He was named ‘To Shine on the East’, a lofty expectation for a Chinese peasant’s son, in a land where lofty aspirations for sons was common. Two hundred years ago a poem was written by this boy’s ancestors. These long-remembered elders of his ancient clan had been the first to give him a name, centuries before he took his first breath.
Every character of this ancient clan poem was expected to be used as the first character of the names of each successive generation. It was a noble-minded goal, lofty in ambition, and caring little for the weight of expectation it would lay upon the generations to come. For what was the duty of descendants but to serve the dreams of those who came before.
The poem was only halfway completed, written in the lives of generations of descendants, stretching back into the venerable past, and stretching forward into the ever-respectful future.
But To Shine on the East, like many peasants, would struggle, his mother thought, to live up to the expectations such a name would place on him. While the proper learning and recitation of ancient regulations could, with luck and proper conduct, lift a peasant to the highest heights imaginable, such a road was long, and harder than most could stand. More likely by far he would take over his father’s business, knowing letters enough to write orders for grain, and figure sums for payment.
Thus a more earthy name was appropriate, a name that could lend toughness, fortitude to the boy. A willingness to simply endure, come what may, though dreams and ideals be lost along the way. Many peasants had such second names, to shelter them from the unendurable weight of the accumulated expectations upon their necks.
Today the boy’s mother brought him to a hillside, a few li from the village. The boy’s mother had no name. Before she became ‘Wife’ and ‘Mother’, she was merely named ‘Second Sister’. What need had she for more than this? No ancestor’s dreams weighed on her shoulders. The only expectations placed on her back were those of her immediate family, those of her husband and children. And surely those were heavy enough for any woman.
On the hillside stood a stone, ancient and still. The wind didn’t touch it. At its cracked base there was a spring; magical, whispering. About it hung ribbons, thread, coloured paper, in colours of red, blue, and yellow. Some were old and faded, so old they must have been placed even before the boy’s ancestors had dreamed of him. People had knelt at this stone before the Buddha had been born, before Confucius had spoken, before the First Emperor had placed his silken slippers upon the red earth and claimed it in the name of Heaven.
None of those people had dreamed of this day, of this boy who knelt before the stone, and bowed low, kowtowing as he had been taught. And the stone itself didn’t care. It merely was. Yet the boy gave it honour, gave it his obeisance. And in return the boy took its name. Adopted by this new mother, he became the Child of Stone, Shisan Yazi.
What did his new mother of stone teach Shizan Yazi, as he grew? It did not teach him the slow patience of the earth, for he was ever impatient for greater things, greater position, greater wealth and comforts, greater obeisance from others.
It did not teach him to respect his humble home, for he abandoned them all as quickly as he could, his family, his wife, his children, running to grasp something he and only he could see. He abandoned his village and the soil without a thought, and turned to the study of books, which he disdained and abandoned just as quickly. He chased the dreams of others and stole them for his own, and betrayed them whenever he needed to.
He raised an army of young boys, led them to their deaths, and walked away content with the advantage it had brought him. He tricked his enemies into peace, so he could kill them quicker. He gave his friends his support to strengthen them, and then executed them for being too strong. He sold his countrymen into slavery by promising them freedom. He strode among the priceless treasures of five thousand years, and crushed them under his feet without care or regret.
Perhaps his stone mother taught him stubbornness instead, implacability. Perhaps it taught him that he too could stand solemnly, do nothing, and be worshiped. A fine life, his stone mother led, he may have thought even then. For he made images of himself, to stand before the people, paintings to hang on every wall and statues to stand upon every square. He stood there, thousands of stone selves staring out at nothing, while men of mere flesh bent and scraped before him.
Perhaps it taught him that strength was more important than love. That greatness was more important than people. For countless millions of his countrymen would die under his hand and eye. And he would care nothing when he heard. For he knew his country now stood astride the world and he could take his place among those who decided the fate of nations.
Later, Shizan Yazi would return. A man of his own making, with a name of his own choosing. Within the borders of his world he had no peer, no opponent. All were crushed and long-dead beneath his feet. Unlike his stone mother he preferred to sit and be carried rather than stand, but like her he paid no attention to those who fawned about him. He was as cold and merciless as stone, and he cared as much as his mother did for the sufferings of those who crowded about him looking for relief from their weighty burdens.
He entered the village of his birth and smiled at the admirers and subordinates who sat at his table. He had long since shaken off the expectations of his ancestors by then. They could never have dreamed of what he had wrought. But the Child of Stone cared nothing now for the dreams of the dead.
In the village of his birth he grinned with a face made of flesh and bone. The woman who bore him was long dead, unmourned by the boy. But he asked, ‘should we not wait for my mother before we eat?’ And the table laughed dutifully, but not one of them enjoyed the joke. For all life and breath had long passed, and only stone now stood in its place.