Year of the Rabbit

“What are you dreaming of, boy?” Wang Ping flinched when he heard the ancient voice. Was the Rabbit God answering his prayer? “I asked you a question, boy. Don’t be rude.” Feeling a tug on his shirt, Wang Ping turned to an old nun, one of those he had noticed when he arrived at the temple.

“Oh, Mother,” said Wang Ping, “you startled me.” But the student was relieved that he had been approached not by a monk, but by a woman.

The girls on his campus were not the ones who made fun of the way he walked, the way he rolled his eyes, of his pathetic attempts to climb ropes in the gymnasium, a task required for some reason of all students in the Education Faculty even those who, like him, expect to teach secondary history and certainly not primary school physical education. The boys were the ones who imitated him and call him “rabbit.” Why the sudden bullying at university? Wang Ping had wondered. He had been popular in high school with cliques of boys as well as girls. He had been appreciated for his intelligence, his work ethic, his sense of humor, his willingness to be ridiculous. Not even when he volunteered to play the Nurse in the school production of Romeo and Juliet did anyone call him faggot or rabbit—at least to his face.

But his life was very different at the Normal University. Maybe . . . maybe it was that moment when in their pup tent during the orientation camping trip his arm came too close to Zhang Wei’s leg. Zhang Wei had stood, wrapped himself in the blanket he pulled from where they had lain, and left for another tent. Maybe? Certainly! That careless gesture had ruined his reputation. But was it careless? Wang Ping had to admit he had admired Zhang Wei, his powerful physique, his apparent affability, his warmth. College life had become very cold ever since that unhappy night.

In classes, catcalls were stage-whispered. Dr. Li had heard them, of course. Why else would he have tasked him to research the legend of the Rabbit God? Everyone in the class was assigned to determine the facts and fictions of a traditional folk tale and prepare a paper based on the research undertaken in the rich library of the University which had survived centuries despite turmoil, plagues, revolutions, and even the Maoist era.

Dr. Li didn’t say “Rabbit God” when he announced Lu’s topic. “Comrade Lu Wang Ping,” he said in that lilting voice of his, “you will separate the lies from the truth of a tale from our own city of Fuzhou: the story of Tu’er Shan.”

Thus, when approached by the ancient nun, Wang Ping could explain, without shame, that he was a student at Fujian Normal University engaged in a research project, that he had concluded from his exploration of chronicles and atlases that this place, this Temple, had not always been dedicated to Dizhang, but had honored Tu’er Shan, the Rabbit God, until desecrated by Zhu Gui 250 years ago.

The nun remained sanguine as Wang Ping spoke.

“And this tree I found you embracing?” she asked.

“Grows above the grave of the Rabbit God.”

“Gods do not die.”

“Tu’er Shan had been a man.” Wang Ping repeated to the nun what he had learned of the life and death of Hu Tianbao and related what he had pieced together from various snippets of tales told and written in the aftermath of Hu’s death.

Four weeks after the murder of Hu Tianbao, Wang Ping said, the Heibai Wuchang appeared in a dream to the Yushi. “You know of the Heibai Wuchang, yes, Sister?”

“The two deities, one black and one white, in thrall to Yama, the god of the underworld.”

“Yes,” Wang Ping went on, “but this night they appeared as one entity with two sides.”

“Because they needed both to condemn the Yushi and to offer him the means for repentance.”

“You know this story, Sister?”

“I know the gods. Go on, boy.”

“The Heibai Wuchang told the Yushi that when they had carried Hu Tianbao to the underworld, he had told Yama of his encounter with his killer. The Black Side faced the Yushi and told him he had sinned in taking advantage of a young man who loved him. And, the Black Side said, he had made matters far worse by killing the boy.

“The Yushi yelled aloud in his sleep—so loud that his neighbors heard the screams and gathered in the street outside the Yushi’s bedroom—that Hu Tianbao had lied, that he was an abomination who had to be exterminated.

“But, of course, in saying so, the Yushi admitted his responsibility for the killing. The Black Side told the Yushi that his two attendants had already admitted to Yama himself their part in the murder for they had died in their sleep only hours ago.

“The Yushi understood that this meant he too was doomed.”

The nun interrupted Wang Ping’s narrative. “Until the White Side of the Heibai Wuchang turned to face the Yushi.”

“Yes,” said Wang Ping, “and in its arms was a little white bunny no more than one month old.”

“Yes,” said the nun, “and the bunny spoke.”

“The bunny said,” continued Wang Ping, “that it held the soul of Hu Tianbao who was at first mocked in the Underworld not for his attraction to a man, but for his attraction to a man of higher standing. Nonetheless, the God of the Underworld saw the purity of Hu’s love for the Yushi and so raised Hu to the status of Tu’Er Shan, a Rabbit God sacred to those who love those of their own sex. The White Side ordered the Yushi to build at the tree where he had murdered Hu Tianbao a shrine to the Rabbit God and a temple where homosexuals may safely find pleasure and perhaps even love.”

“Oh,” the nun laughed, “how the Yushi wanted to reject the charge! But he knew the power of the Heibai Wuchang was irresistible. Within months, this place arose. The Yushi who was, as Tu’Er Shan well knew, homosexual himself, quietly explained to like-minded laborers on the project what they were constructing and invited them to celebrate the Rabbit God once their work was finished. For as long as he lived, the Yushi protected the temple, peopled it with priests and nuns of a similar bent . . . ” The nun’s eyes twinkled and her mouth showed the semblance of a smile. “And he sought to arrange for his successors in officialdom to be devotees of Tu’Er Shan.”

“Until 1765 and the desecration of this place by Zhu Gai.”


“And the eradication from Fuzhou of Tu’Er Shan.”

“It would seem. But—” The nun interrupted herself.


“This tree flourishes. From the man buried beneath it and the god who has risen above it.”

“Mother, is there nothing left here of the statue of Tu’Er Shan?”

“No. But I can tell you something about that statue you will not find in your library books.”

“And what is that?”

“The statue of the Tu’Er Shan that stood in this temple was commissioned by the Yushi from a local artist to rise more than life-sized but otherwise to resemble Hu Tianbao . . . as naked as the Yushi remembered him.”

“I have read that in the library, Mother. Zhu Gai made no secret of the art—the pornography he called it—he destroyed.”

“But there were two details, two red circles, on the statue of the god that Zhu Gai neither understood nor would have noted.”

“Two red circles?”

“One was painted, at the order of the Yushi, around the genitals of Tu’Er Shan . . . ”

Wang Ping started, his face blushing.

“. . . because when the Yushi’s murderers found Hu Tianbao, he had yet to dress himself. He quickly stood, holding his clothes against his middle to greet the men. They laughed as one used his sword to flick away the boy’s attempt at modesty. And the other raised his battle-ax and let it sweep down Hu Tianbao’s belly, dismembering him.”

Sweating profusely, Wang Ping bent over, his face between his knees. The nun placed a hand on his back. “Shocking, I know,” she said, rubbing the student’s back. After some minutes, she asked Wang Ping if he could guess where the other red circle had been painted on Tu’Er Shan. The boy nodded. “Show me,” said the nun.

Wang Ping sat up slowly and pointed at the red birthmark that peeked above the crew neck collar of his tee shirt. The nun smiled.

“What does this mean?”

“The murderers decapitated Hu Tianbao.”

Wang Ping beat his fist on his breastbone over and over. “What does this mean?”

“You are Hu. You are Tu’Er Shan. And you have returned.”

Wang Ping felt his head hit the ground. It lay there on its side, but his eyes were wide open and saw his naked body slumped against the cryptomeria tree. Blood poured from between his legs; his genitals hung from the toes of his right foot. Although he could see no one else, he felt a hand, a gentle hand, on his breast. He heard his name, and the name was Wang Ping.



James Penha

Expat New Yorker James Penha (he/him) has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work is widely published in journals and anthologies. His newest chapbook of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is available for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. 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 Thursday, June 18, 2020 - 21:33