At the bottom of the stairs, Ma flicks on the dim lights to reveal vivid paintings and calligraphy scrolls on the walls, ornaments in glass cases, and statues mounted on marble pedestals. As always, no matter how many times I've seen this, my breath catches in awe. The best thing about our new home is that we can finally display Wu Zetian's art, even though it's only for ourselves.
I've made sure to come here every day since we moved into this mansion. Even in our old house, when all the art was packed in crates and crammed into a locked room, I used to sit among the crates and just breathe in all the history in the air. Ma likes to tell me that she used to do the same when she was little. 'Her' childhood home also had a hidden room. But that one must not have been hidden enough. Because when she was around my age, the unthinkable happened.
Ma waves a hand at the black lacquered chairs that look like they could be antiques from the Tang dynasty (they're not, but still super expensive). "Sit down."
Jun promptly sits, but I settle myself on the carpeted floor. I hate those hard, slippery chairs; I can never get comfortable on them. But the chairs are the only thing I dislike in this room. Everything else I love. No, that's not enough to describe my passion. I'm willing to give my life for the art in this room.
And that's exactly the kind of commitment required of us, the keepers of Wu Zetian's collection. There's a good reason her art is in our basement rather than a museum.
"What are we doing here, Ma?" I ask.
Ma paces the room, walking past a small statue of Wu Zetian, who ruled briefly with her own Zhou dynasty, interrupting the great Tang dynasty. There's a bigger statue of Empress Wu in the Longmen Grottoes in Henan Province. If anyone saw this small statue of Wu Zetian, they would assume it's a copy of it.
They would be wrong. The statue in the Longmen Grottoes is actually a large-scale copy of 'our' statue.
At last, Ma sits down on a chair next to Jun. "I want to talk to you both about why it's important to keep this collection secret."
My brow furrows. My sister and I already understand why Wu Zetian's art has to be hidden. It's a history that everyone knows—the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966 and lasted for a decade. Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Community Party, was a product of that bloody time. And so were my parents. Why does Ma feel like she needs to explain this?
"I was your age when the Cultural Revolution started," Ma says. "You need to know what it was like to live under the violence of the Red Guard."
Despite myself, I shudder. The Red Guard was a militarized student group that raided homes, beating and jailing anyone found in possession of bourgeois art—anything that wasn't state and Communist Party approved. As for priceless Tang dynasty art from the private collection of the most reviled royal, the most hated woman in all Chinese history? That could have gotten our entire family beaten and jailed at the least, killed at the worst.
"Lei, are you listening?" Ma asks sharply.
I sit up, folding my legs under me. "Of course!" Just because Jun is sitting on a chair all proper and I'm not, Ma thinks 'I'm' the one not listening?
Ma's face softens. "Of course you are." She knows how important this is to me. How I would do anything to protect the ebony-framed paintings, statues, jade jewelry, and scrolls of poems surrounding us. Our legacy.
"We're lucky," Ma says, "that we were able to keep our secret during the years of the Cultural Revolution that the Red Guard was allowed its reign of terror. But we still lost something important."
"The two portraits of the Tang dynasty court ladies!" I scramble to my feet and blurt out, "Did the Red Guard take them?"
"Lei," Jun says, "Ma has told us many times that if the Red Guard knew her family had those paintings, they all would have been arrested and sent to a labor camp."
"Yes," I say impatiently, "but what if one of the Red Guard stole them for his own gain?" My excitement quickens as I explain the theory that's been brewing in my head for months. "Maybe he didn't report Ma because he didn't want anyone to know he was keeping such priceless art for himself!" And that could mean that those paintings are still out there, whole and intact.
I can't bear to think of the alternative: that they were burned with so much other classical art. That's what the Red Guard did during the Cultural Revolution. Burn the art they pillaged.
"It's possible," Ma says, but the hopeless look in her eyes tells me she doesn't really believe that the paintings survived.
'Oh, right.' There's a reason I haven't shared my theory before. Because it makes Ma sad to talk about those paintings. But then again, 'she's' the one who brought them up in the first place. "I think it's time we start looking for the missing paintings," I say quickly, before I lose my nerve.
Jun gasps. "Lei!"