Decoded is the thrilling international bestseller by Mai Jia, China’s literary master. Hailed as the forerunner of Chinese espionage fiction and dubbed China’s answer to John le Carré, Mai Jia has created a unique genre combining spycraft, code-breaking, crime, historical fiction, and metafiction.
Decoded follows the story of mathematical genius Rong Jinzhen. Abducted and recruited to the cryptography department of China’s secret services, Jinzhen rises to eventually become China’s greatest and most celebrated code-breaker – until he makes a mistake. Then begins his descent into madness.
Read on for the first chapter from this brilliant novel!
Decoded by Mai Jia
The man who left Tongzhen on the little black ferry in 1873 with a view to studying abroad was the youngest member of the seventh generation of that famous family of salt merchants: the Rongs of Jiangnan. When he left, he was called Rong Zilai, but by the time he returned he was called John Lillie. Going by what people said later on, he was the first person in the Rong family to break from their mercantile heritage and become an academic, not to mention a great patriot. Of course, this development was inextricably linked with the many years that he spent abroad. However, when the Rong fam- ily originally picked him to be the one to go overseas, it was not because they wanted him to bring about this fundamental change in the clan’s fortunes, but because they were hoping that it might help Grandmother Rong live for a little bit longer.
As a young woman, Grandmother Rong had proved an excellent mother, giving birth to nine sons and seven daughters over the course of two decades; what is more, all of them lived to be adults. It was these children who laid the foundations of the Rong family fortune, making her position at the very top of the clan hierarchy unassailable. Thanks to the assiduous attentions of her children and grandchildren she lived much longer than she might otherwise have done, but she was not a happy woman. She was afflicted by all sorts of distressing and complex dreams, to the point where she often woke up screaming; even in broad daylight she would still be suffering from the lingering terrors of the night. When these nightmares tormented her, her numer- ous progeny, not to mention the vast wealth of the family, came to seem a crushing burden. The flames licking the incense in the brazier often flickered uncertainly with the force of her high-pitched shrieks. Every morning, a couple of local scholars would be invited to come to the Rong mansion to interpret the old lady’s dreams, but as time went by it became clear that none of them were much use.
Of all the many people called in to interpret her dreams, Grandmother Rong was the most impressed by a young man who had recently washed up in Tongzhen from somewhere overseas. Not only did he make no mistakes in explaining the inner meanings of the old lady’s dreams, but sometimes he even seemed to display clairvoy- ance in interpreting the significance of individuals who would appear in the future. It was only his youth that led people to imagine that his abilities in this direction were superficial – or to use Grandmother Rong’s own words, ‘nothing good ever came of employing people still wet behind the ears’. He was very good at explaining dreams but his divination skills were much poorer. It seemed that if he started off on the wrong foot, he simply could not right himself again. To tell the truth, he was very good at dealing with the old lady’s dreams from the first part of the night, but he was completely unable to cope with those that she had towards dawn, or the dreams within dreams. By his own account, he had never formally studied this kind of divi- nation technique, but had managed to learn a little simply by following his grandfather around and listening in. Having only dabbled in this kind of thing before, he could hardly be classed as an expert.
Grandmother Rong moved aside a sliding panel in the wall and showed him the silver ingots stacked within, begging him to bring his grandfather to China. The only answer that she received was that it was impossible. There were two reasons for this. First, his grand- father was already very wealthy and had lost all interest in making more money a long time ago. Furthermore, his grandfather was a very old man and the thought of having to travel across the ocean at his time of life might very well scare him to death. On the other hand the young man did come up with one practical suggestion for the old lady: send someone overseas to study.
If Mohammed won’t go to the mountain, then the mountain will have to come to Mohammed.
The next task was to find a suitable person to go from among the old lady’s myriad descendants. There were two crucial criteria for selection. It would have to be someone with an unusual sense of filial duty to Grandmother Rong, who would be prepared to suffer for her sake. What is more, it would have to be someone intelligent and interested in study, who could learn the complicated techniques of dream interpretation and divination in the shortest possible time and to a very high level. After a careful process of triage, a twenty-year- old grandson named Rong Zilai was selected for the task. Thus, Rong Zilai, armed with a letter of recommendation from the foreign young man and burdened with the task of finding a way to prolong his wretched grandmother’s life, set out to cross the ocean in search of learning. One month later, on a stormy night, just as Rong Zilai’s steamer was forging its way through the ocean swell, his grand- mother dreamed that a typhoon swallowed up the ship and sank it, sending her grandson to feed the fishes. Caught up in her dream, the old lady was so horrified that she ceased breathing. The trauma of her dream resulted in cardiac arrest; the old lady died in her sleep. Thanks to the length and difficulty of his journey, by the time that Rong Zilai stood in front of his would-be tutor and reverently presented his letter of introduction, the old man handed him another letter in return which announced the news of his grandmother’s death. Infor- mation always travels much faster than people do. As we know from personal experience, it is the fastest runner that gets to the tape first.
The old man looked at this young man who had come from so far away with a sharp glance, so keen that it could have been used to shoot down a flying bird. It seemed as though he was genuinely interested in taking on this foreign student, who had come to him in his twilight years. Thinking it over afterwards, however, since Grandmother Rong had died, there was no point in studying this esoteric skill and so, while he appreciated the old man’s offer, Rong Zilai decided to go back home. However, while he was waiting for his passage, he got to know another Chinese man at the college. This man took him to attend a couple of classes, after which he had no intention of leaving because he had discovered that there was a lot here that he needed to know. He stayed with the other Chinese man – during the day, the two of them attended classes in mathematics and geometry with stu- dents from Bosnia and Turkey. At night, he would attend concerts with a senior student from Prague. He enjoyed himself so much that he did not realize how quickly time was passing; when he finally decided that it was time to return, seven years had gone by. In the autumn of 1880, Rong Zilai got on a boat together with a couple of dozen barrels of new wine and began retracing his steps on the long journey home. By the time he arrived back, in the depths of winter, the wine was already perfectly drinkable.
To quote the inhabitants of Tongzhen on the subject: the Rong family had not changed at all during these seven years – the Rong clan was still the Rong clan, the salt merchants were still salt merchants, a flourishing family continued to flourish and the money came rolling in just like before. The only thing that was different was the young man who had gone abroad – he wasn’t so young any more, and he had acquired a really peculiar name: Lillie. John Lillie. Furthermore, he was now afflicted by all sorts of strange habits: he didn’t have a queue, he wore a short jacket rather than a long silk gown, he liked to drink wine that was the colour of blood, he larded his speech with words that sounded like the chirping of a bird, and so on. The strangest thing of all was that he simply could not stand the smell of salt – when he went down to the harbour or to the shop and the stinging scent of the salt assaulted his nostrils, he would begin to retch or sometimes even to vomit bile. It seemed particularly dreadful that the son of a salt merchant would be unable to tolerate the smell of salt; people treated him almost as if he had contracted an unmention- able disease. Later on, Rong Zilai explained what had happened – when he was on the boat sailing across the ocean, he had acciden- tally fallen in, swallowing so much briny water that he very nearly died. The horror of this event had etched itself into the very marrow of his bones. After that he had kept a tea leaf in his mouth at all times when on the boat, otherwise he simply would not have been able to endure it. Of course, explaining what had happened was one thing, getting people to accept the news was something else entirely. If he could not stand the smell of salt, how on earth was he supposed to work in the family business? You can’t have the boss going round with a mouth full of tea leaves all the time.
This was a very thorny problem.
Fortunately, before he left for foreign parts, Grandmother Rong had put it in writing that when he came back from his studies he was to have all the silver behind the sliding panel in her room as a reward for his filial piety. Later on, he used that money well, for it paid for him to open a school in the provincial capital, C City, which he called Lillie’s Academy of Mathematics.
That was the predecessor of the famous N University.