Feature: Sally Wen Mao

The Peony Pavilion

In the concrete garden, he appears.
Before long I’m holding his hand.
We are in Hangzhou, walking the length

of the famous lake. He is a young scholar
in a full cotton robe. We kiss under the willows,

then he pulls down my pants against the pink
pagoda wall. The cameras watch.
It happens so fast. It’s getting dark already.

Dank. The water under the bridge
rips, red. At West Lake, sunset makes

us sweat like horses. The famous opera
originating here is about a woman who turns
into a snake: The White Maiden Locked

for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda.
I think of a girl from another opera

who meets a phantasmic suitor in a dream.
In the garden of rotten roses they meet, part.
She pines and pines, then dies from longing.

At a bar called Peony, my friend confesses
that most intimacy in her life she has never

fully consented to. Can intimacy be forced?
Sometimes I submit to someone else’s desires
to fulfill my perceived function to them,

which is bleak. She drinks from her mojito
and laughs. Men bump into her on purpose,

trying to flirt. I want to stand on the stool and spill
tequila on their scalps. The kindest men are always

the ones in operas. Or the ones I make up,
dream of. I always wake up. But I’m not willing
to die from that disappointment.

The Romance of the Castle-Toppler

The castle-toppler is one word for a woman

or more literally: a kingdom-destroying concubine

n. woman who brings about the downfall of an empire
v. to cause a city or state’s collapse

in Chinese she is qingcheng, in Japanese she is kisei

red face, troubled water
a dangerous beauty who rains ruin upon the nation

* * *

The castle-toppler originates in excess.

Sometimes she is a concubine and other times, a vagrant. Other times she is a comb sister who at
ten, swears she’d never marry, marks her oath with a mulberry stain.

Sometimes she is a goddess, but no one worships her. People spit on her shrines, leave moldy

In the flesh, she is dead and has been dead for some time. Her bones give away to mycelium
kingdoms. Wildflowers cover her limbs. Heather and heart’s ease. Mushrooms feast on her body,
worms feast on the fungus, birds feast on the worms.

And when the dawn arrives and the foxes find the birds, breaking their necks, the woman has
already been buried deep inside another instrument of hollow bones.

* * *

The first known record of a woman earning the title
of “castle-toppler” is Moxi, 末喜, imperial concubine

of King Jie, a tyrant who oppressed his people, but all his bad behaviors
were attributed to his consort—facile woman facing west

the legend goes, Moxi bathed in a lake full of red wine,
laughing at men who drowned, drunk, in its carnal

depths. Moxi loved the sound of silks tearing, so every day
new bolts arrived from the north, ripped apart

for her pleasure—laying waste to silkworms,
the women weavers, doom spelled on their looms.

* * *

The castle-toppler lives in the text.

In the text, she is inviolable in the sense that her body cannot be penetrated. A surface, a sheet.

She is imagined but never touched. It’s safer that way.

If this simulacrum begins to consume her, she can slip the knife to the silkscreen and end it.

There are so many stories she could put an end to. Because the text, like skin, also ends.

* * *

Examples of castle-topplers:

Bao Si (褒姒): the concubine of Emperor You of Zhou. Bao Si was the daughter
of a slave girl bewitched by a lizard. It was an immaculate conception.

Daji (妲己): the concubine of Emperor Zhou of Shang. Considered one of
history’s most evil women, possessed by a nine-tailed fox demon.

Xi Shi (西施): one of the Four Great Beauties of history in the Zhou. Used as a
honey trap for King Fuchai of Wu and a spy for her kingdom.

Zhao Feiyan (趙飛燕): the concubine of Emperor Cheng of Han. Rose to become
Empress Xiaocheng.

Yang Guifei (楊玉環): the concubine of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang. Scapegoated
for her kingdom’s failings, ordered executed.

* * *

Before she became a castle-toppler, she was a comb sister, and before that, she was an imperial

At the silk factory, she spun her hair on her loom—her love scalped, she was already monstrous.

She plucked out the berry and its seeds smeared her sleeve. She ate the nub, the bark. She wanted
to believe in the beauty of sericulture, of the future.

Her sisters combed their hair, parted it sideways to promise a lifetime of celibacy.

Like a silkworm threading its cocoon over and over, an eternal maiden.

Inside the cocoon, the pupa is boiled alive.

Has it given up on moth-hood, like these comb sisters give up motherhood?

The pact she makes to avoid that one common mistake—marriage, mulberry bruises, stains on
white dresses from excess drinking, excess dreaming.

* * *

In the beginning of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, , the emperor asks his counsel to explain
the calamities that marvels that have befallen his kingdom. His minister answers: Falling
rainbows and changes of bird fowl’s sexes are brought about by the interference of empresses
and eunuchs.

If beauty signaled so much power, why did four out of four historical beauties die tragically? Xi
Shi, rumored to drown in a lake, where the fish drowned in their awe of her. Yang Guifei
strangled to death in front of a Buddhist shrine. Bao Si, hung herself during a siege. Zhao Feiyan
killed herself while tomb-sweeping. Daji, executed by the state.

* * *

The castle-toppler rides the gale of justice with her rare fowl feathers.

She is a fowl, fouling the borders. She swims to escape her princes.

She is the empress of calamities and marvels.

In the palace of the world outside, they teach her what to want, how to want it.

Sleep, they tell her. You must sleep for beauty. You must sleep to not grow old. You must sleep
for many years. You must ripen.

* * *

In Xi’an, I scaled the walls at the Chang’an South Gate,
the origin of the Silk Road. Under its eaves,

I overhear a performance: “The Song of Everlasting
Sorrow,” the story of Yang Guifei, a spectacular tragedy.

The lights from the show rakes the autumn
sky. For a moment, I want to die

for love too. I have never felt that sentiment
returned. As the rebellion turned to insurrection,

Yang Guifei could not flee her kingdom. Her love
ordered her to die, so she obeyed.

I have never lived a sorrow
that deep. To romanticize history
is to forget it. That’s the privilege of nostalgia.

* * *

In her Kingdom of Self, the castle-toppler sleeps for many years.

In slumber, she is happy. Rabbit rains, a silk-spun sky. Foxes climb her shadows, lick her ankles.

The castle-toppler has a flowery dream of revenge: late at night, the palace lit with fireflies. The
revenge in the osmanthus forest smells sweet. A perfumed and honeyed poison in the air.

And when she awakens a prince sits by her bedside, staring at her.

She gathers her wits, her skirts, and she screams.

The scream lasts for two days, two nights. The scream lasts through the typhoon warnings. The
scream lasts through the typhoon and its aftermath. Rain pelts down the castle, casting a
luminous shadow over the windows. The prince covers his ears. The prince’s throat is a snuff
box to launch the torch song into.

* * *

Once I entered the palace, I understood
that nothing was mine, I was another bride
with no face, just a debauched
existence          to replace
another debauched existence
that to surviveI had to climb
the ranks palace lady / noble consort
and give birth to a son of Heaven
that the empress will poison me
that the emperor plucked me from my impoverished life
and I had to be grateful
for his cruelty
for the rest of my life that the pavilions
and plum blossoms were all tinged cherry
from hungry ghosts who are really
just out for blood that women of my rank
flung themselves over the painted palace eaves
that the view here was truly
to die for
that material comforts meant
there were no boundaries of what someone
could do to me it’s dog eat dog
and every eunuch for himself and really
I am lonely at dawn in the silks
of a lie and someone else’s dream

* * *

When the prince finally returns, she is nowhere to be found.

She climbs out, she swims in the moat that she mistakes for the sea. The prince cries out.

In a moat of scum, the castle-toppler lets her prince drown. It is not regicide, per say.

In the scholar’s gardens of pale camellias and sweet osmanthus, the castle-toppler plants skunk

Bird’s eye chilis to turn the mouths of men into silent holes for her probing, leave them without
tongue or dominion.

The castle-toppler rips the chasm open, lets her bridges, her kingdom, burn.

Sally Wen Mao on Craft

“Romance of the Castle-Toppler” and “The Peony Pavilion” are both poems which grew from my reading about Chinese literary tropes from throughout the dynasties. “The Peony Pavilion” is named after a Ming Dynasty opera written in 1598 by Tang Xianzu about a girl who falls in love with a male scholar in a dream and soon dies from lovesickness only to resurrect later to marry him. The opera was put on by Director Tan Dun at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012. It is the ultimate opera about the trope of the abject female ghost or revenant whose life and death are both hinged on romantic love.

In the poem, I wonder about this trope and the fatalism of it, as it is always written by men who see themselves as the male protagonist scholars. I think about the real-life consequences of these fantasies—nubile girls who die for love and the ways that these fantasies distort women’s selfhood and push boundaries of consent to this day.

The other trope I wanted to investigate is the castle-toppler, or kingdom destroying concubine, which is a literary historical and cultural trope of a beautiful woman who rises up in the ranks of favor, eventually distracting the emperor so much with her beauty that the entire kingdom crumbles. I became interested in this trope for its very ubiquity in countless stories, dramas, and novels throughout Asian history and literature. It’s these seductive women who are blamed when the state or the empire collapses for the crime of merely existing. Even the most coveted position as a concubine to the emperor, women are still largely regarded as pawns in the court that is full of treachery and palace intrigue. To this day, castle-toppling concubines are a favorite TV and film archetype, breaking records across the world with TV serials, such as the Story of Yanxi Palace and The Princess Weiyoung. With the poem, “Romance of the Castle-Toppler,” I wanted to examine this trope and cycle through different stories and women throughout history, in particular the stories of the four historical beauties of China, which always to seem to end with tragic demise or exile.

On Light

Content Warning: Self-harm, Suicide