Saving Princess Pingyang

New fiction by Sze-Leng Tan


The sky at almost dusk is bright and promising, as it was half a lifetime ago on the day I saved her. The plump clouds floating above the Shanghai skyline are innocent, so no one would expect a stirring in their tranquillity. Yes, the sky is still the same as it was that day.


“Keep going … push harder! Go on! Yes, that’s right.”

The blood.

“Congratulations. Finally, it’s here ... it’s …”

Silence fell as I heaved my chest and head, releasing the deepest breath I had ever drawn, along with the weight I had been carrying. I exhaled.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” Its destiny, and mine, depended on the answer.

Another silence followed my question, the longest, quietest silence. I waited – it had already been nine months, after all.

Guang came in and broke the tension. Hastily, my husband asked, “With or without the chiguding?” The beak-like tip on an arrowhead tuber, the chiguding resembles a baby boy’s genitals.

“It’s …” said Gerna in a trembling voice, “… a nü’er.” 

What? Another daughter?

Still standing around me in the farmhouse were Gerna and Gerlian, my sisters; Hwangma, my old aunt; and Xiaomei and Meimei, my daughters. Niang, my mother-in-law, was sitting in a corner. Generations kept us apart but we had one thing in common. We were nüren. Women.

One of the girls burst into tears. Another followed, then another. Each outbreak was more explosive than the last. Each numbed my hollow senses. With the last of the strength I could muster, I whispered, “Let me have a look at her.” Gerna ordered for the baby to be brought to me. Guang sighed and left without a word.

Pei!” Niang barked, jumping up from the rattan chair she’d been glued to for the last two hours – unmoving, statue-like – since I went into labour. “Another one of those! Choi! Bad luck is all you brought into this house. One after another! Tsk!

She spat, waving her hand up and down as if fanning away flies. She shook her head like a pendulum and minced out of the room that had been full of hopeful anticipation just minutes ago.

I held the dark creased creature in my arms, her countenance calm and eyes closed, sleeping. She had already left the uproar and sadness of this new world for total oblivion.

“Well, it’s not that bad.” Hwang Ma’s hesitant voice quivered. “She may turn out to be the next Princess Pingyang” – the Tang emperor’s daughter who formed an army of women – “and make something out of herself. Big big fame and save her family from enemies and harm!”

No one responded, except for a muffled chuckle. All heads bowed in desolate despair, hands clasped, feet rooted to the clay ground. The stuffy room was filled with smells – sweat, blood, dust.

“A warrior? She will sure have to fight really hard in this world.” Gerlian said bitterly, sighing. “It’s time to welcome the little daughter-in-law!”

There was a stir in the bundle. I looked at the grinning lump of flesh. Poor thing! She seemed to hear but not listen, not knowing her fate. “You’ll be fine.” I rocked her in my arms. She’s going to have the same destiny as mine. History is going to repeat itself.

Unless I stop it.


Last year, Guang sold off most of the furniture and half of the land. There was no harvest that autumn and spring. Dry seasons. And now there were more mouths to feed and no one to continue the family name, no young male hands sent from the God of the Earth. The fifteen of us in this house had survived on small bowls of thin gruel, sometimes with sweet melon as a treat during the long months of winter.

If it wasn’t for the famine, Guang would have taken in a xiaoshifu from a rich family in the village, a nubile sixteen year-old slave who he had been eyeing to be his parents’ daughter-in-law, all for the prospect of producing an heir.

As nüren, we knew our place in the world. It was our ming, our destined life, as we were told again and again. Written and unchangeable.

The sky outside the window was clear-blue and transparent, with tints of chrysanthemum and spring. A fluttering bird ended its daily ritual, flying homeward. The spongy clouds were awakened by penetrating rays of waning sunlight. It fell on my tightened face and saw through me.

“Enough is enough!” I cried. Silence, again. “First thing in the morning, at the break of dawn,” I said. “Alone.”

I woke up before dawn, grabbed the bundle and headed out of the dark house into the cold morning air. It was still pitch dark. I wanted to take advantage of the obscurity and get it done. I hastened my footsteps and climbed the hill behind the house. The towering cedar trees filtered the new-born light. The bundle stirred, and I rocked it gently.

The climb was trying. I panted with exhaustion. The cool air dried my perspiration and when the dense bush gave way to the edge of the clearing, I dropped the bundle to the earth with a thud. The poor thing started crying as I scratched at the soil with a dagger I had brought from the house.

The deeper I dug, the louder the cries grew, like a rebellion. I tried to ignore it, blotting out the pain she felt. I felt it too, maybe even more. I tried to dissipate the anger and disgust I felt for her. I was angry and disgusted with myself too. But my eyes were dry.

My hands stopped. The sky was calm and placid as if it was all a dream. The dark small face stared at me with a fighter’s look. There was a stirring in the undergrowth. A hare bustled around frantically, looking for food. I smiled, and felt hot tears trickling over my trembling cheeks.

Half an hour later, it was settled. Done.

Blood stained the edges of my long sleeves. I whispered something and headed down the hill. I never returned to the site again.


Sitting here on my bed, years later, I am holding onto the one life I fought for. She’s a warrior, the keeper of a tradition of survivors, whose untold stories are buried with the secrets of our people.

The clouds remember. They witnessed me transforming the ming of my poor daughter. The sun beams of the dying afternoon pour in like silk arrows through the window. The fire I found then I see again now, in Princess Pingyang’s eyes.

Sze-Leng Tan is an academic, poet and short story writer, who previously lived in Suzhou and is now based in Malaysia. Her poems have been published in The Malaysian Poetic Chronicles