The Body’s Language (from Mourning a Breast)
by Xi Xi, translated from the Chinese by Jennifer Feeley
For half a century, my body and I have depended on each other for survival. Throughout this long period of time, I’ve barely thought about having a body. When I was a child, my mother was naturally the one who took care of it. By the time I could eat and walk, I was still unaware of its existence. Now and then I’d fall, and it was the skin on my knee that was scraped. I’d have a toothache, and it was merely a tooth that was extracted. I didn’t truly discover the intimate relationship between my body and me until I hit puberty and began menstruating. How was it that I hadn’t tripped and hurt myself, nor was I in pain, yet here I was, dripping blood? My apprehension was accompanied by extreme panic: from then on, as a woman, I was bound to this blood for decades, forever inseparable.
When I first became acquainted with my body, I was full of contempt. This loathing actually had little to do with my body itself, but rather the trouble that it brought. While I was growing up, society wasn’t as prosperous and advanced as it is now, and manufactured personal hygiene products were nonexistent. I could only rely on folded straw paper to catch the blood flow. The coarse paper wasn’t all that absorbent, and it frequently tore and leaked, but the absolutely worst part was the stiffness of the paper—even if I rubbed it in my hands to soften it, it would still chafe the skin between my legs. My periods were unspeakably hard. The older women in my family supplied me with strips of cloth that traditionally were used for menstruation, a thin tie stitched into each of the four corners. The cloth that held the straw paper wasn’t secure at all, and my underwear didn’t have any elastic, so the paper often shifted, and once the entire piece even fell out of my skirt and onto the ground. The thin ties would twist and tangle on my waist, and if I wasn’t careful, they’d form tight knots that took half a day to undo, leaving me flustered and scurrying around in circles. I kept coming up with alternatives. I tried replacing the paper with surgical cotton we had at home, but it required a considerable amount—such a costly item, and after only a few times, the whole roll was used up. And so, inspired by cloth diapers, I started ripping up worn-out dresses and folding the fabric into small rectangles. These were slightly more comfortable. When I went to school, however, I struggled to take even a single step, as I constantly worried about staining my clothes. No wonder some people claimed to know the real reason that women wore dark clothing. How times have changed: nowadays, women can wear white whenever they please, and they can go swimming anytime. Back then, cloth diapers could be washed out in the open, while blood-soaked cloths had to be washed behind closed doors, where no one else could see. It was impossible to wash out the stains, so the fabric would always end up discoloured with sickly yellow spots. Looking at them repulsed me, and thus my hatred for my body intensified.
Over time, this hatred eventually waned, mostly due to improvements in personal hygiene products, which meant that women no longer had to suffer as much. Several years ago, I toured a factory while travelling in mainland China. There was the customary tea reception where the factory director recounted various developments over the years, followed by the usual perfunctory applause. During the reception, the director reported that as a token of goodwill toward women workers, every month, the factory gave out extra sheets of straw paper. That’s how I learnt that the women in this country of one billion people continued to use straw paper. Last year, when my aunt came from the mainland to visit my mother, I made it a point to ask her whether women in China still used straw paper. She said that, yes, only young, modern working women had access to sanitary napkins. Upon hearing this, I could only sigh. Here I was, living in a thriving, world-class metropolis where I now had soft, beautiful, bone-white rice paper at my disposal, whereas actual straw paper was grimy, and you could even pick out the stalks if you tried. Nevertheless, in remote backwaters, straw paper undoubtedly must’ve been a luxury.
Throughout the years, I never fell seriously ill, nothing more than a cold or stomachache. Not that long ago, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, but who’d have thought I’d end up with a tumour? Undergoing surgery awakened an awareness that I do in fact have a body. For so long, I’ve lived as though I have nothing but a mind, oblivious to everything else. I have no idea where the liver and gallbladder are located. Actually, didn’t I study biology in secondary school—how can I be this ignorant about my own body? Perhaps it’s because in secondary school, I only had biology classes and no health education. In biology, they merely taught us about single-celled organisms, gymnosperms, and the like, nothing with any real connection to our own bodies. In elementary school, we had one section of health class a week where we were taught to take care of our eyes, ears, spines, skin and so forth. In secondary school, there was no curriculum instructing us to care for our hearts, lungs, stomachs and livers, let alone warning us to be on the lookout for breast disease. Sex education classes have only been implemented in the past couple of years. It’s strange: from secondary school on, we cast aside anything having do to with the body and focus exclusively on our minds. Everything is for the sake of the mind. Math, physics, chemistry, language arts, history, geography, civics and extracurricular reading are all for mental enrichment. We only get to move around in gym class. Schools used to have delightful morning exercises—now, of course, they’ve been cancelled. Schools no longer value students’ bodies, or the moral, intellectual, physical, social and aesthetic aspects of education. They merely force-feed students like ducks, so they can obtain diplomas, land good jobs and become yuppies.
After more than a decade of formal education, we’re moulded into people who treasure the mind. Upon leaving school, we tend to seek out spiritual sustenance through reading books, watching films, collecting artwork and buying records, all mental nourishment. Teachers never advise us to buy certain foods. No one says whether we should drink milk or eat less salt and sugar. Everything spiritual is deemed noble and honourable, while everything corporeal is rendered lowly and superficial. Going to a museum to visit an art exhibition is a highbrow affair. If the exhibition has a David or a Venus, that is lauded as beauty. However, this kind of beauty seems to be detached from the body, standing on its own as something purely spiritual. Meanwhile, going to the market to buy food has become a task for uneducated women and children. We have a body, yet we’ve grown more and more estranged from it. The Confucian six arts that formed the backbone of education in ancient China were ritual, music, archery, chariot driving, writing and mathematics. Horseback riding and archery, as well as charioteering, all were compulsory. The Han and Tang dynasties boasted the largest number of people who were masters of both the pen and sword, and there were also countless knights-errant. Scholars stressed the importance of physical fitness. The statesman Tao Kan, who found himself with extra time on his hands, took to moving bricks as a form of physical activity. Around the time of the Song dynasty, China transformed into a society that placed intellectual pursuits above martial prowess. By the end of the Qing dynasty, the Jurchen, who had once conquered all of China on horseback, could no longer even ride horses.
Ancient Greece was renowned for its love of wisdom, epitomising the Greek spirit, but other than their love of wisdom, the Greeks also cherished their bodies. Being full of knowledge and having a strong body were of equal importance to them. If you look at the Olympic Games, you can see how the Greeks prized physical exercise. Socrates urged his disciples to grasp the essence of all kinds of knowledge, but he also encouraged them to look after their health. He said, “Through lifelong self-observation, everyone should figure out which food and drink, and what sort of exercise, best suit one’s own body, and should understand how to keep oneself in check to enjoy good health. By paying attention to yourself, you can determine, better than any doctor, what suits your specific constitution.”
The Greeks emphasised physical health and considered healthcare to be an art of survival. A person could only prevent illness and frailty by successfully managing one’s own body. Poor health could lead to forgetfulness, timidity, a bad temperament, madness and, ultimately, the deterioration of all knowledge acquired by the mind. Socrates’s maxim “know thyself” was carved into the ancient Greek temple at Delphi. Today, people interpret this aphorism in a variety of ways, claiming that what the philosopher meant was that if you only know your own name, you don’t know yourself at all—you can only be considered to know yourself once you realise, as a person, your abilities and usefulness, what is right for you and what you should and shouldn’t do. Over time, it’s come to mean knowing your own mind. Few people suggest that the philosopher’s notion also pertains to the physical body. In ancient Greece, wisdom encompassed the knowledge of all arts and sciences, as early Greek philosophy and science were closely intertwined. It wasn’t until Aristotle that they were separated, and thereupon, philosophy became known as “the first philosophy” and was considered superior to the rest. In Socrates’s “know thyself,” the “self” is the union of the mind and body, whereas in Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am,” the “I” is the mind that is wholly distinct from the body. His “I” is the thinking I, not the material I. This “I” thus can be referred to as the mind. For Descartes, the specific property of matter is that it can occupy space but cannot think, whereas the specific property of the spirit or mind is that it can think but cannot occupy space. Therefore, they are two independent entities. Later, Hegel proposed the idea of absolute spirit. He believed that the spirit freely contemplating itself is art; the spirit reverently representing itself is religion; and the spirit conceptualising the essence of itself and cognising this essence is philosophy. If absolute spirit is comprised of art, religion and philosophy, and all else is excluded and disparaged, then why would anyone pay attention to one’s own body? Ever since, the mind and body have been separated: form severed from content, a signified without a signifier. Influenced by this line of thinking, subsequent intellectuals no longer remember that they have an indispensable body.
It seems like Hegel once said that a nation is powerful and prosperous because of its enemies. Citizens consolidate their strength to unite against a foreign enemy, resulting in a common language. While I certainly wouldn’t praise viruses, it was a virus that unexpectedly roused my other half from a deep sleep. I rediscovered the body I’d neglected and started learning to listen to its voice.
During childhood, the body’s language is a persistent cry. The mother analyses the various signs and tries to deduce what the body is saying. Is it hungry? Too cold or too hot? Has it been bitten by a mosquito? Where does it hurt? Is it throwing a tantrum? This is the body’s golden age—as soon as it speaks, it provokes an immediate response, although the reply may not necessarily correspond to what the body is saying. As the child grows up, the body speaks less and less, uttering only the occasional sound. Diarrhoea means you have the chills or have eaten contaminated food. A fever and runny nose indicate you’ve caught a cold. The body is a well-protected fortress, seemingly impenetrable, the interior guarded by a large army and detoxification chemical plant, strong enough to keep out foreign enemies. Yet in the end, the body inevitably grows old and starts to malfunction, its troops weakening.
Think about it: how many years had those oncogenes been lurking in my body? How many pathological changes had my healthy cells undergone? For the past eight to ten years or so, while I was reading books, watching movies and listening to records, the macrophages inside me were chasing after cancer cells and gobbling them up. As I frantically punched buttons in front of the TV playing Pac-Man, my body’s T-cells were assaulting clusters of tumour cells, yet I remained oblivious to it all until my immune system couldn’t take it anymore, and the tumour grew larger and larger. The tumour was one of my body’s more urgent signals, continuously alerting me, “Our soldiers are fighting valiantly, but the enemy is relentless. It’s impossible to destroy it completely—we can only surround it and keep on attacking. Who’s to say, however, that it won’t break out of the siege, spread everywhere and wreak havoc. The body is in immediate danger. Please help! SOS!” At long last, I heard the body’s language and came to its aid by having the tumour removed at once. As for the few remnants of drifting invaders, I hope that the macrophages will be strong enough to hunt them down and devour them. Did my body’s warning signs appear too late? No—in fact, my body had been speaking to me all along, but I didn’t understand what it was saying, nor had I been all that concerned. For example, before the tumour was discovered, why was I always so famished? It could’ve been that the tumour had depleted my body’s supply of carbohydrates, causing my blood sugar to fall. Why was I freezing cold at times, my entire body shivering? Yet in the end, I didn’t go to the doctor. I chalked up the weight gain, frequent sweating, and fatigue to menopause. I had no idea that they could be symptoms of other conditions.
After having surgery and undergoing radiation therapy, my previously good-tempered body refused to quiet down and return to its agreeable state. There was always a grumble here, a rumble there. While walking, sometimes my feet would grow weak and begin to ache, and after a mile, I would be worn out. When I woke up in the morning, my back muscles felt leaden and lethargic. I was often out of breath and light-headed. My body was talkative, but I couldn’t decode its messages. Did I need to see a doctor? If so, just about every single day I developed symptoms worthy of medical attention, as my body voiced different complaints on a daily basis. I tried going several times. Due to a sore muscle, walking took a great deal of effort, sitting was uncomfortable and I couldn’t bend over. The doctor said it was nothing serious—I’d be fine in a few days—and gave me some painkillers. I didn’t want to take them and instead followed my mother’s traditional remedy of procuring a pain relief patch and leaving it on for a day. Amazingly, this treatment actually worked.
My body began speaking more and more frequently, as though it had incited a revolution inside me, protesting a host of injustices. Was it staging a strike? Requesting some time off? Fighting for special allowances? I had no clue what its demands were. Our past attempts at dialogue hadn’t gone all that well, and now I could only be subjected to its lectures. Yet the problem remained: what exactly was it saying? Was my white blood cell count too low? Was I deficient in vitamins or minerals? Communication between people is difficult, but talking to the body is even more challenging. There are so many parts, each with its own grievances, the body’s language split into distinct regional dialects. Bones speak the language of bones. Muscles speak the language of muscles. Nerves speak the language of nerves. Ever since humans built the Tower of Babel, we’ve barely been able to converse with one another anymore.
After developing a tumour, my body continued signalling SOS. Even my doctor didn’t get the message, and I had no idea how to decipher it. I was body illiterate. In school, we often study a foreign language, so that we won’t become monolingual illiterate. After leaving school, many of us continue to learn additional languages, for no other reason than a desire to communicate with the larger world and understand what other people mean. Understanding others also helps us to know ourselves. Yet except for doctors, who is fluent in the body’s language? I’m an avid reader of fiction. I don’t necessarily need to read English-language fiction in translation, but I have to rely on translations when reading fiction from Italy, Germany and other countries. How much of the spirit of the original work can we glean from the translation? Can a translation properly convey the verb tense in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? Does the original Spanish text of Vargas Llosa’s Captain Pantoja and the Special Service use an elegant writing style or the spoken vernacular of the streets?
If you open the new Chinese translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, you’ll find the following commentary from the translator: “I have compared the English and Japanese translations of the book and discovered quite a few problems with the translations, especially the English version, where mistranslations and omissions are common.” Indeed, in recent years, many people have pointed out that a number of translations are riddled with mistranslations, misinterpretations, omissions and adaptations. There are unintentional misunderstandings, as well as deliberate simplifications that go as far as rewriting the text. It seems that if we want to better understand the original work, we need to seek out multiple translations for comparison, hope that someone else will retranslate the text, or simply learn more foreign languages.
But don’t assume that I am searching for the ultimate, perfect translation. I am not. There’s never a fixed and eternal “absolute spirit” in books. Translations are interpretations, and the same text holds the possibility of multiple interpretations. Each interpreter can thus proclaim “Madame Bovary is me,” and no one will object that there are too many Madame Bovarys. When it comes to translators of the body’s language, of course the experts are biologists and doctors, who might seem to be more scientific and objective. From the perspective of the development of humanity as a whole, however, due to disparate experiences, customs and other factors, there are conflicting interpretations. We’ve benefited from misreadings and retranslations for a long time. Dare I say that it is impossible to have a sole, absolute version of a translation, whether now or in the future?
Besides, doctors these days are a mixed bag. Personal integrity and ethics vary from person to person—who knows how many mistranslations and adaptations there’ve been. It’s not uncommon for one doctor to recommend surgery, and another to say it’s nothing at all. Why wouldn’t people with ailing bodies find themselves sick with worry? Luckily, good doctors still account for the majority in the world. Those who are able to open their own practices must adhere to certain professional standards and continue to accumulate hands-on experience.
The body can speak. Its language includes both sounds and images, and its written words are the signs left on our bodies. We use EKGs, ultrasounds and X-ray fluoroscopies to locate evidence of these images. The body is remarkably adept at expressing its own language. Thanks to this ability, people are able to live longer than ever before. The majority of twentieth-century thinkers have been captivated by language more than any other topic, and unlocking the mystery of language has become the key to turning philosophy into a science. We are born with one mouth and two ears. As we continue to explicate ourselves, we need to listen more attentively, so that our mouths don’t become too puffed up while our ears atrophy with each passing day. The earth is an even larger body—isn’t it also giving off sign after sign? If we keep refusing to pay attention, sooner or later we’ll lose this ultimate body that that we call home.
Xi Xi 西西 (author) is the pseudonym of the Chinese author and poet Zhang Yan. She was born in China and came to Hong Kong at the age of twelve. Xi Xi received the Cikada Prize in 2018 and the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature in 2019.
Jennifer Feeley (translator) is the translator of Not Written Words: Selected Poetry of Xi Xi (Zephyr Press and MCCM Creations, 2016), for which she won the 2017 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize. She holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures from Yale University and is the recipient of a Luce Foundation Chinese Poetry and Translation Fellowship. One of 25 newly announced NEA Literature Translation Fellowships, Jennifer is translating Xi Xi’s Mourning a Breast. (Photograph of Jennifer © Shi Lessner.)