Huang Chien had never really thought of becoming a nuclear engineer. In secondary school, his interests had been more toward music. He had started playing the electric keyboard very young and by the time he reached adolescence had become good enough to play for money in some of the small drinking establishments that were beginning to attract construction workers who came to their small city on the Yellow River to build the new chip manufacturing plant. His mother had been horrified at the possibility of her son associating with such peasants, but his father knew the owner of the establishment, who assured him there would be no bad influences. And they did need the money.
His mother's main concern was that he study hard enough to go to engineering school. That was the route to success. Chien was good at math -- that came easily -- and if his grades kept up, he had a good chance of being admitted. His father had long worked at the old automobile factory that had been the mainstay of the city, but now his health was getting bad and the factory was closing anyway. Chien's father had developed emphysema and now coughed constantly so it was questionable whether he would be able to work at all. It was imperative that Chien get a scholarship if he was to progress.
"You must work hard to keep the honor of the family," she told him. "Your father would be shamed if you did not become a success. You must save money and perhaps we will be able to find you a good wife."
Chien had never thought in these terms before. He was not handsome but not unattractive either. He had known a few girls in secondary and found they were impressed with his music. He had asked one young woman, Wei-lee Hu, to accompany him to the club where he was performing but her parents had found out and objected. They took it as a sign of Chien's poor prospects and she had never spoken to him again. The women that he saw at the club, on the other hand, were not the kind with whom he would want to be associated. They smoked cigarettes and drank beer and did not seem to care what their parents thought of them. He found that offensive.
At engineering school Chien found it harder to meet women. All of his classmates were men and any young woman who appeared on the campus was quickly swept off by the dashing sons of public officials who drove flashy cars and paid little attention to their studies. Often these fancy dressers would throw over these women after a few evenings and move quickly on to another. It offended Chien when he saw young men act like that and he felt sorry for the young women, but there was never any chance of offering his condolences. In a trice, they were on to the next flashy dresser.
"Don't worry, we will find you a wife," his mother consoled when he came home for the holidays. "You have several cousins who will make a good match. You will be provided for. Just finish your studies."
At first he was drawn to chemistry but nuclear energy quickly captured his interest. China was engaged in rebuilding its entire electrical system, putting a small reactor in the basement of every village hall to provide for the entire community. There were jobs everywhere. In the old days, studying nuclear would have meant going to the United States but now that China was leading the world in the technology there was no reason to go abroad. Besides, he very much feared encountering the decadent culture of the West. In the movies, he had seen American cities that were endlessly dirty, its streets filled with prostitutes and drug addicts, its criminals fearsome and arrogant. He had seen pictures of black men holding knives to the throats of women in broad daylight. It was no place where a Chinese student would want to be and those who went and came back said they never wanted to go again.
Chien found nuclear technology fascinating. The idea of assembling a cross-section of molecules in the effort to capture neutrons to set off a chain reaction that would build to a steady hum of disintegrating atoms fascinated him. That he could design something that would manipulate matter at the subatomic level, far smaller than anything he could see in an electron microscope seemed uncanny and thrilling. He was proud of the role China had played in developing nuclear technology. The West had led in the 1900s, but since the turn of the 21st century China had sprinted ahead so that now it was European and American students who were flocking to Chinese universities instead of the other way around.
The most extraordinary development had been the Traveling Wave, a type of reactor invented in the United States but brought to China by the computer genius Bill Gates when he found that no one in the U.S. wanted to develop it. Gates had probably expected China would build him a reactor so he could take it back home again, but instead his countrymen had seized upon the technology and perfected it for mass production. In the Traveling Wave, the nuclear fuel burned slowly from end to end like a long cigar, cycling uranium into plutonium and burning up both so that after 50 years the 20-foot fuel assembly had completely consume itself while leaving no nuclear waste. It was a miracle of engineering. Five of such reactors in non-descript buildings were enough to power a city of 20 million. Now the job was to carry this technology into the smallest hamlets so the last of the coal and wood-burning boilers could be retired and the purification of China's air would be complete.
But that was what troubled Chien. As his graduation approached, he realized he was very likely to be assigned to installing Traveling Waves in the remotest provinces of the Far West. Most of the work in the major cities was now completed. He was 23 years of age and did not relish the thought of spending the next two or three years traveling from one farm village to another before he could work his way back into the cities where there were positions of greater responsibility. In particular, it was unlikely he would ever find a wife in such remote areas suitable for his stature.
He mentioned this to his mother on his last trip home before graduation. "What happened to those cousins among whom you said you were going to arrange a marriage," he asked as they stood in their small kitchen while his father coughed constantly in the bedroom. His mother turned and gazed into the small yard. He could remember running barefoot on that patch of ground as a boy, his mother warning him not to step in chicken droppings for fear of getting ringworm. Now there were no more chickens and an old Jinhua stood next to the house, their first car.
"I am sorry my son, it has not worked out as I expected," his mother said, refusing to meet his eye.
"What happened?" he asked.
"One of your cousins was claimed by the son of a high party leader," she said dutifully. "She was very beautiful and he paid a very high bride price. The other has taken Buddhist orders and says she does not want to marry."
"Wasn't there a third cousin you spoke of?" he asked his mother.
"She died unexpectedly last year," his mother said, turning to him. She had tears in her eyes. "I am sorry my son. We have been unable to provide for you."
Chien looked out at the small patch of yard outside the window. His father's cough continued from the back. Off in the distance he could see the hills of the Yellow River Valley disappearing in and out of clouds. He realized what a small patch of earth it was he had lived his life upon. It now seemed smaller than ever, too small, in fact, to stand on. For a moment he felt himself disappearing back into time, as if he had never existed.
THE WEEK BEFORE CHIEN was scheduled to graduate he passed a small table on the courtyard of the campus cafeteria. On it sat a handful of flyers. "One million Chinese women held prisoner in the United States!" said the bold characters. He picked it up and read:
One million Chinese women have been kidnapped and held prisoner by Western devils in the United States of America. These women are held as servants and forced to marry Western men against their will. They are treated to every kind of humiliation. The Golden Horde is a society of Chinese men dedicated to returning these women to their homeland. Become a son of Jochi, the rightful son of Genghis Khan, and join the rebirth of the Golden Horde in the modern era.
Chien looked quizzically at the young man who was manning the table. He had a stark, feral look belied by a toothy smile. "Are you interested?" he said, handing Chien another piece of paper. "Here, come to our meeting tonight. You will like it." The young man's eyes had a strange glow.
Somewhat hypnotized by the performance, Chien put the paper in his pocket and walked away.
When Chien walked into the first meeting of the Golden Horde he almost left immediately. They were not the sort of men he was used to associating with. They were darker, more brutal looking, with wispy beards, some of them wearing strange rounded hats that reminded him of pictures of old mandarins. He was intimidated, yet somehow drawn by their appearance. Chien took a seat in the back of the room and found a pile of literature waiting for him. He picked it up and began reading:
Jochi was the eldest son of Genghis Kahn, the greatest man who even lived. Throughout his life Jochi's enemies were jealous of his position as the Great Kahn's rightful heir. They spread rumors that Genghis was not his real father. After Jochi achieved a great victory at Baghdad his brothers and other pretenders plotted against him. Rather than fight them all himself, Jochi retreated to the Aral Sea to found his own empire. There he discovered the true religion, Islam, and created a dynasty known to history ever after as the "Golden Horde." Together they invaded many lands, conquered many backward people and returned women who had been stolen from them, winning fame and glory that has endured for all time.
We are the Golden Horde, the true heirs of Genghis Khan and Jochi, the greatest men in Chinese history. Like them, we have adopted the one true religion, Islam. With the help of Allah, the One, the Magnificent, Peace Be unto Him, and Mohammed, his only Prophet, we will restore China to the true faith and reclaim our nation's rightful place in history. Join us.
Chien's head was reeling. He had never heard words like this before. He put down the paper and gazed around the room. It was dark, cramped, lit only by one pale light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He felt he had gone back in time to some dark era before he was born when great issues had been decided but could now be undone. As he sat bewildered, a thin young man in a skull cap approached him from the front, working his way down the row of chairs until he stood smiling next to him. Chien could smell the saffron on his breath. The man slipped a book into Chien's hands. "Read it, brother," he said, and departed. Chien held it up to the light. The title read "The Koran."
In a few minutes, a tall, robust older man got up to speak. "Brothers, we are all sons of the Great Khan and of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be unto him. Together they have shown us the true path, the true light. China has always had false religions imposed upon us. First there was Buddhism, which came from India. Then there was Christianity, imposed on us by the West. Next came the godless Communism, invented by the European Karl Marx. Now we live in a world that stinks of Western decadence, sex and godless pursuits. But we brothers have found the true religion of Islam, the religion of our forefathers Jochi and Genghis Khan, the religion of the Golden Horde.
"Chinese men still suffer from these false religions. We are rich but the West still imposes upon us. America has taken a million Chinese women without asking. The have stolen them when they are young girls, before they could speak the word 'no.' They are held as slaves in America. They are made to do servants' work. They are raped and murdered all the time. We must bring them back to China, back to their true home."
A young, smartly dressed student sitting a few rows from Chien put up his hand. "How do you plan to bring these women back to China?" he asked in a skeptical, sing-song voice. "What are you going to do?"
The bull-sized speaker's eyes took on a faraway look. "There are many ways for us to act," he said in a low voice. "There are thousands of us, everywhere. We can do many things."
As he made his way back to his room that night, Chien's footfalls wove and erratic path from left to right, as if burdened by the weight of new ideas. All the time he clutched the Koran close to his breast.
CHIEN STOOD ONCE AGAIN in his kitchen talking to his mother. She was getting old. Her feet shuffled along beneath her when she walked in a way he had never seen before. Her print dress had faded. She had probably not bought new clothes since he was born. His father's coughing in the next room had fallen silent and now there was only the sound of heavy breathing.
His mother took the whistling kettle from the stove and waited for it to cool before pouring tea.
"My son, please do not do this. Your father would be shamed. You will have no job. You will have no money. You will have no wife. You will have no children. Your father's name will be lost forever."
"Where am I to find a wife in the western provinces?" he responded vigorously. "There are no women there. They are all taken. They will not have a stranger who comes to them from far away."
"You will find a wife," she said, pouring tea in order to placate him. "I have talked with a matchmaker. She is looking. We will know soon."
"A matchmaker!" Chien cried indignantly. "What will she do? How much did you pay her? She will bring me some cross-eyed farm girl with huge feet and ask for 1000 yuan,"
"No, my son. She is a good woman. She will do well for you."
"Mother, we have been exploited by America. We have had our women taken from us. One million Chinese women, stolen form us as infants. Made to do slave labor. We were weak. We let them be stolen. But now we have Jihad. We will get them back."
"Please do not talk about this!" said his mother. She seemed to reel for a moment and then collapsed in her chair. She was sobbing. "Please do not talk about this," she cried. "Please do not talk." And she buried her face in her hands.
Chien stood stunned and silent. Finally, he realized something else must be going on.
"What's the matter, mother?" he asked politely, kneeling down beside her. "Why are you crying?"
"Please do not ask," she said, still sobbing. "Please do not ask."
"No, tell me, mother, what is it? Why are you crying?"
His mother gathered herself and lifted her tearstained face. "We had a daughter before you were born," she said slowly. "We gave her away. We were only allowed one child. We wanted a son."
Chien's limbs went cold. "What happened to her?" His voice felt only faintly part of him. "Where is she now?"
"We gave her to an orphanage. She is probably in America."