When I was at the Xinqiao Hotel in Peking looking for cards to send friends, this one caught my attention right away, not only because of its documentary value but also because of what it must represent.
When I asked Yuang Zhonglin, the Professor of Social Studies at Yiking, who these women wearing the yoke around their necks could be, he looked surprised as he answered, "They were prisoners condemned to capital punishment for serious crimes. They were being walked around the city and exhibited in the squares as a way to punish them in public and to issue a warning to crowds yelling insults. Then they were put into horse-drawn carts and left in the desert of Mongolia to die a slow, sure death."
I stuck the card in my pocket and, still astonished, I considered the fatal destiny of these women. Being abandoned among the dunes, sand whirling in the wind, they could find no horizon to put an end to their Calvary, until their thirst, hunger and the heat finally threw them into the arms of Death, who had the job of scattering their bones under an asphyxiating desert sun, the only indication that at some point in the past living souls were aimlessly wandering there.
After I returned to Stockholm with the card stuck between pages of a book, I continued to think about those women, whose crimes were punished with such drastic measures by laws approved by the Chinese dynasty and its retinue of tyrants—a penal code that fortunately was ended in 1911 after the fall of the last emperor and the installation of the Republic.
A few days ago I saw the card again when it fell out of the book, and I came up with the idea of reconstructing the facts.
The woman on the left was a prostitute. The guards of public order, in compliance with the authorities and noting the complaints of the neighbors, stopped her on a main thoroughfare and without offering any explanation took hold of her arms and delivered her to the high court to receive the sentence due any woman of doubtful virtue.
Although some confused her with others who spent the nights on the same street where they established an appearance of domestic life, she was one of those women who left rural surroundings to earn a living in the rough terrain of the city. But she became pregnant by a man who disappeared nine months later, just when her water broke and she was suffering the pains of giving birth. She sought refuge among the marginal beings inhabiting the underworld who survived through delinquency and alcohol. In that hellhole her son was born, and there she began practicing the oldest profession in history, offering the dignity of her body to the highest bidder. It sufficed to apply the maximum penalty, with no consideration that her motive was not pleasure or because of a vice but to provide daily bread for her son.
The woman in the middle was an adulteress. Not having found out in time how to measure the consequences of her ardent desires, she gave herself to forbidden love and broke the canons of good conjugal behavior.
It all began with her frustration over the impotence of her husband who was the same age as her father and whose body emitted such a terrible odor that even the furniture smelled. So, taking advantage of the absences of her husband, she engaged a young lover who seduced her with flattery and virile strength. She knew that only a man in the fullness of life could enliven the flames of her uncontainable passion and fulfill her womanly emotional needs.
On a certain day, according to the neighbors' word of mouth, fate ambushed her. Her husband, the supervisor of a construction job on a corner nearby, came home from work earlier than usual with the expectation of finding her sitting in the kitchen. But his surprise was ever so great on discovering her naked and making love on the bed. The woman covered her private parts with the silk spread, and her lover fled roughly and quickly, running into the door jams on his way out.
The husband, his face flushed and with tears in his eyes, reported to the guards of civil order so they might proceed in the matter, conscious that adultery, second only to homicide, was the worst sin a woman could commit in a patriarchal culture where only the emperor had the right to enjoy a wife and various concubines.
The unfaithful wife, whose marriage was not based on love but on family traditions of the time, surrendered to the authorities without the least repentance, convinced that feelings go in one direction and the laws of justice in another.
The woman on the right, who has her gaze fixed on the ground and her heart shrunk in anguish and pain, committed a heinous crime, one breaking every natural, divine and human law.
The bloody deed, far exceeding the tragedy of Medea, took place in the heart of the home where the husband, according to witnesses and allegations, constantly exhibited jealousy of his wife, whom he would accuse of "cheating on him" with men here and there, until one day after acting as the leading character in the couple's quarrel he screamed at her that the child was not his daughter. Then the woman, beside herself and possessed by a savage fury, sank the machete into the fragile breast of the girl, killing her in the coldest, most brutal way.
Her husband, devastated by the ruthless act, called the police and claimed that the motivation for the assassination was not his jealousy or constant defamations, but the wayward conduct of his wife who used to talk during the night as if possessed by the devil.
Meanwhile, in a state of panic, she wrapped the cadaver in rags and pieces of cloth and placed it in a fetal position inside a bamboo basket. She sprinkled the house with oil and set it on fire, letting the flames consume the dwelling. When the police arrived they found the charred body of the girl lying in the waste and the woman pulling her hair out by the roots, crying in the middle of the street.
The parricide murderess, who looked insane, was detained and taken to court. The judges, having proof of one of the cruelest crimes committed during the time of the last Chinese emperor, sentenced her to capital punishment without further consideration and with all the penalties due the crime.
Original en castellano