The Thinker

The Thinker

A Science Fiction Story by Liu Cixin

The Sun

He could still recall his feelings the first time he saw the Siyun Mountain Observatory thirty-four years ago, when the ambulance crossed the mountain ridge and the main peak appeared in the distance, its domed telescope roofs reflecting the golden light of the setting sun like pearls inset into the peak.

Back then he had just graduated from medical school and was a trainee brain surgeon. He had come to the Observatory as a physician’s assistant to rescue a patient too critically injured to be transported. A visiting scholar from England had accidentally fallen off a cliff while out for a walk and had severely injured his head. When they arrived, they performed a cranial perforation to drain excess blood and relieve pressure on the brain, and once the patient’s condition had improved to the point he was able to be moved, the ambulance took him to a hospital in the provincial capital for additional surgery.

It was quite late when they left the Observatory. While the others were maneuvering the patient into the ambulance, he turned a curious eye toward the surrounding telescope domes, arranged as if according to some obscure plan, like a moonlit Stonehenge. Compelled by a force he was never afterwards able to explain, he walked over to the closest telescope, pushed open the door, and entered.

The inside was unlit except for countless small signal lights. He felt as if he had passed into a moonless outer space. Only one slender moonbeam penetrated the slit at the top of the dome, and where it struck the tall telescope its silver thread described a partial outline, resembling a piece of abstract art occupying the center of an urban plaza at midnight.

He tentatively approached the base of the telescope. In the dim light he saw a mass of equipment of bewildering complexity, and as he searched for a lens that would accommodate his eye, a soft female voice called from the doorway:

“That’s a solar telescope. There is no eyepiece.”

A slender figure dressed in a white uniform entered gracefully, a feather drifting on the moonlight. As she approached him, he felt the gentle breeze she brought with her.

“Traditional sun telescopes project an image on a backing curtain, but most of them are viewed on a display screen these days ... Doctor, you seem to have quite an interest in this place.”

He nodded. “An observatory is a place of freedom and detachment. I like that feeling.”

“So what are you doing in medicine? Oops, that’s a rude question.”

“Medicine is not just frivolous technology. It can be freeing too, for instance my studies on the brain.”

“Oh? When you open up a brain with your scalpel, can you see thoughts?” she said, her smile visible in the dim light. It reminded him of something he had never seen before, the projection of the sun on a curtain—its threatening flames eliminated, leaving behind only a warm brilliance. His heart warmed involuntarily. He smiled, and he hoped that she saw his smile.

“As best I can. But think about it: that mushroom-shaped object that fits in your hand is an elaborate universe, a universe that from a philosophical viewpoint is far grander than the one you are observing here, because while your universe may span millions of light years, I believe it’s been shown to be bounded. But my universe is unbounded, because thoughts are infinite.”

“Ah, it’s not everyone whose thoughts are infinite. But you seem to be someone of limitless imagination, doctor. As for astronomy, it is not as freeing as you imagine. Thousands of years ago on the banks of the Nile, and on sailing ships a few centuries ago, it was a highly practical technology. Astronomers in those days were forever recording the positions of thousands upon thousands of stars in their charts. Entire lives were spent on a census of the stars. Even today, most specialized astronomical research is dull and empty of poetry. For example, the project I’m working on is stellar scintillation, and it’s basically endless observation and recording and more observation and more recording. Hardly transcendent or freeing.”

He raised an eyebrow in disbelief: “Stellar scintillation? What we see as twinkling?” When she smiled without speaking, he shook his head with a self-mocking grin. “I know that’s just atmospheric refraction, of course.”

She nodded. “Still, it’s a visually striking metaphor. Take away the base constant and display only the difference in output energy fluctuation, and a scintillating star looks a lot like it’s twinkling.”

“Is it because of sunspots or solar flares or something like that?”

She stopped smiling and shook her head solemnly. “No, these are fluctuations in the overall energy output of the star, and their causes go deeper than that. The brightness of an electric lamp, for example, does not depend on the moths surrounding it but upon voltage fluctuations. Of course the fluctuations and scintillations of a star are far more miniscule and require extremely precise instruments to detect. Otherwise we’d be burnt to a crisp by solar scintillation. This research is one way to understand the deep structure of a star.”

“So what have you discovered?”

“We’re a long way from actually discovering anything. To date, we have only been observing the scintillations of the most easily observable star, the sun. Our observations may continue for many years, and we many find farther targets as we expand our range to other stars. You know, we could spend a decade or more collecting samples from the cosmos before we are able to talk about conclusions or discoveries. This is the subject of my dissertation, but I suspect that I’ll keep on working at it, maybe for the rest of my life.”

“If that’s the case, you must not think that astronomy is dull at all.”

“I feel like I’m working on a beautiful endeavor. Entering the world of stars means entering a vast garden where every flower is’ll probably find that metaphor peculiar, but that’s really the way I feel.”

As she spoke, she gestured almost unconsciously toward the wall. Following her finger, he noticed a painting hanging there. It was abstract, just one continuous, thick, rising and falling line. When she saw what he was looking at, she headed over to the wall, took down the painting, and handed it to him. He saw that the line was inlaid with yuhua stones, the “rain flower” pebbles of Siyun Mountain.

“It’s pretty, but what does it mean? Is it a range of neighboring mountains?”

“We recently observed a solar scintillation with a very rare intensity and fluctuation type, according to our past few years of observations. This picture is the radiation fluctuation curve of that scintillation. I, uh, like to pick up yuhua stones during my walks on the mountain, so ...”

But it was a different curve that attracted him. The dim light of the signal lamps limned the contour of her body, while the rest of her melded with the surrounding shadows. It was as if the confident hand of a master of traditional painting had laid out a flowing line of ink on a blank sheet of xuan paper, and the grace of that single line instantly imbued the rest of the spotless white paper with life and meaning ... down the mountain, in the metropolis where he lived, millions of pretty young women chased incessantly after glitz and vanity. A great cluster of particles in Brownian motion, none of them setting aside even the slightest moment of silence for thought. Away from all of that on Siyun Mountain, who would have thought that a quiet young woman would have her gazed fixed upon the heavens ...

“Being able to find such beauty in the universe is a rare thing, and a fortunate one.” He stopped staring, conscious of his lapse. He handed the picture back to her, but she declined with a gesture.

“Keep it as a memento, doctor. Professor Wilson is my advisor. Thank you all for saving him.”

Ten minutes later, the ambulance departed the Observatory under the moonlight. Later, he came to realize that he had left something of himself behind on Siyun Mountain.

Time I

It was only when he married that he finally stopped trying to fight time. He moved everything from his bachelor dorm to his newlywed apartment, except for a few things that were inappropriate for sharing between a couple. Those things he took to his office in the hospital. Flipping casually through them, he noticed the picture inlaid with yuhua stones. Examining its colorful line, he was struck by the realization that his trip to Siyun Mountain had taken place ten years ago.

Alpha Centauri

It was a spring outing organized by the young staff at the hospital, an opportunity he treasured because in the future he would be invited to participate in such activities less and less frequently. The organizers were deliberately mysterious about the trip and kept the curtains tightly closed the entire way until they reached their destination and disembarked. They had to guess their location, and a decent prize was offered for the first correct guess. He knew the answer as soon as he got out, but he kept silent.

The main peak of Siyun Mountain was directly ahead, and the pearls of the telescope roofs gleamed in the sunlight.

Once someone had guessed correctly, he informed the group leader that he was going up to the Observatory to visit an acquaintance, and then without telling anyone else he went off on foot along the winding road to the peak.

He did not lie, but he knew in his heart that the woman whose name he did not even know, and who was not an Observatory employee, wasn’t likely to be there ten years on. He did not even intend to go inside. He just wanted to look at the place from a distance, the place where ten years ago his sun-baked soul had bathed in its first moonbeam.

One hour later he reached the mountaintop. Beside the fence, whose white paint was mottled and faded, he gazed in silence at the telescope buildings. Little had changed. He quickly recognized the domed structure he had once entered. He sat down upon a rock slab, lit a cigarette, and stared at the time-scarred iron door, his mind replaying over and over the scene he cherished deep within his memory: the iron door ajar, a liquid moonbeam, a feather drifting gently in ... he was so totally immersed in that dream that he felt no shock at all when the miraculous occurred in the real world. The iron door actually opened, and the feather that had once appeared in the moonlight emerged into the sunshine. Her lithe figure hurried past and entered a neighboring telescope building. The whole process may have lasted ten seconds, but he knew he was not mistaken.

Five minutes later, they met again.

This was his first time seeing her in adequate light. She was entirely as he had imagined, which did not surprise him in the least, but then, considering that after ten years her appearance ought to have changed from that first meeting in the dim light of the signal lamps and the moon, he felt puzzled.

She was pleasantly surprised to see him, but pleasant surprise was the extent of it. “You know doctor, I travel a circuit of various observatories in the course of my projects, and I’m only here for two weeks each year. Yet we meet again. It must be fate!” This last sentence she tossed off casually, lending further evidence to his feeling that she felt nothing special toward him. Still, that she recognized him after a decade was a sliver of comfort.

They exchanged a few words about the condition of the English academic with the head injury, and then he asked, “Are you still studying stellar scintillation?”

“I am. We observed solar scintillation for two years and then turned to other stars. You can understand that we had to employ observation methods completely different from those we’d used for the sun. Then the project couldn’t find new funding, so it was suspended for several years. We resurrected it just three years ago, and now we’re observing twenty-five stars. We’re still expanding in number and scope.”

“You must have created quite a few more pictures from yuhua stones.”

The moonlit smile which had surfaced from the depths of his memory countless times over the past decade now emerged in the sunlight: “Oh, you still remember that! Yes, every time I come to Siyun Mountain I still like to collect yuhua stones. Come, have a look.”

She took him to the telescope building where they had met ten years ago. He looked up at what may or may not have been the same solar telescope; the computer equipment surrounding it was brand new and certainly not a relic of that time. She led him to a tall curved wall hung with some familiar things: pictures of various sizes inlaid with yuhua stones. Each picture contained a single curve. Lengths varied. Some were gentle, like ocean waves, while others were steep, like a line of irregular Himalayan cedars.

One by one she told him which waveforms came from which stars. “These we call Type-A stellar scintillations. They appear relatively less frequently than other types. The difference between Type-A scintillations and more common stellar scintillations is that their energy level is several orders of magnitude more intense, and on a mathematical level, their waveforms are more aesthetically pleasing.”

He shook his head in confusion. “You fundamental-theory scientists always talk about the beauty of mathematics, as if you have a patent on it. Those Maxwell Equations you find so beautiful—I was able to grasp them but I found nothing of beauty in them ...”

Just as she had ten years before, she abruptly turned serious: “This sort of beauty is like a crystal. It’s hard, pure, and transparent.”

One picture in particular caught his attention: “Hey, did you remake this one?” Noticing her puzzled expression, he added, “It’s the waveform of the solar scintillation you gave me ten years ago.”

“But ... this is the waveform of the first Type-A scintillation from Alpha Centauri. It was observed, oh, last October.”

He was sure the confusion on her face was sincere, but he was even surer of his own judgment. He was all too familiar with that waveform. He was even able to recall, in order, the color and shape of every stone that made up the line. He did not want her to know that for ten years, apart from this past year following his wedding, that painting had hung on the wall of his dorm. Every month there would be a few days in which, once the lights were out, the moonlight outside the window was sufficient for him to see the picture clearly from where he lay on the bed. Then he would begin silently to count the stones that made up the line, his eyes crawling along the line like a beetle. Most of the time, he would be asleep when he had completed one length and was halfway back, and he would continue striding across the solar line in his dreams, stepping from one colored stone to another across a river whose opposite shore was forever unseen ...

“Can you look up a solar scintillation line from ten years ago? The date was April twenty-third.”

“Of course I can,” she said, giving him a curious glance, apparently surprised at his clear recall of the date. She went over to the computer and quickly called up the solar scintillation waveform, and then pulled up the waveform for the Alpha Centauri scintillation. Then she stood mute before the screen.

The two waveforms overlapped perfectly.

When the silence became unendurable, he ventured, “Perhaps the two stars share an identical structure, so their waveforms are identical. You did say that the Type-A scintillation is a reflection of a star’s deep structure.”

“They may both be main sequence stars, class G2, but their structure is entirely different. But the point is that this would never occur even in two stars with identical structure. Have you ever seen two completely identical banyan trees? A perfect overlap in such a complex waveform is like two banyan trees that are identical down to the last twig.”

“Maybe there really are two identical banyan trees,” he said by way of consolation, even though he knew it was meaningless.

She shook her head gently, but then a thought struck her and she jumped up. In her eyes there was fear in addition to shock.

“My god,” she said.

“What?” he asked in concern.

“Have ... have you thought about time?”

His mind was nimble, and he quickly latched onto her idea: “As far as I am aware, Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our own, at a distance of ... about four light years.”

“1.3 parsecs. 4.25 light years.” She was still in the grip of shock, and the words seemed to be spoken by a different person.

Things were clear now: two identical scintillations had appeared eight years and six months apart, the time it would take for light to make a round-trip between the stars. The light from the solar scintillation reached Alpha Centauri, which experienced an identical scintillation, and after the same length of time, the light from that scintillation returned and was observed.

She bent over the computer and performed a series of calculations while talking to herself: “Accounting for recessional motion, the results match precisely.”

“I apologize for making you uncomfortable. But since there’s no way to verify this, it’s not worth getting so worked up about.” Once again he wanted to console her.

“No way to verify it? Not necessarily. The light from that solar scintillation is still spreading through space. It might still cause another star to produce an identical scintillation.”

“And next further star after Alpha Centauri is ...”

“Barnard’s Star. 1.81 parsecs. But it’s too dim, there’s no way to detect its scintillation. The next star is Wolf 359, at 2.35 parsecs. Also too dim. Undetectable. Then there’s Lalande 21185, at 2.52 parsecs. Also too dim. The light has to reach Sirius.”

“And that’s the brightest visible star. How far away is it?”

“2.65 parsecs. 8.6 years.”

“The light from that solar scintillation has been traveling through space for ten years now and has reached Sirius. Maybe there’s already been a scintillation.”

“But we have to wait another seven years before it reaches us.”

Abruptly she seemed to awaken from a dream. She shook her head and laughed. “My god. What am I doing? This is ridiculous!”

“You mean that it’s a ridiculous idea for an astronomer to have?”

She looked at him intently: “You don’t think so? As a brain surgeon, how would you like to have a discussion with someone about whether thoughts are located in the brain or in the heart?”

There was nothing for him to say. She looked at her watch, so he got up and said goodbye. She made no move to stay him, but she did walk with him a ways down the mountain road. He restrained the impulse to ask her for her telephone number, because he knew that in her eyes he was just a stranger whose path had happened to cross hers for the second time in ten years.

After saying goodbye, she turned and headed back to the Observatory, and the mountain wind flicking her white work uniform recalled in a rush the feeling he’d had when they parted a decade ago. The sunlight seemed to be transformed into moonlight, and a graceful feather drifted away from him ... Like a drowning person grasping with all his might at a piece of straw, he resolved to preserve the slender thread of their relationship. Almost instinctively he called after her retreating form: “What if, in seven years, you find out that Sirius really did scintillate?”

She stopped, turned back toward him, and replied with a slight smile, “Then we’ll meet back here.”

Time II

Marriage may have introduced him to a completely new way of life, but what truly and utterly changed his life was the child. After the birth, the local train of his life suddenly became an express, speeding past one station after another without halting its forward motion. The dullness of the journey numbed him, so he shut his eyes against the monotonous scenery and let his fatigue carry him off to sleep. But like many sleeping passengers on the train, deep within his heart a small clock continued to tick, ready to wake him up a minute before arriving at his destination.

Late one night, when his wife and son were sleeping soundly but he was still wide awake, a strange impulse drove him out onto the balcony. He looked up at the smog-dimmed starry sky as if searching for something, but what? It was a long while before his heart answered: Sirius. He shivered involuntarily.

Seven years had passed. Only two days remained until the date the two of them had set.


The day after the first snowfall of the year the road was slick, so the taxi could not travel the last stretch. Once again he had to climb the peak of Siyun Mountain on foot.

Along the road, he questioned more than once whether he was in a normal state of mind. Realistically, the probability that she would show up was zero, for one simple reason: Sirius could not possibly scintillate as the sun had seventeen years ago. For seven years he had dabbled a great deal in astronomy and astrophysics, and had grown sheepish about his ludicrous “discovery” of seven years before. She had not mocked him to his face, and for this he was eternally grateful. Looking back on it now, her seriousness was merely good manners, and in his many recollections of the promise she had given him at their parting, he was increasingly able to identify a mocking tone ... Astronomical observation had gradually migrated into outer-space orbits, and the Siyun Mountain Observatory had ceased to exist four years ago. The buildings had been converted into vacation villas, now vacant for the season. What was he doing here? The thought brought him to a halt. Time demonstrated its power: he was no longer that young man who could climb a mountain with ease. He paused for a moment, but eventually rejected the thought of going back. He pressed onward.

At the midpoint of life, why not chase one final dream?

So when he saw that white silhouette, he genuinely thought it was an illusion. Dressed in a white windbreaker, the figure at the old Observatory blended into the snow-covered mountain and was initially hard to make out. When she saw him she headed over at a run, and at a distance he watched that feather fly across the snowy ground. He stood still until she reached him. She was out of breath and unable to speak, and he saw that apart from cutting her hair, she had not changed much. Seven years was not a long time—barely a snap of the fingers in the lifetime of a star. And she was a student of the stars.

She looked into his eyes. “Doctor, I didn’t have much hope of seeing you. I came just to fulfill a promise. Or maybe to satisfy a wish.”

“Me too.” He nodded.

“I nearly ... I nearly missed the observation time. I didn’t really forget. I just buried it somewhere deep within my memory, and a few nights ago it suddenly came back to me ...”

“Me too.” He nodded again.

They were silent. The only sound was the wind in the pines, which echoed across the mountain.

“Did Sirius scintillate?” he asked at last in a soft and trembling voice.

She nodded. “The scintillation waveform was an exact overlap of the sun’s seventeen years ago, and of Alpha Centauri’s seven years ago. Identical, and occurring precisely at the expected moment. These are the results from the Confucius III space telescope. There was no mistake.”

They lapsed into another extended silence. The wind whipped through the trees, and he felt as if the sound was spiraling upward from the mountains, filling the space between heaven and earth, as if some power in the cosmos was engaged in a deep, mysterious chorus ... he shivered involuntarily. She evidently had the same feeling and seemed to break the silence only as a way to banish the terror.

“But this thing is an oddity that is beyond our current theories. If the scientific community is to treat it seriously, more evidence and observations are required.”

He said, “I know. The next observable star is ...”

“Procyon in Canus Minor would have been observable, but five years ago its luminosity decreased dramatically, dropping below observable values, perhaps because it drifted into a nearby interstellar dust cloud. The next observable star is Altair, in the constellation Aquila.”

“How far is that?”

“5.1 parsecs. 16.6 light years. The light from the solar scintillation seventeen years ago has only just reached it.”

“Which means we have to wait for nearly seventeen more years?”

She gave a slow nod. “Life is too short.”

This touched him somewhere deep within his heart, and his wind-dried eyes felt moist all of a sudden: “Yes, life is too short.”

She said, “But at least we will be able to meet like this one more time.”

He stared at her. Would they be separated for another seventeen years?

“Please forgive me. My mind is a mess, and I need some time to think.” She brushed a strand of hair from her forehead, and then read his thoughts. She laughed: “Of course. I’ll give you my phone number and email address, and if you want, we can get in touch later.”

He let out a long breath. His ship adrift at sea had at long last sighted a lighthouse on the shore, and his mind was full of an indescribable happiness. “Then ... I’ll walk you down the mountain.”

She shook her head with a smile, and then pointed at the domed holiday villa behind her. “I’d like to stay here for a while. Don’t worry, there’s electricity, and a nice family that keeps a permanent ranger post. I really need some quiet time. A long quiet time.”

After that they parted. He took the snow-covered road down the mountain, leaving her standing on the peak where she watched him for a long while. Both of them were prepared for a seventeen year wait.

Time III

Returning from Siyun Mountain for a third time, he suddenly saw the far end of life. They did not have many more seventeen year periods left. Light traveled at a snail’s pace across the cosmic expanse, turning life into an insignificant speck of dust.

The first five of those seventeen years he kept in touch with her. They exchanged emails, and even phone calls at times, but they never met in person. She lived in a distant city. As time went on, they both reached the pinnacles of their respective lives. He became a renowned brain specialist and the director of his hospital, and she became a member of the national academy of sciences. They had an increasing number of things to worry about, and he also realized that it was inappropriate to discuss with a leader in the field the mysterious thing that had brought them together. So their interactions tapered off, and by the halfway mark of those seventeen years, they had stopped communicating entirely.

But he was unperturbed. He knew that they shared an unbreakable bond. As the light from Altair traveled night and day across the vastness of outer space toward Earth, they both awaited its arrival in silence.


It was late at night when they met on the main peak of Siyun Mountain. They had both arrived early so as not to keep the other waiting, so they climbed the mountain at a little past three in the morning. Their flying cars could easily have ascended the peak, but they decided independently to park at the foot of the mountain and make the ascent on foot in an obvious attempt to recover a sensation of the past.

Ever since its designation as a nature preserve a decade ago, Siyun Mountain had become one of the increasingly rare wilderness areas on Earth. The Observatory and holiday homes of yesteryear were now overgrown ruins, and the two of them met amid the ruins under the starlight. He had seen her on TV recently, so he knew that the years had left their mark, but on this moonless night, by whatever trick of the imagination, he felt that she was the same young woman from the moonlight thirty-four years ago. Her eyes reflected the starlight and melted his heart with past feelings.

She said, “Let’s not talk about Altair at first, okay? The past few years I’ve been directing a research project to observe the transmission of Type-A stellar scintillations.”

“Oh, I’d have thought you wouldn’t have anything to do with this discovery. Or that you’d have totally forgotten it.”

“How could I do that? Something that actually exists should be tackled head on. The universe described by the classic theory of relativity and quantum mechanics is actually unimaginably weird and strange ... observations over the past few years have revealed that Type-A scintillations transmitted between stars are a common phenomenon. Innumerable stars are generating Type-A scintillations every second, to be retransmitted by the stars that surround them. Any star can be an originator or transmitter, turning intergalactic space itself into pond rippling under the raindrops ... what, you’re not surprised?”

“There’s one thing I don’t understand. If observing just four scintillation transmissions took more than three decades, how did you ...”

“You’re an intelligent man. You ought to be able to come up with a way.”

“Maybe. Did it go something like this? First, you chose to observe stars that are relatively close to each other—a star A and B. Perhaps they’re ten thousand light years away from Earth, but they are just five light years apart from each other. Then, in the space of five years, you could observe a scintillation transmission that took place ten thousand years ago.”

“Clever! There are more than a hundred billion stars in the galaxy, so you can imagine there is a fair number of this type of star pair.”

He smiled, and as he had thirty-four years ago, he hoped she would see his smile in the darkness.

“I brought you a gift.” As he spoke, he opened up the backpack he had carried up the mountain and took out a strange object about the size of a football. At first glance it resembled a balled up bunch of fishnet, and when he held it up to the sky, fragmented starlight could be seen through its holes. He turned on a flashlight, and she saw that the object was made up of countless small balls the size of rice grains. Extending from each ball were various numbers of fibers so thin as to be practically invisible, connecting them all in an incredibly complex grid system. He turned off the flashlight, and in the darkness he flicked a switch at the base of the grid. All of a sudden it was filled with swiftly moving points of light that dazzled the eye. She seemed to be viewing a hollow glass orb filled with tens of thousands of fireflies. Taking a closer look, she discovered that the points of light emanated from certain balls and then transmitted to the surrounding balls. At every moment a proportion of the balls was originating or transmitting points of light. She seemed to be watching her own metaphor: a pool in the rain.

“Is this a model of stellar scintillation transmission? It’s stunning. Did you ... did you predict all of this?”

“I did guess that stellar scintillation transmission is a common phenomenon in the universe. Based on nothing but intuition, of course. But this object is not a model of that. A research project at our institute uses molecular microscopy and three-dimensional holographic positioning technology to study neural signaling in the brain. This is a model of signal transmission in a small part of the right cerebral cortex. Naturally it’s just a very, very small part.”

She watched rapt as the stars traversed the globe: “Is this consciousness?”

“That’s right. Just like computing power is produced from a massive grouping of zeroes and ones, consciousness is formed out of a massive number of simple linkages. The simple links between neurons gathered together in massive numbers produce consciousness. In other words, consciousness is the transmission of signals among an ultra-massive number of nodes.”

They looked the glittering starry model of the brain in silence, while the galaxy’s billions of stars, and the billions upon billions of stars outside the galaxy, drifted through the far reaches of the universe. And between these uncountably many stars, countless Type-A scintillations were being transmitted.

She said softly, “It’s almost dawn. Let’s wait and watch the sunrise.”

So they sat down against a low wall and watched the brain model in front of them. Its flashing phosphorescence was hypnotic, and she drifted off to sleep.

The Thinker

She flew upstream along a vast gray river, the river of time, in the direction of its source, as the stars drifted through space like frozen glacial debris. She flew fast. One flap of her wings sent her across a hundred million years. The universe was contracting, stars were converging, background radiation was intensifying. Ten billion years passed. The moraine of stars began to melt into a sea of energy, dissipating quickly into free particles, and those particles in turn transformed into pure energy. Space began to glow, dark red at first, and she seemed to be creeping through an energy bloodbath. Then the light intensified and turned from red to orange, and then to a blinding blue, as if she were flying inside an immense neon lamp tube. Matter had now totally dissolved into the sea of energy. Across this dazzling space she saw the spherical boundary of the universe closing inward like an immense palm. Suspended at the center of a universe that had shrunk to a size no larger than a living room, she waited for the arrival of the singularity. At last, all was plunged into darkness, and she knew that she was at the singularity.

A chill assaulted her. She discovered she was standing on an expansive white plain with the unbounded black void above her. Beneath her feet, the ground was pure white and covered with a layer of slippery transparent glue. She walked forward until she arrived at a crimson river covered with a layer of transparent film through which she could see the red water surging below. She took to the air and saw that not far off there were forks in the blood river, its many branches forming a complex network. From higher up, the rivers narrowed down to blood threads upon the white ground, which remained unbounded. She flew onward. A black ocean appeared up ahead, but when she flew over it she discovered that it was not black. Its blackness was due to its total transparency, through which she could see vividly the mountain ranges on the ocean floor. The crystalline ranges radiated from the center of the ocean and extended to its shores ... she flew desperately upward for ages, and then looked down again upon the entire universe.

The universe was a giant eye watching her in silence.


She awoke with a start, her forehead damp with sweat, or dew. He had not slept, but had been watching her quietly all this time. In front of them on the grass, the brain model had exhausted its batteries, and the starlight passing through it had been extinguished.

Above them the stars remained as before.

“What is ‘he’ thinking?” she asked abruptly.

“Right now?”

“For the past thirty-four years.”

“The scintillation that originated in the sun was just a primitive neural impulse. These impulses occur all the time. Most of them are like the tiny ripples left by mosquitoes on the surface of a pond, and they dissipate immediately. Only when an impulse is transmitted throughout the universe does it become a complete sensation.”

“We’ve used up our entire lives and have only seen one impulse, which he may not even have felt?” she said as if dreaming.

“You could spend the entirety of human civilization without seeing even one complete sensation.”

“Life is too short.”

“Yes, life is too short ...”

“A loner in the truest sense of the word,” she said.

“What?” He looked at her in confusion.

“I mean, apart from ‘him’, the rest is nothingness. He is everything, and he is thinking. Or maybe dreaming. Dreaming of what ...”

“Let’s not try to be philosophers,” he said with a wave of his hand.

A thought occurred to her, and she straightened away from the wall she’d been leaning against. “According to modern cosmic inflation theory, in an expanding universe, light emitted at one point will never spread throughout the entire universe.”

“Which means that he will never have a complete sensation.”

She leveled her gaze into the infinite and was silent for a long time. Then she asked suddenly, “And us?”

Her question pitched him into a memory of yesterday. Then the first cry of a bird sounded from the forest of Siyun Mountain, and a ray of dawn appeared on the eastern horizon.

“I have,” he said with confidence. Yes, he had, once. Thirty-four years ago, a still night on this very peak, a feather-light figure in the moonlight, and a young woman’s eyes gazing at the heavens ... a scintillation had been generated in his mind and had swiftly spread throughout his entire mental universe, never to disappear in the years that followed. The process was grander still: his mind contained a universe far more magnificent than the glittering universe outside, which had been expanding for fifteen billion years. Although the outside universe was vast, it had been proven to be bounded. But thoughts were infinite.

As the eastern sky grew brighter, the stars began to vanish, and a silhouette of Siyun Mountain began to emerge. Atop its high main peak, amid the vine-covered ruins of the Observatory, two people nearing sixty years of age watched the east in anticipation, waiting for a dazzling brain cell to rise above the horizon.


Translation: Joel Martinsen





Banned in China, Independent Chinese Films Come to New York

Jonathan Landreth
Three years ago this week I watched the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival crumble under the weight of official fear—fear that the gritty low-budget, experimental dramas and documentaries screening in a remote Beijing suburb reflected a touch...



Has Chinese Film Finally Produced a Real Hero?

Ying Zhu
“This Is an Era That Calls for Heroes”—the boldface Chinese characters scream from a publicity poster for the Chinese animation film, Monkey King: Hero is Back, which made headline news in July for breaking the animation box-office record in China...



Japan’s Soft Power Leader in China is a Fat Blue Cartoon Cat

David Volodzko
On July 28, costumed in vibrant colors, throngs of fans flocked toward the early morning light of Victoria Harbor, queueing outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center for the last day of the 17th Ani-Com & Games Hong Kong. The...



Chinese Writers and Chinese Reality

Ouyang Bin
My first encounter with Liu Zhenyun was in 2003. At the time, cell phones had just become available in China and they were complicating people’s relationships. I witnessed a couple break up because of the secrets stored on a phone. I watched people...



A New Opera and Hong Kong’s Utopian Legacy

Denise Y. Ho
This year, the 43rd annual Hong Kong Arts Festival commissioned a chamber opera in three acts called Datong: The Chinese Utopia. Depicting the life and times of Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a philosopher and reformer of China’s last Qing dynasty, it...




Nicholas Griffin
Way back when, let’s say in 2012, the city of Miami and the country of China rarely mixed in sentences. Since then, connections between the Far East and the northernmost part of Latin America have become more and more frequent. Three years ago, a...



‘Still Not Married?’ A Graphic Guide to Surviving Chinese New Year

Roseann Lake
Maya Hong is a Beijing transplant from a small town outside of Harbin, the icy city not far from China’s border with Siberia. Though proud of her glacial origins and skilled at combating subzero temperatures, over the years Hong, 30, has had to add...



Cai Guo-Qiang’s Love Affair With Fireworks

Orville Schell
New York City-based artist Cai Guo-Qiang, one of the most celebrated contemporary artists born in China, has become the Godfather of a spectacular new kind of fireworks displays which he calls “explosion events.” Having done large-scale events...



‘This is not that China Story’

James Carter, Michael Meyer
James Carter spent much of the 1990s researching the modern history of Harbin, China’s northernmost major city, in the region that is today known as dongbei, the northeast. That region is the subject of Michael Meyer’s forthcoming book, In Manchuria...



‘One Day the People Will Speak Out for Me’

Sheila Melvin
The ongoing exhibition “@Large: Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz” is both revelatory and heart-wrenching, a stunning and sobering work by an artist who understands firsthand the fragility and pricelessness of freedom.Detained without warning or charge for 81...



‘The Training Wheels Are Coming Off,’ But That’s Not Necessarily A Good Thing

Jonathan Landreth
Making a movie is a wild ride no matter where you are in the world, a process fraught with ego and pride; wobblier, riskier, yet potentially more lucrative, the bigger and faster it gets.With U.S. gross sales of movie tickets basically flat, up just...



Contact Lenses

Vera Tollmann
Will we all become “Chinese?” International New York Times correspondent Didi Kirsten Tatlow ironically asked recently. The question plays both on our fears over China’s economic power and on reflections on the NSA files released by Edward Snowden...



‘Transformers 4’ May Pander to China, But America Still Wins

Ying Zhu
Hollywood made news this summer with the China triumph of Transformers: Age of Extinction, which broke all previous Chinese box office records. The Chinese box office even outsold the North American box office. But jubilation over the film’s...



Standing Up for Indie Film in China

Jonathan Landreth
In July, Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth in the action-packed series of Hollywood films about trucks turning into giant robots to save the world, became the first film to sell more than $300 million in tickets at China’s box office...



Healthy Words

Alec Ash
In 1902, Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was “as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time.” Not any...



The Bard in Beijing

Sheila Melvin
At the end of a rollicking production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—directed by Tim Robbins and staged in China in June by the Los Angeles-based Actors’ Gang—the director and actors returned to the stage for a dialogue with the...



Inside the Mind of a Chinese Hacker

Emily Parker
In May, the U.S. announced the indictment of five Chinese hackers for breaking into the computers of U.S. companies. The men went by code names like UglyGorilla and KandyGoo. A recent report revealed that the hackers, who worked for Unit 61398 of...



A Visit to Hong Kong’s June 4th Museum

Amy Chung
Every Saturday in Hong Kong, volunteer curator and translator C.S. Liu helps guide visitors through the first permanent museum dedicated to the history of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989 in Beijing.At the entrance to the June 4th...



Stranger Than Fiction

Zhang Xiaoran
In the short twenty years since Yu Hua, a fifty-three-year-old former dentist, has been writing, China has undergone change enough for many lifetimes. His country’s transformations and what they leave in their wake have become the central theme of...



Will Xi Jinping Stop the Music?

Sheila Melvin
In late November of 2013, I sat chatting in a California concert hall with one of the PRC’s most famous first-generation pianists. Normally at this time of year, the pianist told me, he would be heading off to China to perform multiple New Year’s...



Chinese Literature Online

Michel Hockx
In July of last year, Brixton, U.K.-based novelist Zelda Rhiando won the inaugural Kidwell-e Ebook Award. The award was billed as “the world’s first international e-book award.” It may have been the first time that e-writers in English from all over...



A Homecoming

Sun Yunfan, Shen Wei
Shot in big cities and small towns across China in recent years, Shen Wei’s photographic project “Chinese Sentiment” is a personal journey to recapture bygone Chinese life in both private and public space. Born and raised in Shanghai, Shen Wei...



Why You Should Read Pearl Buck’s ‘New’ Novel

Sheila Melvin
When I first heard that The Eternal Wonder, a new novel by Pearl Buck, was scheduled for publication by Open Road Media on October 22 of this year, I assumed the announcement was either a mistake or a joke.Buck, of course, is the author of The Good...



All He Needs is a Miracle

Debra Bruno
Courtesy of the USF Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History A portrait of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci by You Wenhui; painted at the time of Ricci’s death in Beijing, 1610. It now hangs at the Jesuit residence in Rome. It is the...



The Sound of China’s Future

Jonathan Campbell
It’s high noon in March and the cluttered patio of Maria’s Taco Xpress, the Austin, Texas institution, is gloriously sunny. First time visitor Gan Baishui is moments away from his band’s American debut, but the composer and musician from a fourth-...



“Walk A Pig on My Bike (2012)”

Sun Yunfan
“Walk A Pig on My Bike (2012),” from their double-disc second album Some Other Scenery (2012), is a new rendition of an earlier song by the Guangzhou-based folk band Wu Tiao Ren. The twenty-one songs from this album (nineteen, including this one,...



“Water Runs East for Ten Years, Water Runs West for Ten Years”

Sun Yunfan
“Water Runs East for Ten Years, Water Runs West for Ten Years” is a song by the Guangzhou-based folk band Wu Tiao Ren from their first album, A Tale of Haifeng (2009). The songs on this album celebrate the sentiments and everyday lives of small-town...



The Local Folk

Sun Yunfan
In the liner notes of their 2009 début album, A Tale of Haifeng, Guangzhou-based indie folk band Wu Tiao Ren tinkered with the Communist party slogan “Lizu xiancheng, fangyan quanqiu,” which translates roughly: “See the world from our county’s...



“I Just Want to Write”

Whether or not I deserved the Nobel Prize, I already received it, and now it’s time to get back to my writing desk and produce a good work. I hear that the 2013 list of Nobel Prize nominees has been finalized. I hope that once the new laureate is...



Lei Lei: A Sketch of the Animator As a Young Man

Sun Yunfan
Lei Lei, a.k.a. Ray Lei, 27, is one of the best-known animators in China. Unlike many other smart kids of his generation who graduated from China’s top universities, he went off the beaten path early in his career and never turned back. In a country...



Classical Music with Chinese Characteristics

Sheila Melvin
On a frigid Friday morning at the end of 2012, a stream of expectant concertgoers poured through the cavernous lobby of the China National Center for the Performing Arts. They had come to the stunning, egg-shaped arts complex at this unusually early...



Director Zhang Yuan, Still Kicking

Sun Yunfan
Zhang Yuan, a veteran rebel among Chinese filmmakers, recently came to New York for the premiere of his film Beijing Flickers at the Global Lens 2013 series at the Museum of Modern Art. Ever since Mama, his 1990 debut about a mother and her mentally...



An Alternative Top Ten

Shelly Kraicer
Most accounts of the last year in Chinese cinema are dominated by films that were made for the ever-expanding domestic box office, and the local film industry’s struggle for screen time in competition with Hollywood imports. On the one hand, we...



Hong Kong’s Bard of the Everyday

Ilaria Maria Sala
 I have your words, that you put down on paperbut nothing at hand to return, so I write downpapaya. I cut one open: so many dark points, so many undefined things On Sunday, January 6, when Leung Ping-kwan, author of these lines,...



Top Floor Circus

Sun Yunfan
At nine o’clock on a recent Monday morning, Lu Chen, the slender and polite lead singer of Top Floor Circus, the first rock band to sing in Shanghainese—and a man whose transformative stage persona sees him swearing, stripping nearly naked, and...



Punks Are All Sissies - Lyrics

Sun Yunfan
Sun Yunfan
“Punks Are All Sissies” is a song by the Shanghai rock band Top Floor Circus, off of their third album Timmy Revisits Lingling Road 93 (2005). The album generally is seen as a parody of punk music, making references to Bob Dylan, GG Allin, a Beijing...



Be a Nice Guy - Lyrics

Sun Yunfan
Sun Yunfan
“Be a Nice Guy” is a song by the Shanghai rock band Top Floor Circus off of their fourth album 13 Classic Hits of Shanghai Pop Rock (2010). The album celebrates the everyday life of the Shanghainese. Lu Chen, the lead singer of the group, sings the...



Sheng Keyi on Mo Yan: “Literature Supersedes Politics and Everything Else”

The Editors
In a recent conversation at the Asia Society, novelist Sheng Keyi said she felt the critism of Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize was unjustified. The controversy, she said, arises from Mo Yan’s politics rather than his literature, “and I think to critique him on...



Yu Jie: Awarding Mo Yan the Nobel Prize Was a “Huge Mistake”

Ouyang Bin
Mo Yan accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm on December 10.The 57-year-old novelist often writes stories based on memories of his village childhood, and his work and his political views have triggered wide debate. In...



Remember to Tell the Truth

Maya E. Rudolph
The recording of memory brings history to life and creates a legacy of its own. In 2010, documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang launched the Memory Project to try to shine a light on the long-shrouded memories of one of modern China’s most traumatic...



A New Tower of Babel

Sheila Melvin
Xu Bing, the renowned Chinese artist whose many laurels include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and an appointment as vice president of China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, has long demonstrated a fascination with the written word.His...



Wrapped Up: An Interview with Lin Tianmiao

Sun Yunfan
Lin Tianmiao was born in Taiyuan, Shanxi in 1961 to an artistic family. Her father was a traditional painter and her mother a dancer. In the 1980s, she married video artist Wang Gongxin, moved to New York, and became a textile designer. It wasn’t...



As Beautiful As Little Cats

Agnès Varda, Leap
Leap Editor's Note: In 1957, the filmmaker Agnès Varda assumed the role of photographer during a two-month journey around both urban and rural China with a delegation of French dignitaries. In 2012, her photographs from that trip appeared in “...



Novelist Chan Koonchung on China’s ‘Lack of Trust’

Ilaria Maria Sala
“I started to think about this book in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics,” says Chan Koonchung of his dystopian novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (The Fat Years). “2008 was the beginning of a new chapter for China, which is when I realized I had a...



But Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars

The wild nature of a realist The moment that someone decides to write, if it’s truly miraculous, is often likened to a “flash of inspiration.” Haruki Murakami’s description of such a moment is a classic example, and whether true or not, it has a...



China Through An Independent Lens

La Frances Hui
Chinese documentaries have gained global attention in the past decade or so, thanks partly to the creative originality of young filmmakers and partly to a rapidly changing China that fascinates viewers from around the world. Wang Bing’s nine-hour...



A Gift from Bill Gates

My name is Thousands (“Yiqianji”) and I’ve worked in all sorts of jobs. Most recently, I’ve been spending my time at home writing, and in my spare time, help my mother out picking vegetables. (With the recession, a good job’s hard to find.) Every...



A Pension Plan, a Story by Ha Jin

It was said that Mr. Sheng suffered from a kind of senile dementia caused by some infarction in his brain. I was sure it was neither Parkinson’s nor Alzheimer’s, because I had learned quite a bit about both during my training to be a health aide. He...



What Gu Dexin Left

Philip Tinari
Last Saturday the museum I direct in Beijing opened a show by China’s most important contemporary artist you’ve never heard of, Gu Dexin. The opening however had one major difference from the star-studded affairs that have become commonplace in the...



Three Poems by Han Dong

Foggy It’s foggy, or smoky Perhaps it’s smog No one’s surprised by that You can look straight into the sun, floating Like the moon in ashen clouds No one’s surprised by that This morning is no different from other mornings Yesterday and...



Wu Fei: An Authentic Voice

Sun Yunfan
Wu Fei is a Beijing-born composer, vocalist, and guzheng (Chinese zither) player. Her music career tracks a journey from East to West and back again. Born into a musical family, she started playing guzheng as a child. After graduating from the China...



A Rhythm of His Own

Sun Yunfan
Huang Bo, founder and lead singer of the funk band The Verse, is a Chinese artist who looks to the West for musical and spiritual inspiration. Huang grew up in Changsha and moved to Guangzhou in the 1990s to study oil painting at the Guangzhou...



Wuhan: Left Behind?

Einar Engström, Leap
Many believe that Wuhan, a historic inland port city midway up the Yangtze River, is on the upswing. Yet a week of firsthand observation reveals a youth culture struggling to cope with the city's second-tier identity, leaving questions as to...



Under the Gingko Tree

Chongqing is western China’s only centrally administered city. A mountain town where two rivers meet, Chongqing is one of modern Chinese history’s most strategically important strongholds, and also one of the most important sources of contemporary...



The Educators

Sun Dongdong, Leap
The question of art education in China, like just about every question in China, is a complicated one, tied to the myriad issues facing a society in the throes of a massive transition. There is no easy solution, and acknowledging the obstacles is a...



Philosophies of Independence: The Li Xianting Film School

Riding the 938 bus out of Beijing’s Guomao station, the Central Business District gradually dissolves on the hour-long journey east to Songzhuang, giving way to a landscape not unlike that found in hundreds of county-level towns across China. An...



Our Time With Mu Xin

At three o'clock in the morning on December 21, 2011, the poet, writer, and painter Mu Xin passed away at the age of eighty-four in his hometown of Wuzhen. In this essay, two filmmakers from New York attempt to reconstruct the six days they...



Hong Kong's Own Art Fair

Philip Tinari
Late spring is art fair season, and last week's dramatic news that Art Basel, the best art fair in the world, will take ownership of Asia's new star Art HK has caught much of the art world by surprise. Under new ownership, the fair,...



Bishan Harvestival

One can almost imagine Bishan in its heyday. On the evening of August 26, 2011 the village’s daytime enthusiasm gushes towards the Yi County Cinema. It’s the kind of movie theater almost every small town has had, but Bishan’s has somehow managed to...