Fall 2017

A Blue Cloth Robe for Ballroom Dancing


From what I knew, Wang Ying had sleek black hair pulled back with grease, mostly appearing with a centre part and a sideways glance. And when her glance entered my field of vision, I would no longer feel my feet beat upon the road. In my darkness, only she would respond to my call.  

My name is Hua and my first break as an actress came along this dark road. I was eleven years old and had survived my family, was mortally alone and my brain was doing tai chi underwater. Having worn various masks throughout my career, I realize my only aspiration ever was to be closer to Ying.

A Shanghai-based actress from the 1930s, she first made her name playing roles in films such as Goddess of Freedom (1935) and Sai Jinhua (1936). She won the latter role over the future Madame Mao, who would persecute her in the Cultural Revolution. In prison, Ying was called Prisoner Number 6742. When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke, she toured in China with a politically charged street theatre troupe. The play list included Put Down Your Whip. Outside of films, she also appeared in paintings.

1 person 
a handful of star anise  
orange rind of 1 orange 
2000 milligrams of salt 
5 fig leaves 
5 litres of whole milk  
two tablespoons of honey 
a fingernail of crushed black charcoal  
5 small pots 
tap water 
  1. Assign all ingredients a character in your language of choice. Write a lyric for each of these ingredients as you fill the bathtub with hot water. The steam should help lubricate your poetry.
  2. Apply one tablespoon of honey to cover the breadth of your eyebrow. Using the crushed charcoal, divide it between your brows and affix to the honey. The honey should be viscous and not drip.
  3. Pour one litre of milk into each pot slowly in a counter-clockwise spiral. Like runners on a racetrack, the path must run counter-clockwise. Do this over the course of ten minutes.
  4. Turn off the tap running into the bathtub and bring the star anise into the water by submerging your left hand fully into the basin. Release. Pour in all of the salt.
  5. Stir the rind of one orange into the pots of milk and place the pots into the bathtub. The bottom of the pots should not touch the floor of the tub. If they do, add more salt to the water.
  6. When it feels right, empty each pot of milk and orange rind into the tub and place a fig leaf where the pot once floated.
  7. Submerge your body into the bathtub until your fingers and toes turn into raisins. Recall the lyrics for these ingredients as you wash your body.

Wang Ying (R) and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House (1943). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

For this edition of Put Down Your Whip, Ying had prepared a weathered snakeskin whip and a sash of sturdy red silk. They lay on a bed of green lawn, which happened to be the most irrigated crop of the whole United States. I couldn't discern why these objects would choose to lie beside each other outside of one being a tool to enact pain and the other, pleasure. Once upon a time, both the whip and sash were more animate, invested in the bodies of slender desert snakes and fat mulberry-eating worms.

Ying finally arrives with a much older man. A small crowd of men in suits are gathered here today, one of them President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. Ying was introduced to him and ended up here—the first Chinese actress to perform for an American president. From the second lives of snakes and silkworms, the study of ethnic specimens experienced a migration to Ying’s body.

With intention, she extends her right leg, pointing her toe toward the White House. Arching her back, her arms reach beyond her head like a feline with cramps. As she barely holds on to gravity’s temptation, I imagine her succeeding in these acrobatics. She was a fast-falling painting. If we followed her toe’s line, we would end up inside the White House.

Ying stumbles onto the green, and jumps back up again gripping the red silk sash. Ying plummets to the earth. Snap, goes the old man’s whip. We cry out, but only Ying’s mouth makes a sound.   

6 or 12 people 
red silk sash measuring height of room 
full room interior 
five heads of garlic 
mallet (not metal) 
12 full cloves 
long matchsticks and box 
6 cutting utensils             
  1. Cover the walls, ceiling, and floor of a room with red sash including all windows, doorways, and openings. Wallpaper counts as well. If unsure of what tone, quality, or brightness of red, clarify in your own heart with all honesty that the red chosen counts as red to you.
  2. Smash five heads of garlic with a mallet and place in a ring in the centre of the room. This mallet must not be made of metal, anything but metal.
  3. Hang thin thread soaked in sesame oil from the centre of ceiling down to the floor. This thread should rest in the middle of the five smashed garlic heads.
  4. Using more thread, tie twelve full cloves to the centre thread.
  5. Engulf each of these cloves in fire. Keep flame small and resist its desire to spread vertically.
  6. Cut your way out of windows, doors, and other openings from where you remember them to be.

Xu Beihong, Put Down Your Whip (1939). Oil on canvas. 144 x 90 cm. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

It was broad daylight when they received the call. She had been declared missing since 1954, only to turn up in Hong Kong in 2007. This rare sighting cost an anonymous collector 11.7 million Canadian dollars. 

The collector has his two arms raised at a ninety-degree angle to the rest of his body. His wrists are limp and his hands superfluous. From 1954 to 2007, he possessed the oil-rendered portrait of Ying with the red silk sash in Put Down Your Whip. Xu Beihong painted it and the work was the most expensive Chinese painting ever sold at that time. 

Ying could render herself transparent and opaque at will. I always suspect that the Mingxing Studio, most active in the 1930s, rolled up her skin when they packed her bags to the United States, relegating her to a life of disappearance and reappearance through media. 

Ying told me that from 1956 to 2009, there were 78 mentions of the painted skin in the People’s Daily. These types of painted skin took the form of political forgeries, the whole USSR, and product scams. The term came from an eighteenth-century story published in a collection called Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (1740). In Pu Songling’s tale of “The Painted Skin,” there was a beautiful woman, a Daoist priest, a foolish scholar, and arguably, his foolish wife. The foolish scholar falls in love with the beautiful woman, who later reveals herself to be a horrible demon. No one knows what she was after.

The Daoist priest ends up attacking the demon. The demon puffs up in black smoke and the priest rolls up her skin. I imagine the priest trying her skin on at home, as he avoids the black smoke of future pollutants. The scholar’s wife sacrifices herself to save the foolish scholar’s soul. Years later, university types would react in outrage, wondering why she would save that worthless man. 

The painted skin is an empty vessel. It is something a demon can put on and take off. It always takes the form of a beautiful woman hiding dark sorcery. And it is the boundary between a reality governed by physics and that of the supernatural. Usually, we think of painted skin as white female skin, like the body of Scarlett Johansson. Notably, she plays an empty vessel in LucyGhost in the Shell, and Under the Skin. Johansson is the Keanu Reeves of our times. 

The collector had the pleasure of rolling up the canvas of Ying’s image to prepare for transport. A successful hunter, he would display his find to an elite few. Who else desires to roll up Ying’s skin?              

2 people 
2 chairs 
4 litres of distilled water 
2 foot basins 
6 handfuls of wild daisies 
2 hard surfaces 
1 metronome  
2 large sheets of newsprint 
80 bottles of nail polish, different colours 
  1. Place the metronome in the centre of an enclosed room and set it at a tempo of 66–76, slow but stately.
  2. Set two chairs facing each other with one foot basin in front of each.
  3. Divide the water between the two basins.
  4. One person each should grind the wild daisies between their palms for 100 beats of the metronome before submerging their handfuls of daisies into their water basin.
  5. Two people take turns in selecting and dividing the nail polish bottles.
  6. Each person should take a seat in their chair and submerge their bare feet in the basin.
  7. On the hard surface, each person should take one sheet of newsprint and flatten it with their daisy-soaked palms.
  8. With the nail polish, render self-portraits based off of the lighting cast on the other person.

Illustration of “The Painted Skin” from Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio released with commentary (1886). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

The feminized stars floated above the parquet floor, as if they had strong magnets embedded in their feet repelling them upwards. They gazed about in sophisticated makeup masks with fine silks hung on their bodies. Sparkling in diamonds and jewellery, each starlet shone brighter than the last. Foreign dignitaries littered throughout the social provided sheets of negative space in their black and white suits. 

Ying arrives in a neck-to-ankle jacket, cut in thick velour. Her gaze follows the length of her arm as she peels off her outermost skin. Underneath, she is wearing naught but a crude blue cloth. Silence descends like mythical locusts, scattered at first and totalizing at last. No one dares meet her gaze except for Ai Xia. Reportedly, she was the first Chinese actress to have committed suicide. Later, her death inspired the film New Women (1935), starring Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide as well soon after the film’s release. 

If I were to build Ying a museum, I would fill it with her nail clippings and loose hairs. All the refuse of a manicured film star I could transform to a meaningful existence as entrails. There would be an audio guide. It would tell the tale of Ying’s life from beginning to finish, from genesis to revelations. As there are barely any photographs left of her, we would work from other images. I would program newspaper plays based off her writing as a political columnist, and imagine the fury of Madame Mao at having the misfortune of being the acting rival of a face that held eyes of ground ink. 

Ying asked, “How many hearts and how many brains one must have, just so to be alive in China, to be alive as an ordinary Chinese, to bear the cross of the times?” With a crude blue cloth to go ballroom dancing, Ying divided herself into live action films and stills. As the pathway between what were the separated worlds of nature and supernatural, her skin enveloped her. It was too difficult to make it as a human.