Twelve Chinese Confessions, 1963
For Hong Sing Yee 曹雄茂
The story was clean.
He was the son of his uncle.
His uncle was a citizen.
He knew every neighbor, pebble,
rooster in the village that wasn’t
To prove yourself, the lie must be clean. To the bone, as if teeth. I folded the paper into eighths and sixteenths, thumbed the folds
until I became smooth.
Unblemished enough to be the
As a school boy I learned the
weight of ink. Within my name’s
twenty-one strokes, a great
short-tailed bird. How many
times do you write a thing before
you become it? My father named
all of his sons hero; I wanted
nothing more than to be worth
my name, its flight of soot and
salt across the page.
The Four Great Inventions of ancient China—paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass—were named by Europeans after discovering that Europe had not, in fact, invented them. There are over two hundred and seventy Chinese inventions; the Four are deemed significant because of their meaning for the West. A paper name becomes significant because of its meaning to the state. No one cares for all your names until one of them bears a threat.
them were true. Cooking
hamburgers for the Oakland
Raiders by the Coliseum,
driving their three sons to
Chinese school in the blue
Ford sedan. They practiced
English faithfully. Handwrote
birthday cards to their
grandchildren in jagged loops,
each envelope hugging a crisp
As a young man, my brush
washed paper with possibility.
Within my new name’s six
strokes, an open mouth. Small
mirror of the sun. How many
times do you write a thing before
you become it? As my father, my
uncle named my brother and Ifor
togetherness, same as one. Of
course I joined them in the
golden country; I wanted nothing
more than to fulfill my name.
You call me ingenious. You want to eliminate the proof. But I was born twice; the second by my hand and yours.
A Han Dynasty eunuch is credited for inventing paper using mulberry bark and rags. He was inspired by watching wasps weave their nests. Or, he stole the idea from someone of a lower class. Maybe the history of paper cannot be understood without myth or deceit. All that the archive leaves blank.
I never did know their true
names. I have not seen nor heard
of any of them for over ten years.
The mulberry tree shares the same family as the banyan tree. Known as the strangler fig, the banyan must be cultivated from a seed or dropped onto tree tops by fruit-eating birds. Once lodged in a crevice of the host tree, the seed sends webs of roots towards the ground, engulfing its host until it perishes. The banyans can grow up to 100 feet tall and acres wide, centuries old.
There is a village where the banyan trees stand. They watched the men who planted them go. Still they wait for the men’s return.
Paper is a Chinese invention,
made by pulping fibers into a
screen’s sharp border. Paper
nation. Paper womb. I spell my
name 3 different ways and all of
them are true. Smothering in ink,
I make myself the proof: I have
always been here. Always, I have
Of what country do you now claim to be a citizen?
In my true name I am citizen of sky
my mother’s hands
fist fights with my brother in the forgotten country’s dust
Citizen of the wok and the customer’s full belly
my three boys running with wooden bows and string
Your file knows my three names, but not how to speak them.
I enter a new nation each time they are called.