Posted on April 14, 2021
“I was extremely devoted to studying Master Song’s craft, surrounded by swaths of cloth and bits of thread, whiling away a boyhood like a plant dyed an unnatural hue, brightly colored, but sick inside, silently suffering.” Aided by the advantages of hindsight, Xiaotong’s narrative voice preserves and embellishes the past to tell a painful story about adolescence, desire, abuse, and the quiet desperation of not fitting in. Lu Min’s “Scissors, Shining,” featured in Words Without Borders and translated by Michael Day, is a thematically challenging and formally interesting story that would be suitable for an explication or close reading assignment in the advanced high school or college literature classroom.
Xiaotong, apprentice to village tailor Master Song, loves “the village’s rose” Yingzi as only a boy could love a beautiful married woman. Yingzi, whose husband is always at sea, ardently desires Master Song. Master Song, though “agitated” by all the women he fits—and especially by Yingzi—displaces his frustrated desire onto Xiaotong. This story of triangulated desire may be familiar to some young adult readers who have discerned the tumultuous relationships adults keep quiet and felt those other, hidden lives graze painfully against their own.
Set in a village lit by oil lamps, the story gives off an air of antiquity, evoking a time when occupation seemed to be more of an identity than any named or labeled sexuality. As we learn, being a tailor requires not only skill but also the right physique. “His hands are made for this work,” remarks Master Song to Xiaotong’s parents. In another instance, the unnamed women seeking Master Song’s services point out Xiaotong’s physique by saying he is “dainty and delicate, just like a little girl!” Rather than take offense, Xiaotong reassures himself that he has a body fit for being a tailor. Specifically, he explains, “a tailor wasn’t supposed to be big, swarthy, and muscle-bound." Where possible, he fits his body and manners into the role played out by his Master. He “learn[s] to talk like Master Song, speaking to [the women] softly as [his] hands moved,” and, to the confusion of his parents, dusts his chair off before he sits. Thus, technical skill, conversation, mannerisms, and bodily physique align to fashion Xiaotong into a professional role.
Desire, especially same-sex desire, receives less elaboration. Its expression takes place at night and in the dark. For example, in one of the story’s most memorable moments, Yingzi visits the tailor shop “in the dead of night,” driven by “physical and spiritual yearning.” Her “fancy” and “dotted purple cloth” must be fitted, and only Master Song is fit for the job. But when Master Song rejects her advances, Yingzi reaches her breaking point and sobs out of desperation and anguish.
Xiaotong overhears the disturbance in the next room, and upon imagining coming to her rescue and comforting her, he claims to finally understand what people do in the dark. But this claim is undermined as soon as it is revealed. When Master Song returns to the room and lays himself next to Xiaotong, he tells his student that measuring women is exciting, but “being intimate” with them “feels dirty, and disgusting.” Master Song is heated and Xiaotong “frozen.” “Just let me hold you,” Master Song then implores him, latching on and “refusing to let go.” When at last Xiaotong stops resisting, Master Song “softly, tentatively caress[es] the small of [his] back and [his] rear,” his “gentle and dry” palms hypnotizing him. Xiaotong feels trapped, but unable to get away he eventually falls asleep, embraced and fondled by Master Song.
The indeterminate nature of desire is also explored in dreams and cast out to sea. The short dream sequence that follows after Xiaotong has fallen asleep notably shrouds the events taking place in the waking world. In the waking world, someone is “squeezing [his penis], releasing its pent-up agitation,” but the sexual act taking place is sublimated, or transformed, by the dream world into a fantasy where Yingzi’s endless sobs—doubtlessly caused by Master Song’s cruelty—become “the most sexually intense sound” for Xiaotong. In this way, the dream provides a covering and transformation of the ill-defined desires that cross the three characters.
The ambiguity also attaches itself to Yingzi’s husband, who does not sleep with her when he is home from sea. Rumor has it he is not physically well, but perhaps he is a wandering man, receiving all the comfort he needs in the company of men at sea.
Ultimately, all our characters are caught in a shameful situation. Why is it that though Yingzi is married “no one had made her a woman”? Master Song is also not left untouched by the rumors that “haphazardly,” without design, reach the tailor’s shop. One evening, his ashamed mother makes her plea, “Son, don’t you get it, everyone wants you to sleep with her...there are a hundred people waiting for you to loosen her up, so they can follow in your footsteps.” Master Song, tailor that he is, is charged with the task of “loosen[ing]” Yingzi for the benefit of the village. Amid the unraveled cloths and threads, Xiaotong is, if you recall, “sick inside, silently suffering.”
Filtered through the eyes of Xiaotong’s emerging transition from adolescent naivete to imposing adulthood, Lu Min’s “Scissors, Shining” captures the pain of being cut from a different cloth. As Xiaotong discovers, Yingzi’s “true beauty lay not in her appearance but in her solitude, in the way she didn’t quite fit in.” Her desire to fit in—to be “made a woman”—can only be accomplished by the Master, who fits clothes for a living and therefore determines who or what people are. So intense and satisfying is the role that when Master Song fashions a qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, out of Yingzi’s abandoned cloth, Xiaotong observes “ecstasy in his bloodshot eyes.” Master Song, overcome with excitement but cut off from his sexuality, transcends himself. No less significant is the qipao—"a qipao no woman would ever wear”—not only because Yingzi has fled the town, but also because it is an ideal form of a woman, created within a society where not fitting in leads to cruel consequences for men and women.
- Visit the Words Without Borders site for the full story and a recording of the author reading the story in the original Chinese.
- Meet the author in this clip from the EU-China Literary Festival, where Lu Min discusses her latest book, writing about cities, and the line between fiction and nonfiction.
- For a story from Chinese antiquity addressing same-sex love, see Bret Hinsch’s Passions of the Cut Sleeve: Male Homosexual Traditions in China, excerpted here.
- The YouTube series Marginal History also presents an animated version of the Passions of the Cut Sleeve story.
Possible Assignments and Discussion Questions
- Draw a triangle and diagram the relationships between Xiaotong, Yingzi, and Master Song. Discuss the relationships between the characters and where the balance of power is in this figure.
- Lu Min’s story makes various references to light and darkness. What is visible in the story? What is not?
- In the story, what do clothes or fabrics symbolize? What about Yingzi’s dotted purple cloth?
- Early on in the story, Master Song shares his philosophy on measuring women. What is his philosophy, and how does it come to bear on the construction of the qipao?
Alexander Aguayo is a Comparative Literature PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His academic interests include hemispheric poetry and poetics, queer literature, and literary translation. He graduated from Princeton University with an AB in Comparative Literature and a certificate in Latin American Studies.