful, Mo looked nothing like a leader of men in battle. He was small and slope shouldered; his little eyes seemed to avoid light. “It's not what it looks like then?”
      “What makes you think a woman like myself has ever seen such things?”
      For the first time in seventy days, General Mo laughed and General Fa laughed together.
      “If you must know honorable General Mo, it's chicken. The dish is made from the seventy chickens you have brought me since this battle began.”
      The battle continued three more months, but no soldier on either side was injured except for an accident after a woman had too much rice wine. The drunken soldier was not punished. Each evening, the two generals met inside the red tent, the two armies ate balls of chicken in red sauce, a most delicious dish, and the women followed with song.
       One night, General Mo confessed, “I have no way to defeat your army, yet I am forbidden to retreat.”
      General Fa held out her hand and put it in his, “But this battle can not go on indefinitely.”
      “Even if I could, I will never impose the Emperor's will on Jing Po women.”
      Fa Mu Lan already trusted Mo with intimacies no general would share with his own officers. When she had come to Jing Po, she had been set to work as a cook, something for which she had special talent. In order to keep her position in Jing Po secure and avoid marriage, she did whatever she could to master her skill. She wrote down every recipe she learned in the secret script that her father once used to write battle plans. She won the trust of an older woman who shared the recipe for an exploding salt sometimes used to flavor chicken. Only a military mind would recognize that exploding salt might have other uses.
      Once Fa Mu Lan combined the exploding salt with Jing Po porcelain, she had the means to rescue Jing Po women from the brutality of their husbands. For years, they worked on the recipes in secret fed by the possibility that one day men might never overpower women again.
      “But wherever there are women, there have to be men eventually,” General Mo told her, “And what if men some day steal these secrets. Then they would be doubly powerful.”
      “But how many would die if anyone who could get such weapons could kill anyone else? It might be rage- greed- lust-simple drunkenness. No strength, no discipline, no courage are needed to kill with these salted pikes. To be able to kill with so little effort invites chaos. I am a general's daughter; I have thought of these things and I know the consequences of betrayal.”
      The two generals went from planning against one another to planning together. They swore to protect the women of Jing Po and that Mo would not to surrender until the last of the seven kingdoms fell.
      It is not written anywhere that an army of eight thousand men conquered all seven kingdoms in less than ten years. It is certainly not written anywhere that those men were accompanied by four hundred pike-wielding women who did most of the fighting. So fearsome was the reputation of General Mo's and General Fa's joint army, two of the seven kingdoms surrendered before a single battle was fought. It was in the third year, that General Fa caught the men who betrayed her father. A special dish was made of them, but no one ate it. The lessons of the campaign were written down in scrolls known as the Art of War. They make no mention of General Mo, General Fa, or four hundred women with salted pikes. In fact, the book is little more than lies. The true story of the campaign is the Art of Peace.
      After they gained control of four kingdoms, it was assumed that Mo would become first Emperor. A dynasty was tentatively named for him and proclaimed by a defeated king anxious to curry favor. Fa and Mo were wiser than that; unchecked power corrupted even the most virtuous. Before their first conquest, they had agreed that neither of them would ever be emperor. In fact, soon after the unification of China both Mo and Fa disappeared. Most believe that they disappeared together.
      Between victories in battle, the two secretly summoned a young prince from the kingdom of Shih who had not shown promise on the battlefield so much as he had had proven a capacity to complete building projects. In fifteen years, he had built a wall to protect China's northernmost kingdom from barbarians. The wall was already so extensive, that the top of the structure was the longest continuous road in the world. When Prince Shih first came to their cave, he feared that the two generals had summoned him to dictate his kingdom’s subjugation.
      “You came up here alone?”
      The prince nodded.
      “We compliment you on your courage. Perhaps we have made the right choice,” said the plump woman.
      “I will do whatever is necessary to keep my people from being slaughtered.”
      “Is this the way you rule?” asked the man with the sloped shoulders.
      Shih squinted past the cave’s flickering torches. “I rule for their welfare.”
      Over the next forty years, Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor, proved violent, ruthless, and even petty, but he kept to the bargains made in that cave. Emperor Shih Huang instituted the first system of written laws applied equally to everyone who lived under the dominion of Heaven's Kingdom.
      Eventually, though not during Emperor Shih Huang's lifetime, those laws included a set of rules that governed relationships between men, between men and women, and between prefects and provinces throughout China. Each family had a duty to the Emperor and each member of the family had a duty to all other members of the family. Husbands were to treat wives with respect, but wives were expected to obey their husbands.
      Girl's feet were bound before they became women. It was an act of unspeakable cruelty, but one that would prevent them from climbing into volcanoes to fire porcelain or collecting saltpeter from the tops of forest dung piles. Fa Mu Lan hated this concession, but understood there was no other way to prevent the re-invention of the weapons that made lasting peace impossible. It is said that near the end of her life, she tried to cut off her own feet in penance for pain forced on so many women. In exchange, wives were given absolute dominion inside the kitchen where they passed the secret recipes for soups and salts that controlled husbands should the system of interlocking duties fail.
      Fa and Mo forbade Shih Huang Ti from taking credit for China's transformation into an empire ruled less by physical might than a respect for the duties of relationships, It is enough that you will be remembered as the First Emperor.
      Instead, they claimed a wandering sage had committed the details for this system of relationships into a series of analects. Cleverly, Mo and Fa had taken steps to make others believe that the sage lived hundreds of years earlier and they made a pun in a distant language to make his name sound like “confusion”. The Emperor Shih kept his bargain by burning all other books on right conduct, while the analects somehow survived.
      It was not just Jing Po women who were made safer from their men. It was all the women of China. The system was far from ideal, but Fa Mu Lan died convinced that this way was better than what the women of Jing Po had endured. She understood that armies of women could only enforce there will as long as no men learned the secrets of the salted pikes.
      Ingeniously, she freely shared the secret of the exploding salt. Sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter were all common. With effort, anyone could find the recipe for the most potent proportions. The real secret was Jing Po porcelain. Without the porcelain allowing the salt to be aimed and exploded in controlled fashion, the powder was good for little more than loud, bright explosions. The secret of Jing Po porcelain was forever kept from the world.
      All China acquired gunpowder, but rather than turn it into weapons of man's destruction (many tried) they discovered the pleasures of painting with light against night sky. Fireworks became an art form, one little understood in other kingdoms. It survives to this day as a source of delight not a means of destruction, proof of the superiority of Chinese civilization.
      Emperor Shih's tomb was completed shortly after his death. His body was moved to a plateau and placed in a structure worthy of the first Holder of Heaven’s mandate. Fa and Mo depended on Shih Huang Ti's talents to carry through their plan to unify China, but never fully trusted him. They placed an army of eight thousand soldiers there not to guard the Emperor's spirit from grave robbers but to make sure that in the after life he would not stray from their deal. The ceramic soldiers were rediscovered in 1976, though the clay used for their construction is oddly fragile as if it fired at too low a heat.
      No one has yet found the statues of the four hundred women each holding a five foot long tube made from rough porcelain. It is rumored that if you come near the site of Sian on certain nights, visitors can hear the sound of women singing in some ancient undecipherable language.
      The army of eight thousand men and four hundred women who unified China put down arms forever. Fa and Mo recognized that their soldiers knew too much of the secret of the salted pikes. They were dispersed and took an oath to never return to China. As they wandered foreign lands far from the dominion of the God of the Sky, they had only one way to secure their livelihood. With just a minimum of ingredients, they made a dish of balls of chicken sealed in a brown batter in a red sauce, the same one perfected by General Fa in General Mo's honor. They were never told that the dish General Fa created now contained a potion that stripped all who ate it of desire to find China. It wasn't until sixteen hundred years later when Marco Polo sought spices that any foreign cook found China again.
      The measure of any great civilization is not what it invents, but what it has the sense to suppress.
The Woman Warriors' Cookbook.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: “The Art of Peace” is part of a collection called “Inventing China” which looks at various ways overseas Chinese created their own notions of Chinese identity and culture. First, my father really did own a Chinese restaurant, but virtually every city in the world has a Chinese restaurant. And so many of the mainstays of the Chinese restaurant, like fortune cookies, aren't Chinese at all. Second, I was inspired by Joseph Needham, who put together endless volumes about science and technology in ancient China. Needham is famous for asking the question, “Why didn't China develop key technologies like rifles when they had gunpowder for so long?” I thought it would be fun to explore a scenario where they did, then rejected their own invention.

Marko Fong lives in Northern California and published most recently in Memoir (and), Solstice, Eclectica, Mad Hatter Review, and Grey Sparrow Journal. His fiction has been nominated twice for a PEN/O. Henry, and twice for a Pushcart Prize.

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