Year of the Rabbit

Lu Wang Ping dropped his books in his dormitory room immediately after the day’s last lesson and headed to the Minjang River which he crossed at the Liuyi Road Bridge. He followed the Road for an hour until he reached Jin’anhe Park where he sat facing the Jin’an River to catch his breath and the breezes, drink a small bottle of water from his backpack, and check the route on his phone: follow the river to the first bridge, cross and walk along the east bank, make a right at Jinjishan Road.

From there Wang Ping needed the GPS to negotiate the small alleyways to Anwei Street and his goal, the Dizhang Buddhist Temple. He recognized the red walls of the Temple and its portico from the pictures he had found on the internet. The unspoiled condition of the building surprised him. Dizhang is the oldest temple in Fuzhou, after all, dating from 571 AD. But the original construction, Wang Ping knew from his research and his intuition, was not what he saw on this day in the twenty-first century.

No, this had once been the Taoist temple of Tu’Er Shan, the Rabbit God, its ceilings painted not as they are now with moments in the life of Kshitigarbha Bodhisattv, the Buddhist monk known as Dizhang, but with wildly erotic scenes of men loving men and women loving women above the approving eyes of the great statue at the center of the hall—not the golden Dizhang, but the wooden carving of a red-faced young man with tall hare-like ears and an even taller erection. This was the Rabbit God to whom the homosexuals of Fuzhou City had entreated for more than one thousand years to bless them . . . and to help them find others like themselves.

It is certain, Wang Ping chuckled, that the Rabbit God was extraordinarily successful in answering the petitions of his devotees since all they had to do was to catch the eyes and hands and genitals of their fellow petitioners in the shrine. Wang Ping looked around as he entered the old temple and wondered if men like him trysted yet under the eyes of Dizhang. He doubted it. Buddhism was not as open to a liberated sexuality as was the Tao, although neither religion condemns homosexuality and both teach that a balanced, virtuous sex life leads to enlightenment. As he selected rods of incense to waft in favor of Dizhang, Wang Ping saw no one but priests and nuns who, if they followed the tenets of their religion, had vowed to remain celibate.

In 1765, Zhu Gui, a Yushi monitor in the detection branch of the Emperor’s Censorate, declared that it was his destiny to rid Fujian Province of immorality. When he learned from his spies of a Temple in Fuzhou where shameless uranians held unending orgies around a leporine idol, he realized he had found the perfect target to promote his promise to make Fujian clean again—a target as vulnerable, Wang Ping had learned, as the life of the man Hu Tianbao who had become, after his martyrdom at the hands of a predecessor of Zhu Gui, the Rabbit God.

Zhu Gui had the wooden statue of the Rabbit God removed from the Temple and brought to the Liuyi Road Bridge where a crowd had readied knives and axes to hack the carving into chunks and splinters to be tossed into the Jin’an River. Zhu Gui led the mob back to the Temple to rip apart images of the debauchery that had taken place there: scroll after painted scroll of ecstatic men, their hardened penises in each other’s hands, mouths, and anuses, and of smiling women licking the clitorides of their open-legged consorts. Down the Jin’an River soon floated pastel pink nipples pulled from breasts, white paper clouds of semen, and curls of ink torn from heads and groins.

But Zhu Gui had not known enough to destroy what had made the Temple sacred to the memory of the Rabbit God: the great cryptomeria tree under which Hu Tianbao, the man who had become the Rabbit God, was buried.

Lu Wang Ping determined that only the Dizhang Temple fit the geography of the desecrated shrine described in the chronicles of Zhu Gai. He was fortunate that Fujian Normal University retained local histories among the holdings in one of the most complete libraries in China, undefiled even during the Cultural Revolution.

And he was fortunate that he was taught by Dr. Li, a Professor who had bothered and dared to assign him to research the story of Hu Tianbao, a student smitten, in the early years of the Qing Dynasty, with a handsome young Yushi appointed to inspect Fuzhou. As the Yushi traveled the city in his sedan chair, he became discomfited by the all-too-frequent appearances of this student who, the Yushi surmised, seemed to be following him. Was the student, the Yushi wondered, another censor tasked with monitoring the monitor? The Yushi commanded his carriers to travel to a remote forest near the Jin’an River. If the student followed him there, on a route that rocked and tilted the sedan chair as the carriers struggled to walk between cryptomeria trees, the Yushi would know the student was up to no good. And, indeed, when the Yushi ordered the bearers to settle the chair so that he could stroll several meters into the foliage where he opened his robe to relieve himself, he saw Hu Tianbao smiling in front of him.

“I have been waiting and waiting, your Excellency, for you to show yourself to me,” whispered Hu.

The Yushi dropped his robe and raised his walking stick. “What? Show myself? To you?” the Yushi yelled angrily and struck Hu’s face with the stick back and forth three times. The boy collapsed onto the ground bleeding. “I can kill you here where no one, not even the Emperor, will find your body.”

“Mercy, please, Excellency,” cried the student.

“Why have you been following me?”

“Because,” the student sobbed, “because you are so beautiful.”

The Yushi dropped the stick and knelt down at the side of the student. “And?”

“And I have wanted to hold you, to kiss you. But you are an Excellency and I am nothing but a poor student. And . . . ”

“And?”

“And so I have followed you to fill my eyes and my heart with the sight of you.”

“But you want me to fill you in other ways?”

“I dream of it.”

“Dream no more,” said the Yushi. “Stand up. Disrobe.” Hu Tianbao did so.

When Hu was naked, the Yushi again raised his own robe above the head of the student. The Yushi leaned into Hu who hugged the cryptomeria against which the Yushi made him cry with a rhapsodic pain.

After emitting his seed inside the student, the Yushi sat with the boy, still naked and aroused, and told him how glad he was to have been followed, but that now he must return to the sedan chair and his rounds. The student should pleasure himself in this very spot under the cryptomeria and linger an hour or so, only then to return to the center of Fuzhou never to speak of their encounter.

When the Yushi roused his carriers, he said he wanted only the strongest four to bear the sedan chair. He ordered the other two to find the student, kill him, and bury the body beneath the cryptomeria tree.

Lu Wang Ping saw just outside the temple an ancient cryptomeria, a remnant of the conifer forest that, hundreds of years ago, extended from Jin’anhe Park to this part of Fuzhou. Confident that this tree marked the grave of Tu’Er Shan, the Rabbit God, Wang Ping approached the tree and, closing his eyes to meditate, pressed his hands into the trunk much, the young man imagined, as, centuries before, Hu Tianbao had.

 

 

James Penha

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his verse appears this year in Headcase: LGBTQ Writers & Artists on Mental Health and Wellness published by Oxford UP and Lovejets: queer male poets on 200 years of Walt Whitman from Squares and Rebels. His essay "It's Been a Long Time Coming" was featured in The New York Times "Modern Love" column in April 2016. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha. James recommends the Ali Forney Center.

 

Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 - 21:58