“I refuse to be nothing…”
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty—publishing July 20th with Tor Books.
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
The new novice monk Zhu Chongba woke to a thud so deep she thought it came from inside her own body. Even as she startled it came again, and was answered by a clear tone of such volume that it rang in her bones. Light flared on the other side of the dormitory’s window-paper. All around her bodies were in motion: boys already in their trousers and undershirts were throwing on peasant-style short inner robes, then over them the wide-sleeved gray monastic robes, and running for the door. Straw sandals slapped as the mass of them burst from the room like a school of bald-headed fish. Zhu ran at the rear, her gray robe tangling between her legs. To be Chongba she would have to run as fast as he would have, think faster than he would have thought, look how he would have looked. She was smaller than the boys, but the enveloping robes made her otherwise identical. She touched her newly shaved head. Her hair was too short to even have a nap; it was as unfriendly to her fingers as a scrubbing brush.
As they ran their panted breath and slapping feet added their own music to the pounding of the drum. Gaping as she ran, Zhu thought she could have risen into the Heavenly realm of the Jade Emperor and not found it any stranger. They were crossing a dark courtyard. Ahead rose a towering black-beamed hall, lanterns casting light under the golden eaves. Behind, stairs climbed into the darkness. Without the clarity of day the monastery seemed a world without end, vanishing forever upwards into the shadow of the mountain.
The boys joined a serpentine line of monks ascending to the hall. There was no time for Zhu to look around as they entered: monks were peeling left and right from the front of the line, each finding some space particular to themselves and sinking onto crossed legs. Zhu, coming in last, saw the filled hall before her: ranks upon ranks of monks, as evenly spaced and motionless as statues in an ancient tomb.
The drum ceased. The bell rang once more, and was silent. The transition from haste to stillness was as jarring as anything that had gone before. Such was the silence that when a voice finally spoke it was alien and incomprehensible. It was the red-robed monk who had let Zhu in. He was chanting. His pouched lids were as round as a beetle’s wings; his cheeks sagged. It should have been a dull face. Instead its heaviness gathered upon itself: it had the potential of a boulder poised high above. Zhu, fascinated, barely breathed. After a moment the monk stopped chanting and other voices took it up, a ringing male murmur that filled even that massive hall. And then a board was struck, and the bell rang, and the monks and novices bolted to their feet and ran out of the hall as one, with Zhu stumbling behind.
The smell announced the next stop before she even saw it. Though a girl, Zhu was a peasant; she had no sensibilities to offend. Even so, the sight of monks and novices pissing and shitting in unison was shocking. Recoiling against the wall, she waited until the last of them had gone before relieving herself, then ran out looking for where they had gone.
The last gray robe was whisking through a doorway. Smell also announced this destination, but infinitely more pleasurably. Food. Single-minded, Zhu dashed inside—only to be grabbed by the collar and yanked back out again.
“Novice! Did you not hear the bell? You’re late.” The monk brandished a bamboo stick at Zhu, and her heart sank. In the long room beyond she could see the other monks and novices sitting on cushions in front of low individual tables. Another monk was setting out bowls. Her stomach panged. For a moment she thought she might not get to eat, and it was a feeling so dreadful it eclipsed even fear.
“You must be new. Take the punishment, or don’t eat,” the monk snapped. “Which will it be?”
Zhu stared at him. It was the stupidest question she had ever heard.
She held out her hands; the monk lashed them with the stick; she darted inside, panting, and threw herself down at an empty table beside the nearest novice. A bowl was laid before her. She lunged at it. It was the best food she had ever eaten; she thought she could never get enough. Chewy barley and sour mustard greens and radish stewed in sweet fermented bean paste: every bite was a revelation. No sooner had she finished than the serving monk poured water into her bowl. Following the other novices, Zhu gulped the water and wiped the bowl out with the hem of her robe. The monk came around again to take the bowls. The whole process of eating and cleaning had taken less time than it took to boil a pot of water for tea. Then the adult monks rose and stampeded away in their intense hurry to go somewhere and probably sit in silence again.
As she rose with the other novices, Zhu became aware of her stomach hurting in an unfamiliar way. It took her a few moments to understand what it was. Full, she thought, astonished. And for the first time since leaving Zhongli village—for the first time since her father had offered her up to the bandits, and she had learned what nothingness really meant—she believed she could survive.
The novices, who ranged from small boys to grown men of nearly twenty, split into groups according to age. Zhu hurried up flight after flight of stone stairs behind the youngest novices. Her breath plumed against a crisp blue dawn. The mountain’s tangled green slope climbed alongside them. The taste of it landed on Zhu’s tongue: a rich, heady fizz of life and decay that was unlike anything she’d ever known.
From somewhere far beneath came a rhythmic wooden clacking, then the call of the bell. Now that there was light to see, Zhu saw the monastery was a series of terraces carved into the mountainside, each one jammed with green-roofed wooden buildings and courtyards and a maze of narrow paths between. Incense breathed out of dark recesses. In one she caught a glimpse of a pile of bright fruit surrounded by a slow-moving crowd of white shapes. More monks. But even as the thought formed she felt a cold caress run over her shaved scalp.
Her heart hammered, and she was running before she realized it: upward, away from that dark place. To her relief, a moment later the novices reached their destination on one of the very highest terraces. They stepped out of their sandals and went into a long airy room. The latticed windows had been flung open along one side of the room for a view of a neatly farmed valley beneath. Inside, about a dozen low tables were arranged on a dark wooden floor that had been polished by so many centuries of use that all Zhu could feel against her bare soles was a liquid coolness.
She took an empty desk and felt her fright fading as she touched the curious things on it. A brush made of some kind of soft dark hair, and a white square of something like cloth. Paper. A sloping stone dish with a pool of water in the low end. A short black stick that left her fingers sooty. The other boys had already taken up their sticks and were grinding them in the dishes. Zhu copied them, and watched with growing delight as the pool in her dish became as dark as an eye. Ink. She wondered if she was the first person from Zhongli village to see these half-magical items the stories had spoken of.
Just then a monk swept in, smacking a bamboo stick into his hand. Split down the middle, the stick’s two halves clacked so violently that Zhu jumped. It was the wrong move. The monk’s eyes shot to her. “Well, well. Our new arrival,” he said unpleasantly. “I hope you have more qualifications for being here than simply being as persistent as ants on a bone.”
The monk stalked over to Zhu’s desk. Zhu stared up at him in fear, her delight forgotten. Unlike the browned, dirt-encrusted Zhongli peasants, the monk’s face was as pale and finely wrinkled as tofu skin. Every wrinkle was angled downwards by scorn and sourness, and his eyes glared at her out of dark hollows. He slapped an object down, making her jump a second time. “Read.”
Zhu regarded the object with the looming, inchoate dread she recognized from nightmares. A book. Slowly, she opened it and gazed at the shapes running down the lined pages. Each shape was as unique as a leaf. And to Zhu, as comprehensible as leaves; she couldn’t read a single one.
“Of course,” said the monk scathingly. “A stinking, illiterate peasant, and somehow I’m expected to turn him into an educated monk! If the Abbot wanted miracles, he should have chosen a bodhisattva as his Novice Master—” He rapped Zhu’s hand with the stick so she drew it back with a gasp, and prodded the book around until it faced the other way. “How different novice training is these days! When I was a novice we were trained by monks yelling orders at us day and night. We worked until we collapsed, then we were beaten until we got up again, and each day we had only one meal and three hours of sleep. We continued that way until we had no thought; no will; no self. We were only empty vessels, purely of the moment. That is the proper teaching of novices. What need does a bodhisattva, an enlightened one, have for worldly knowledge, as long as he can transmit the dharma? But this abbot—” His lips pursed. “He has different ideas. He insists on educating his monks. He wants them to be able to read and write, and use an abacus. As if our monastery were nothing more than some petty business concerned only with its rents and profits! But—regardless of how I feel, unfortunately the task of your education falls to me.”
He regarded her with disgust. “I have no idea what he was thinking to let you in. Look at the size of you! A cricket would be bigger. What year were you born?”
Zhu bowed low over her desk, ignoring the way the book’s sweet smell made her stomach twinge with interest. “Year of the—” Her voice croaked with disuse. She cleared her throat and managed, “Year of the Pig.”
“Eleven! When the usual age of admission is twelve.” A new note of vindictiveness entered the monk’s voice. “I suppose having received the Abbot’s favor makes you think you’re something special, Novice Zhu.”
It would have been bad enough to be disliked for her own inadequacies. With a sinking feeling, Zhu realized it was worse: she was the personification of the Abbot’s meddling in what the Novice Master clearly regarded as his own business. “No,” she mumbled. She hoped he could see the truth of it. Let me be normal. Let me just survive.
“The correct formulation is: ‘No, Prefect Fang,’” he snapped. “The Abbot may have let you in, but this is my domain. As Novice Master, it falls to me to decide whether or not you’re meeting expectations. Rest assured that I’ll give you no special considerations for being a year younger. So be prepared to keep up with the lessons and the labor, or save my time and leave now!”
Leave. Terror surged into her. How could she leave, when the only thing outside the monastery was the fate she had left behind? But at the same time she was painfully aware that she wasn’t just a year younger than the youngest novices. Chongba was a year younger. She had been born in the year of the Rat, another year after that. Two years younger: Could she really keep up?
Her brother’s face swam before her eyes, kingly with entitlement. Useless girl.
Some new hardness inside her answered: I’ll be better at being you than you ever were.
Addressing the desk, she said urgently, “This unworthy novice will keep up!”
She could feel Prefect Fang’s eyes burning into her shaved scalp. After a moment his stick came into view and jabbed her upright. He took her brush and swiftly wrote three characters descending from the top right-hand corner of her paper. “Zhu Chongba. Lucky double eight. They say there’s truth in names, and you’ve certainly had luck enough! Although in my experience, lucky people tend to be the laziest.” His lip curled. “Well, let’s see if you can work. Learn your name and the first hundred characters of that primer, and I’ll test you on them tomorrow.” His sour look made Zhu shiver. She knew exactly what it meant. He would be watching her, waiting for her to fall behind or make a mistake. And for her, there would be no allowances.
I can’t leave.
She looked down at the characters drying on the page. In all her life she’d never had luck, and she’d never been lazy. If she had to learn in order to survive, then she would learn. She picked up the brush and started writing. Zhu Chongba.
Excerpted from She Who Became the Sun, copyright © 2021 by Shelley Parker-Chan.