“The Love Experiment,” from The Metaphor Detox Centre by Sheng Keyi, translated from the Chinese by Bruce Humes

Her lover Gu Xiang having disappeared from the sanatorium, reporter Yao Minzhu becomes confused and distressed and is subsequently executed. Now her quest for Gu takes her to Gospel Town, the place in which he grew up, where animals and plants — and living dead — are keen to share their experiences with her....

When Yao Minzhu opens her eyes, she discovers that she is lying inside a large-mouthed vat. Her bent body is soaking in water, head and legs hanging outside. Someone is painstakingly carving the flesh off her leg, as if a chef were paring a patch of skin and a thin tranche of meat from a Peking duck, bloodlessly. The trimmed spots feel refreshingly cool and stimulating, so she rotates her leg to expose an uncut portion.

“Cooperative, isn’t she?” says the man.

“But that medicinal odour is strong,” responds the woman. “I bet she’s planning to poison us.”

“I’ll just slice this much. Rinse it, and then steam it with chili.”

“The Notice said rice would be distributed immediately,” she reminds him. “Let’s try and bear it a little longer.”

“Their ‘immediately’ could mean ten or even fifteen days.”

“Well, at least there’s some hope. If we die of poisoning from eating this meat injected with so many chemicals, we’ll be a laughing stock!”

Someone knocks impatiently. The man does his best to cover the vat with an oversized bamboo steamer lid, and strides over to open the door. Yao notices that the beams above are covered in black soot. Short ropes for smoking ham dangle from the thatched ceiling, waving slightly in the air.

“What’s the name of the head of this household?” asks the man outside. “How many people live here?”

“I’m Tu Zhiyuan. Just me and my wife,” says the man inside.

“Uh. So you’re that minister who...left to manage the monks at the temple....”

“The temple closed its doors. I’ve taken up my old profession. But I haven’t been slaughtering pigs. Nothing to do....”

“I’m delivering your rations: 3 catties of rice per person, 1 catty of cooking oil, half a catty of pork. Sign here.”

“I can’t write.”

“Then just make a circle.”

“But my circle won’t be round.”

“You going to sign or not?”

“How about a fingerprint?”

“That’ll do.”

The butcher returns and Yao watches as he lifts the steamer lid, touches his index finger to the spot where he just carved her flesh, dips it in blood, and then goes to the door where he presses his finger forcefully against the receipt. As soon as the delivery man departs, they latch the door, light a fire and begin cooking. Their shadows intersect in a flurry of activity. They scoop her out of the vat and place her in a corner.

The butcher’s knife glides through the newly delivered pork. Fierce flames reflect on his wife’s face, reddening it, steam seeps out from the wok cover, and before long the scent of guoba scorched rice pervades. Meanwhile, the meat broth has been poured into an earthenware bowl. 

They stand by the wok and commence their frenetic slurping; as if in competition, neither speaks. Temples protruding, eyes bulging, voice-boxes bobbing, there is no faltering as they stuff themselves.

Their swallowing slackens as if they are performing, intentionally displaying each muscle in detail to their audience. Bluish veins dominate their temples. First to cease chewing is the butcher. His eyeballs are about to jump out of their sockets; his jaw is propped open by the food crammed inside, as if he has just discovered some astonishing secret. Suddenly motionless, he keels over straight as a rod and doesn’t move again.

Busy hastening the food in her overflowing gullet down to her belly, his wife is so alarmed by the butcher’s sudden demise that she belches, as if presaging an asthma attack. Food has entered her windpipe. She bends over and coughs intensely, but no sound emerges. Her body twitches like a moribund shrimp. Unable to breathe, her complexion migrates from red to blue, then purple, and she finally falls to the ground where her fingers and toes spasm briefly, then gradually relax and uncurl. 


The two dead fish on the floor are resurrected. They right themselves, their forms now transparent and ethereal. Extreme embarrassment shows on their faces, because they had intended to eat the reporter’s flesh. The butcher apologizes awkwardly to Yao. He and his wife know their place; it’s just that they’d been driven crazy by hunger.

His wife becomes annoyed. “Why don’t you keep your kisser shut like a slaughtered pig!” Her face puffs up like a soap bubble, and the butcher bursts it with his finger. 

“You nag,” he berates her. “Three days without a thrashing and you’re ready to steal tiles off the roof again!”

“Catch sight of a bitch and you can’t help but drool, you dog!” she retorts.     

Cursing madly, the two shadows chase one another around the room like a pair of squid in the night sea. In the artificial light they appear white and translucent. Although it looks as if one will eat the other, the result is the opposite: just when the butcher grabs his wife, she rushes into his embrace and they clutch each other lewdly as they dance.

To make up for their evil intentions regarding Yao, the butcher confesses what he saw and heard while managing the temple: the devotees’ donations, fake rituals, maintenance fees for the monks, setting livestock free to accumulate good karma, incense and handicraft sales, collusion between officials and merchants — into whose pockets all that moolah went — he is willing to reveal all.

He even knew of schemes to use brass in place of gold for the statues in the plaza, and how people’s jewellery was confiscated. It was claimed that such “ostentatious” possessions violated the rustic principles of the New Paradise. “Whatever they said was the Law.”

“A bevy of girls were concealed in the monks’ quarters,” he says.

“There was quite a ruckus at night,” quips his wife.

“The monks’ peckers weren’t subject to any kind of taboo. Some of them specialized in bedding young people! Yet parents entrusted their children to the temple, since at least they’d recite the sutras and eat their fill there, and might even earn a diploma....”

The pair are chatting with real gusto, and for a moment they behave as if no one can hear them.

Yao knows that as long as they are on a topic of mutual interest, they’ll keep going until the thread is exhausted. She turns her back, leaving them to spar like a pair of gamecocks.

Taking advantage of their distraction, Yao unties the rope that binds her, places those slices of flesh back on her calf, and wraps them tightly in place with strips of cloth. She had been soaking in cold water, but now her blood is circulating normally again, and her mind begins to clear. 


Yao isn’t thinking now about the hanky panky at the temple.

Instead, the words “Metaphor Detox Centre” and that old grey building crowd her brain, surrounded by stillness, a breeze and a perfectly empty sky. Music wanders about like ghosts, pumped up with transfusions of energizing chicken blood. It’s all stale revolutionary songs. There’s one that she’d heard her mother sing since her youth. Her father had fallen, never to rise, his blood flowing till it went dry, in the midst of that ode to the Revolution.   

While in the sanatorium she met a patient, a lawyer whose face was as clear as black characters on white paper. At the moment she can’t recall his name, just the warm affection she felt when he held her close. A lawyer addicted to metaphors — this was her definition of him. Even lawyers suffered from the Metaphor Malady; the disease had spread far and wide.  

By his own admission, the lawyer employed large numbers of metaphors in his statements and written arguments before the court, in order to express inconvenient truths. This infuriated the judges. Again and again they banged their gavels in attempts to destroy his ability to generate metaphors, but this just resulted in more outlandish aphorisms.  

They too knew those metaphors, but they weren’t free to deploy them. Hearing him come out with them right there in court, the judges were ashamed but in a difficult spot, and in order to keep face, they violated their own consciences. After all, they weren’t there to serve the truth; they were there to serve the Party. Gradually, they came to perceive the truth as the enemy. They beheaded it decisively, and their blades were sharper for the honing. The knives hung on the court’s four walls, like hex signs to exorcise demons.

Gu Xiang is the lawyer’s name — now that Yao’s leg has begun to mend and to itch madly, it comes back to her. Her body had always reacted to his presence: the instant he passed through the centre’s metal door, she had experienced a full allergic reaction to her medication. Her skin turned red from inflammation and began to itch mightily. Another time she fainted, only to discover later that this coincided with a fierce attack upon her instigated by his passion.

Passing through time and space, his desire for her extends again to this body of hers. Her face suddenly burns red as she recalls the Detox Centre, that place devoid of freedom, with an odd sense of nostalgia. But the heart is a free and wild stallion. She and he are the dawning sun and the mountains and the rivers, illuminating one another, a sudden single entity within the universe.

She became acquainted with a few fellow patients at the centre. Like them, she’d heard of shelters, treatment centres for drug addiction, mental health clinics and so on, but only once she was dispatched to the Metaphor Detox Centre did she learn of its existence. She read the following introduction on the wall of the centre’s reception hall:

As a society’s level of civilization progresses, new illnesses will always emerge to threaten the physical and mental health of the people. The Metaphor Malady is one such disease. It is a form of mental illness, but one that does not entirely belong to the psychological domain. During its initial stage it is not easily detectable; in its middle stage it affects social stability; and in the latter stage involves descent into a manic state of which the patient is unaware. Its potential for contagion and harm is not inferior to a ton of dynamite placed within a crowd.

At present, newly diagnosed cases are growing at a rate of over fifty per cent, sufferers in the mid- or late-stage account for eight per cent of the total affected population, and the mortality rate is four per cent. The government has allocated specialists and funds to establish the Metaphor Detox Centre, which is devoted to servicing the afflicted. The great majority do recover, and relapses are rare. Since the Centre was established it has repeatedly won praise from the authorities.

She was assigned a space of her own with a little window in the door, a small bed, and a narrow bedside table. On the wall hung a little painting that contained a portrait — someone she recognized. He died years ago, and has morphed into a guardian spirit among the common folk. She turned the portrait towards the wall. The philosophical works of successive national leaders were stacked neatly on the end-table, colours smudged with dirt, edges bent from turning, and pages covered in dark, greasy fingerprints. You could tell that the tomes doubled as hand-wipes.

She was informed that a thorough inspection would be conducted the next day, and one requirement was to recite the Core Values of Socialism. Half an hour later, her counsellor opened the door and entered, explained the importance of the various philosophical works, and emphasized that perusing them and comprehending their spirit comprised an adjuvant therapy for overcoming her addiction. The lean-fleshed woman possessed a face that bordered on despair, riven with pits in its youth. In Yao’s eyes, this category of female was filled with affection for the masses, typically neglected the pursuit of physical beauty, and looked with contempt upon others who were keen to dress well and excel at metaphor creation.

Yao didn’t heed the bony woman’s advice. Those Chinese characters were harder than turds, she said. She had an obsession for text that was aesthetically pleasing, that possessed charm and humanity, words rich with allegorical significance. Authentic things all exuded human warmth. Even before she could read, her mother had taught her to distinguish and distance herself from deceptive language that glinted with gold. She recalled how the wizened woman’s face, peppered by myriad pot-holes, became creased with rage:  

“Bed 64, you’re lucky to have been born in this country. The government has invested huge amounts of labour and material in order to save you metaphor addicts!”

“This disease doesn’t even occur in other countries,” retorted Yao.

The bony female was momentarily speechless, evidently lacking confidence in her knowledge of the rest of the world. “The climate and environment of each country are distinct,” she said, emboldened by her uniform. “The illnesses one has are naturally different. Like Ebola, which only occurs in West Africa.”

She reckoned her words were utterly correct. “You completely understand the reasoning,” she said, unwittingly revealing her incisors. “It’s just that your conscience remains encased in a thin layer of precious jade pieces stitched together with golden thread like the burial suits of ancient nobles. It’s high time this relic be placed in a museum for display.” 

“Your Metaphor Malady has recurred,” the counsellor interrupted herself, “so now we have to inject you with Mind-Control Solution.” Via the compact walkie-talkie she always carried, she contacted the Nursing Centre. “Attention: Injection for Bed 64. Injection for Bed 64.”

This induced slumber continued through the next morning. Her brain still fuzzy when she opened her eyes, Yao discovered the bony woman standing in front of her. The picture frame faced outwards again, and the woman’s palms touched one another, her eyes closed, as she prayed in the direction of the portrait. “If only she can recite the Core Values of Socialism, then we won’t need to give her another shot today.” Having noticed in the portrait glass reflection that the patient was awake now, the counsellor spoke as if reporting to her supervisor. A Mona Lisa-esque smile on its face, the portrait seemingly nodded in approval.

Not long thereafter, Yao discovered that her fellow patients were often people who read books, nourished ideals and possessed active imaginations. At the Detox Centre, in the middle of the night the badly afflicted mumbled metaphors even in their sleep, babbling about how “democracy and freedom are just like water and air.” If the sleep-talker wasn’t shackled hand and foot, he’d throw himself violently against the metal door of his room.

The medical staff kept their ears pricked twenty-four hours a day in surveillance mode. As soon as they detected sleep-talking they ran over and shook the patient, woke him by slapping his head and shoulders, forced him to swallow pills to quell the disturbance, and then — using a form of Radiation Therapy designed to kill the malady’s germs — played videos of speeches by the Leadership and excerpts from their Quotations. If the patient still didn’t come around, he would be transported to the Targeted Therapy Room, where the malady’s malignant cells — lodged in the cerebrum’s Imagination Sector — were terminated via burning. Although this measure effectively spared the patient’s life, it generated a side effect that caused great harm to one’s memory function. Yao herself had undergone one session of Target Therapy, she recalled hazily. 

Because it was so near her ears, there was a buzzing sound as her cells burned, like the deafening sound of radio waves, accompanied by a charred smell. She didn’t know how many metaphor cells were carbonized. But now when she sought a metaphor, a wind would begin to blow in her brain. Metaphor ashes took to the air and everything grew fuzzy. She couldn’t sense the orientation of words and the routing for metaphors couldn’t be located. Even her name was veiled in dust.

One afternoon, she met a lawyer on the lawn. He was illuminated from behind, and a fiery aura emanated from the edges of his body. He was standing where she typically daydreamed, frozen in her typical pose facing the sun. She stared at him until he turned around. He was wearing glasses, his hair was curly, and a portion of his face where he had shaved his whiskers, was pale green. His body was tall and imposing; she could easily have hidden in his chest like a baby kangaroo. 

“I’ve heard about your case,” he said, his herbivore eyes twinkling. He spoke of those things she could no longer recall, all related to metaphors.

“The use of metaphors is a literary requirement in a journalist’s reports. But you’re a lawyer, so how did you acquire this habit?” Not many people would have the patience to listen to a lawyer’s metaphors. She’d heard he was pretty far gone, so she wasn’t too surprised. “Your Death Decree can’t be far off. But you look totally unafraid.”

“I’m a native of Gospel Town. I was born and raised there, and later I left for university and became a lawyer. I feel I have a responsibility to speak for the residents, and defend their rights. People have the freedom to practice religion. It’s enshrined in the Constitution,” he said. “It’s the authorities who should be afraid. To unite the thirteen ethnic groups of Gospel Town into a single people who must follow a sole religion is obviously unconstitutional. They’re slapping their own faces.”

“Seems your metaphor cells are still robust!”

“You need to think strategically. I always cooperate with their demands. That pile of Quotations, I’ve basically read them all. The inconsistencies and flaws are patently obvious. I’ve discovered many points intended to deceive believers and others. Wait until I get out: I’ll use their own spears to attack their shields....”

She felt drowsy. She couldn’t immediately grasp his meaning, but she was seduced by the very sound of his words, their rhythm and cadence. And she was secretly pleased by the idea that a backwater like Gospel Town could rear such a fine creature. Meanwhile, he knew her situation like the back of his hand, especially the story of her parents — back then, he was still in middle school, and the place where he spent his youth was surrounded by mountains that protected the community from the turbulence outside. Gospel Town was as pacific as ever.

A few years later, on that night in 1989 when the earth moved and mountains swayed, back in his tranquil village he had dreamt of a slaughter. He was racing, cradling an infant, an indistinct mass of flesh and blood, amidst the smoke of war and ashes that permeated everywhere. Its skull suddenly broke away and rolled on the ground, mouth agape and cackling heartily. He never forgot that terrifying nightmare.

“That infant was you.” It seemed he was almost seeking her input. “You see, some twenty years ago I was already embracing you in a dream.”

“If I was dead at birth...who am I now?”

She didn’t really need his answer, because she was busy contemplating what pose she should strike when lying in his arms against his chest. The numbered uniform he wore resembled pyjamas, soft as cotton, and they summoned her to intimacy like the fuzzy halo of a table lamp. She smiled, revealing her teeth.

“You have canines, which proves your ability to hunt hasn’t totally receded,” he said slyly, blinking his vegan eyes. “You employ metaphors to lure your prey.”

It wasn’t until the medicine wore off that she understood the wit in those words. But she still couldn’t read those Quotations. On the one hand, she resembled her mother: she was an unbending steel wire; on the other, he totally subjugated her mind, and her metaphor cells having turned to ashes, her sexual desire was hotting up. 

She felt as if his conquest of her soul had awoken her carnal impulses. At one time she wondered whether this wasn’t a side effect generated by the earlier Targeted Therapy, but that was scientifically unfounded. The throbbing of her heart was real, like the palpitations of a smitten young girl with no experience of love. Everything about him conformed to her heart’s imagination; he even possessed a touch of the heroic. The Metaphor Detox Centre became a Garden of Eden, China’s Whampoa Military Academy in another sense. This lovely illusion endured quite some time. The centre became her lifetime’s most unforgettable venue.

Gradually they had more time to meet, like two people outside on a date. He was making efforts to “recover” as soon as possible, while her romance was busy vanquishing metaphors. She attempted to memorize the Quotations as he had done, but she simply couldn’t remember the words or sentences. In the end, her ability to read them fluently out loud became their shared goal.

Outside, many voices were calling for the Detox Centre to cease his therapy. Meanwhile, the centre discovered his “recovery” scheme, and so corresponding changes were made to its strategy.

To the west was a hill where wild grass and trees grew without human intervention. Birds hopped about chirping, and butterflies fluttered silently. He and she grew together into a tree, and leaves fell silently. One dusk, God scattered a handful of orange sunlight in the woods. The Detox Centre lay tranquilly behind the hill, like a balding lion taking a siesta.

At first they were like two birds pecking at one another’s feathers, and then they became two dogs sniffing one another; they undressed, peeled off their furry bamboo leaves, revealing their bamboo hearts, and pressed against one another like flattened mushrooms. Their breathing resembled the wind passing through the nearby woods. Birds closed their beaks firmly. The setting sun trembled. At last she was concealed within his chest, and eventually they became a pair of tightly intertwined, inseparable serpents.

Neither had imagined that the centre might use a nascent romance to implement adjuvant therapy. This was the first time the Detox Centre had hatched such an audacious concept:

To exploit the emotions of love to anesthetize the brain and thereby eliminate the capacity for metaphor generation. The afflicted would subjectively, and of his or her own free will, lose interest in creating metaphors, and contentment would naturally erode persistent idealized beliefs.

Next came the formal argument regarding the validity of the so-called “Love Experiment”, but the meeting to discuss this trial only lasted thirty minutes. Everyone rubbed their hands gleefully, for there was a certain air of excitement about what amounted to peeping. If the bold new experiment succeeded — even discounting the sensation and prestige it would generate in medical circles — solely in terms of concrete benefits such as a salary rise and promotion-wise, it was a sure bet.

The requisite wiring was laid. Dozens of video cameras, each smaller than a human eye, were installed in the woods to facilitate clinical observation. As he and she morphed into various creatures, a few pairs of professional eyes were anxiously glued to the monitor screen. Staff noted, recorded and analysed the mating couple’s thoughts and behaviour, and sought to assess the relative proportions of animal vs. romantic desire that constituted their emotions.

When he took a stance behind her like a kangaroo, expert opinion quickly split into two opposing factions. One reckoned that for a new pair of lovers, employing this position for mating implied excessive animalistic character, and did not classify as “love”. The other faction reckoned that one could see the typical characteristics of a male and female deeply in love. Even though the male was no longer young, his face was still bright red like a virgin’s; when the female turned her neck to kiss him, her eyes were moist with contentment.

Her mouth exhibited a tiny gap, not for breathing, but to utter “I love you!” The two factions actually began arguing in front of the screen, which quickly evolved into personal attacks, disclosure of the opposing party’s personal secrets, and finally, a violent altercation during which the monitor screen was inadvertently smashed, thereby reducing to fragments the wild flowers, trees and bodies of the mating couple.

Meanwhile, Gu Xiang had a mole in the Detox Centre. He quickly learned of the staff’s scheme to treat them as guinea pigs. Via foreign media he revealed to society this shameless monitoring methodology, which in turn generated doubts about the mission of the Detox Centre. But since few people within the country were capable of scaling the Great Firewall, there was little domestic reaction.

Despite the Detox Centre’s insistence that this experiment classified as bona fide clinical observation for medical purposes, they still removed the cameras concealed in the woods. As for the establishment of the centre itself, it was entirely motivated by the desire to care for and rescue those patients suffering from afflictions specific to a developing country. In statements to the media, the centre liberally quoted from the “Introduction to the Detox Centre” in the Reception Hall, and attached a string of statistics and graphs and charts.  

As a result of this incident, the entire world began to entertain doubts concerning the raison d’etre of the Metaphor Detox Centre. A few blond-haired, blue-eyed reporters approached the centre to conduct interviews, and observed goings-on using binoculars. The centre was forced to put up police cordons, install a ring of barbed wire fencing, and patrol day and night.

On the police’s big red warning signs was printed:


You have entered an infected area!

Newspapers and TV stations invited experts to discuss the Metaphor Malady: its origins, the threat it posed, and preventative measures. Meanwhile, information booklets were widely distributed in the streets and at bus-stops, parks, bookstores, and Village Management Committees. The masses became aware that the disease had two principal characteristics: it was inherited and it was contagious.

Key preventative measures called for avoiding contact with persons whose families had a history of the illness. Toxic publications containing enlightened content imported from developed countries should not be handled. If this should accidentally occur, the hands and brain of the affected should be immediately cleansed, medical attention should be sought, and vaccinations given, in order to prevent infection and outbreaks. Anyone who had ingested large amounts of Western Liberal Thought was a carrier. Some germs had a lengthy gestation period like AIDS, in which case carriers’ pronouncements should not be seen, heard or believed.

“Report suspected carriers to the relevant authorities,

eliminate threats to others,

and work together to create a harmonious society.”

One mealtime, a staff member delivering dinner surreptitiously stuffed a note from Gu Xiang into Yao’s hand. “What I’m thinking now is, I don’t intend to save just you. I want to work with everyone to get the Detox Centre shut down. Metaphors should be free. The use of all rhetorical forms should be free.” At the end he wrote that the Detox Centre had been adding drugs to its injections that prompted certain hormonal secretions. He couldn’t judge if her sentiments for him were due to these aphrodisiacs, but he truly loved her.


“This woman is wacko,” says the butcher, placing his hand on his wife’s shoulder and giving her a hug. “She’s pretending that her soul has left her body to roam on its own.” 

“You shouldn’t have said what you just said to her. When you get down to it, we’re Gospel Town folk. We should do our best to defend our town, for better or for worse . . .”

“You stupid bitch! “ he says in mock anger. “The man attuned to his times senses when to keep his trap shut,” right? But I didn’t see the writing on the wall.... 

Whereupon the butcher and his wife get all touchy-feely again, smooching noisily.

“Excuse me,” pipes up the reporter Yao, whose eyeballs have suddenly come unstuck. “Do you know anyone who goes by the name of Gu Xiang?”