The first time I set eyes on Mingde, I knew I liked him. As the daughter of a Scottish trader I knew I had more freedom than the local Chinese girls, but I still had to go around with my Chinese amah. I was young enough when we came to Tientsin that I was able to pick up enough Chinese to converse casually. Having been only five when we came, I didn’t really remember Aberdeen. Of course my schooling had been in English, but I had always been fascinated with the Chinese characters I saw around me, so I had forced one of my father’s young assistant clerks to teach me to read and write in Chinese. Now at seventeen, I was reasonably proficient.
Mingde was the younger cousin of this clerk. The family had once been important, but had fallen on hard times. Even though his clothes were tattered and his forelock shavings at the barber scandalously infrequent, so that the front part of his hair was usually several inches long while the back was gathered into a long plait down to his knees, he still had the air of a refined gentleman about him.
I sometimes heard about his life from his cousin. Mingde was eighteen by his Chinese age, which meant he was the same age as me. He had just started at one of the new, semi-modern universities, and was expected to study medicine, although Mingde himself looked more like a scholar gentleman of old than a doctor. I had always dreamed of having an erudite lover in flowing robes who would write me elegant poems about peonies and mandarin ducks, like the romantic heroes of the Chinese operas I loved.
Despite his traditional appearance, I learned that Mingde was a radical. He wanted to study in America, England, or Japan in order to learn how to cure the minds and bodies of Chinese people. Even though I had never actually talked to him, I admired his ardor. It made him even more attractive in my eyes.
One day he came to our house to see his cousin. I caught a glimpse of him in the foyer, and noticed that there was a large hole in the bodice of his cotton robe, revealing his ribs. Clearly he was going hungry much of the time, perhaps prioritizing books over food. His eyes had the sharp gleam of a keen intellect, paired with a raw, animal hunger that suggested he was ravenous not just for knowledge, but in general.
I wanted to go up to him and trace the outline of his ribs on his flesh. I wanted to hear his ideas. Above all, I wanted to run my hand along the top of his head, the hair of which had grown to about half an inch since his last shaving. I didn’t understand it then, but being in his presence made me feel like I needed to retire to the ladies’ room more often than normal.
I knew my father expected me to marry his friend’s son, but when I saw a photograph of that fine young fellow, he didn’t make me feel like this. From the photograph I could tell that his eyes were either blue or green, and his hair likely a nondescript brown. He had bushy eyebrows and a curly mustache that I could imagine smelled dirty. This fellow didn’t have the sharp eyes or broad angular jaw that Mingde had. He wouldn’t have shiny jet-black hair, either. At least it was short and neat. Somehow I just could not find white men attractive.
I tried not to allow myself to wonder what it would be like to be the Scottish wife of a Chinese man. It was impossible. I did, however, allow myself to imagine Mingde in a European suit. He would wear it well with his noble bearing. From the front he would look like a proper Scottish gentleman with rather short hair, but the long queue hanging down in the back would spoil the aesthetic. The plait would be plainly visible even from the front as he walked, a sort of tail swinging down by his trouser legs. If he coiled up his queue and hid it inside a stovepipe hat, it would look better, but each time he doffed his hat to a lady his queue would come tumbling down like a ridiculous jack-in-the-box.
I was astonished when I heard Mingde address Mrs. Jenkins, our housekeeper whom we had brought with us, in English. He did have a foreign accent, but it was not too pronounced. It was easy to understand what he was saying. His grammar and vocabulary were also suitable to a young Scottish gentleman.
“I would like to visit Scotland someday, to see the homeland of Robert Louis Stevenson. His book Treasure Island had quite the effect on our generation.”
I could hardly believe my ears. What if he wanted to live in Scotland? Could I have a future with him then?
“Wasn’t it a right shock when Japan claimed a victory over Russia three years ago? It seems anything is possible these days.”
Mrs. Jenkins remained stony-faced and merely nodded. The fact that Mingde was trying to engage her in serious political discussion suggested that he recognized no boundaries of social class or sex. Perhaps he would treat me with the same respect, not because I was the daughter of a rich foreigner, but because all people deserved to be seen as full persons.
After Mrs. Jenkins excused herself and went on her way to oversee something, I came into the room. I didn’t know what to say, or what language to use. If I addressed him in Chinese, would I be insulting him as a proficient speaker of English? Or would he be flattered that I chose to use the language of our host country?
“Good afternoon, Miss Campbell,” he began in English. I merely nodded, paralyzed in his presence. “My cousin has told me a lot about you,” he continued in Chinese.
I smiled. “I hope he hasn’t said anything bad.” I knew it was safe to speak Chinese, since there were no Chinese servants in that wing of the house at this hour and the Scottish servants didn’t speak Chinese.
“No, I have been impressed with what I heard. I’ve been wanting to meet you. My cousin told me how he taught you to read and write Chinese, and even showed me a few samples of your poems in the classical style. He also told me you have some forbidden revolutionary books hidden in your room. I understand that you’re one of us.”
I beamed, and then blushed. My scholar hero had just recognized me as a comrade. I hoped in that instant that he would take the two or three steps toward me necessary to take my hand.
To my astonishment, he did. “Pardon me for being so bold. I am of embarrassed means, as you well know, but I have reason to believe that my advances would be welcome to you, and surprisingly your father as well. My cousin showed me some of your poems that were unmistakable in their intent.”
I blushed even more. I had written love poems in the classical style, pining for Mingde, and expressing a wish to be his wife someday. It was quite a surprise that his cousin had been telling him of my feelings for him.
“Your father has offered me a job in his trading company to help me pay for my schooling, and even to transfer me to Aberdeen in the future so that I can study there. He has told me that my English is good enough.”
“And me? Has my father approved of you as my suitor?”
“Yes, he has. He said the boy he had originally chosen disgraced himself with a chorus girl and ran off to Australia, and that I have his permission to court you—on one condition.”
“What is that?” I couldn’t imagine what it was. My father had surprised me by being liberal-minded.
Mingde reached behind his head to pull his long queue forward. “I’m to get a modern European haircut. You know that it’s illegal for a Chinese to cut off his queue. I might be expelled from university if I do, but a group of us radicals have been plotting to chop off these symbols of imperial rule.”
I smiled. “May I do the honors? If you are to study abroad, you will have to cut it off anyway. You know how Chinese students with queues are ridiculed in Europe.”
Mingde looked down. Was it possible that he was attached to his queue emotionally in ways that I couldn’t fathom? I thought he was a revolutionary and that revolutionaries wanted to be rid of this symbol of subjugation.
When he raised his face again, however, I saw that he was grinning from ear to ear. He had been trying to hide how happy my offer had made him. “Let’s do it. Where can we go so that we don’t make a mess and don’t get into trouble?”
“I think I know.” I led him into the pantry. There was a small stool in the middle of the space and a broom and dustpan. Cleanup would be easy. If I remembered correctly, there was also an old tablecloth that could be used as a cape.
I closed the pantry door and turned on the gaslight. We couldn’t spend a long time in here. Mingde took a seat and held perfectly still as I wrapped the old tablecloth around him. I picked up the sewing scissors from a shelf, and without further ado, positioned the blades right at the root of his plait. Schnick, schnick. I sliced steadily until the queue came off in my hands. I handed it to Mingde and surveyed the uneven mess that was now at the back of his head.
Since the front of his hair was only half an inch or so in length, the back and sides would have to be shorter than that. I positioned the scissor blades lengthwise against his scalp and cut. It was not easy to blend the front to the rest of his hair in the flickering half-light, but I was able to use my fingers to help gauge length.
I cropped as close as I could, but without a razor I couldn’t shave his neck. Maybe a European barber could refine the cut when it was time for a second haircut. Touching Mingde’s scalp made me tingle all over. I had never imagined being allowed this close to him, and yet here I was.
I enjoyed running my hands over his newly shorn pate, looking for hairs that had escaped my scissors. It was easy to tell that Mingde was enjoying it too. We both knew it was illegal, but then, so would be our union.
When I finished and had cleaned up the evidence, Mingde put his hand on his head. I had not cut the front, since it was already short, but as his hand traveled down his crown to the back of his head where his queue used to start, he started to smile broadly. He was modern now.