When I post in ShortStops, it’s usually about short stories that the folk at Paper Republic have translated and posted online. But this month, we’ve branched out into non-fiction, and we’ve found a stunning piece of reportage. “Searching for Bodies” by Ma Jinyu, translated by Kate Costello, explores the art of corpse preservation. Here’s just a taster: ‘I first saw old man Liang’s ads pasted under the “gonorrea, syphilis” and “cure impotence” ads at the mine. “Corpse preservation.” Followed by old man Liang’s telephone number….The most difficult bodies were the ones that needed to be stitched back together. The leg bone needed to be sewn back into the muscle, or the organs needed to be put back in place and the stomach skin stitched back over them. Old man Liang said that after death your skin becomes very hard, and a normal needle couldn’t pierce through it. He made the big needle that he used himself, grinding down the spoke of a bicycle wheel into a point. ….Old man Liang said that when he was young and working in the mine, there would be flies and coal dust in his lunch. His two companions might be chatting one moment, but when he turned to look they’d been crushed to death by falling coal. He couldn’t see the blood in the dark, and he lay by their sides for an afternoon nap, thinking to himself, “They are also having a rest.” ‘
Set in and around the coal mines, Ma’s essay speaks of resilience and courage, stoicism and humanity. Truth really is stranger than fiction.
“Searching for Bodies” is the second instalment in our Read Paper Republic: China Dispatches series. Our three-way collaboration between Paper Republic, One-Way Street Magazine (单读) and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ China Channel focuses on the best non-fiction coming from China right now. Check back next month for the next essay.