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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 8-27

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The Master

Ma Yuan

I'll Mention It Once, I Won't Bring It Up Again

The Little Man of Lhasa is my invention. I'm going to apply for a patent. I coined the term in my story "Smooth-Tongued Gigolo." That first story was nothing but bait. The epithet Little Man usually has a derogatory connotation, but I wanted to lure energetic, ambitious men into the role of Little Man. Use a minnow, catch a pike.

In general, "master" is a term for an outstanding chess player or painter. Here, I use it to write about a young painter who was willing to serve as my Little Man of Lhasa.

He Didn't Feel Too Good about It

But even this painter said he had misgivings after I made it clear I wouldn't conceal a thing. He got scared and wanted to run. I knew all about that dicey business he was afraid of. He regarded his marriage into his wife's family as a black mark. He was afraid people would psychoanalyze him over it. But he'd forgotten that he'd already spoken about his motive for getting married—spoken of it to me.

Why shouldn't a master have weaknesses? Can't a master smell of hu- manity? If I was in his place, I don't think I would have done things any differently. I know what those thangkas are worth. If that one-eyed woman had wanted to marry me instead of him, I probably would have hauled my wife off to divorce court without a thought.

Her old father was the greatest thangka painter since the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama, and his works were more valuable, per square inch, than Picasso's. He had been the official court painter for the thirteenth and fourteenth Dalai Lamas. He was probably over a hundred years old and so sick that no medicine could save him.

They said his life's work consists of more than thirty paintings, that the fourteenth Dalai Lama had seven of them, and another dozen or more had been circulating in the collections of great art museums, important art dealers, and the wealthy few. He'd kept eleven of them himself, in addition [End Page 8] to the one he had been working on for over ten years, the last one. His eyes were still good, and he had full use of his hands.

It was hard to imagine how such a fossil could have fathered and then raised a thirty-year-old daughter—his only living relative. They said he'd been suffering from a form of myelitis for nearly half a century. His legs were slowly petrifying from the feet upward. First he'd lost the feeling in his toes, then his feet went numb, then the skin of his legs lost all its resilience and went hard as his bones. The onset of the symptoms had been gradual, relentless. Maybe this was how he'd had the time to beget that one-eyed daughter.

He lived in a narrow, secluded courtyard in Trephungkhang, Lhasa's Muslim quarter. He and his daughter lived on separate floors—he upstairs, she downstairs. A great willow tree in front of the house blocked off the outside world. For a long time, no one even knew an old man lived there.

There wasn't a hair left on his reddish, glistening skull. He had no beard either. And yet, when he was sitting up, he appeared to be an extremely robust, tall old man. The thangka he'd been working on for over ten years hung on the wall in front of him, mounted on a magnificent sheet of satin embroidery, its four corners stretched tight. As he worked on it, his upper body and arms were supported in an adjustable, high-backed chair like the ones barbers use. When he wanted to rest, he could rotate a wheel and lower the chair's back, turning it into a hospital bed.

His masterpiece was almost finished, but...


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