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"The Bell of Emperor Yongle" finalist story in the Manuel Mujica Laínez Contest in Buenos Aires, ...

Immerse yourself in this tale of Historia Cifrada (Encrypted History,) set in imperial China in the 18th century. It's the fabulous and mythical story of Chai Deng, daughter of Mandarin Deng Yong, who faces a heartbreaking challenge to create the perfect bell. Sacrifice, love, and the pursuit of perfection intertwine in this narrative, transporting you to a world of traditions and social expectations; a journey into the secrets surrounding the creation of the Bell of Eternal Peace.

According to the testimony of Ecuadorian missionary Jacinto Carrasquilla SJ, one of the finest bells cast by the people of the Far East hangs in the Tower of Wanningsi (Eternal Peace). It rises thirty-three meters above one end of the central arcade of the Sacred City of Beijing, to the north of the Di'anmen Street. Historians attest, as Emperor Amarillo did, that the Bell of Eternal Peace was cast in the mid-18th century during the reign of Qianlong of the Ming Dynasty. The natives of this country, as Carrasquilla writes in his travel chronicles, attribute the perfection of its tinkling to the sacrifice of Chai Deng, daughter of Mandarin Deng Yong. She had been commissioned by the emperor's mother to cast the most harmonious bell on the continent, capable of awakening the virgins in the Winter Palace, located twenty kilometers from the imperial quarters. After several unsuccessful attempts, Deng Yong received an ultimatum from the imperial mother, warning him that if the bell's iron failed once again, his head would roll down the sacred city's steps to the delight of the eunuchs and the amusement of the emperor's subjects.

"Tomorrow I may be executed," Deng Yong said to his wife and three daughters upon returning home, "the chief eunuch wants to get rid of me to favor one of his relatives."

Deng Yong's words could not have caused a deeper terror among his relatives. His death was already a cause for grief, but even more so was the certainty that if he were executed, all members of his household would accompany him to the grave. Deng's wife wailed and pulled at her hair, while his two younger daughters whimpered inconsolably at his feet. But Chai, his eldest daughter, maintained a calm demeanor, albeit pale.

"I think this time I have unraveled the perfect combination," Deng Yong pondered.

"May I speak, my father?" Chai asked, hiding her gaze.

"Now I must return."

Chai understood that her father would abandon them that night to spend the night at his lover's house. "It should be less dense," Chai ventured to say before her father rose from the table. "It would be enough if you mixed it with one or two sacks of flour and two barrels of water."

"That's absurd," exclaimed Deng Yong visibly irritated.

"Étienne told me before he left."

Deng Yong's face contorted in pain as his heavy, robust body moved along the corridor.

"I don't want to hear that buccaneer's name again," Deng Yong said before slowly blinking at Chai Deng's face.

"Harlot!" shouted her mother before her father had left the room.

Chai expected an even greater reprisal from her mother and sisters, possibly including scratches, but the proximity of death had plunged them into a kind of lethargic resignation.

During the last three years Chai had had a sentimental affair with Étienne Fourmont, who would later become famous in Europe for his Linguae sinarum mandarinicae hieroglyphicae grammatica duplex (Paris, 1742). Their relationship had been discreet, so no one in Peking had realized that the cause of Étienne's frequent visits to Deng Yong's palace was not merely diplomatic. Chai's mother herself came to believe that Étienne was nothing more than a fervent admirer of her husband, already famous in Japan and China for his writings on medicine, mathematics and metallurgy, until on a certain occasion Pow, one of his daughters minors surprised Chai in Étienne's arms.

"You must have dreamed it!" was her mother's immediate reply to Pow. Who's going to be interested in a spinster like Chai? If there is a maiden that he is interested in in this house, it will be Yi-Chang or you. Chai hadn't understood either; Her elongated neck, her aquatic feet, her wide hips and her bulging breasts were a source of constant ridicule among her relatives and acquaintances.

"To me you are the most beautiful woman in the East and the West," Étienne had whispered in her ear on several occasions.

Chai had tutored Étienne in the grammar of his language. Étienne, for her part, had indoctrinated her in the fundamentals of European metallurgy, knowledge with which Chai hoped to curry favor with her father and the Emperor's mother.

"Is it true that you want to marry Chai?" Deng Yong had asked Étienne in the middle of dinner.

"If the Emperor allows me," was Étienne's terse reply.

"You will marry Yi-Chang," Deng Yong replied; Chai will share her mature years with her parents. Chai could not contain a sob upon hearing the sentence of her parent.

"I have no interest in marrying Yi-Chang," Étienne replied defiantly.

"In that case, you leave me no other recourse than to speak to the Emperor's mother." I'm sure she will be delighted to learn how the Portuguese reward our hospitality.

"I'm not Portuguese," Étienne had replied.

"To me they all are.

Étienne fell into a deep silence, and Chai understood then that she could no longer caress the face of her lover in her father's house. Would she dare to escape to France, as Étienne had proposed on several occasions? Impossible; if she fled the emperor would claim her from the European kings.

Three days after that evening, when Chai had still not recovered from her love frustration, an old woman approached him on the street to deliver a letter in which Étienne justified his unexpected departure from Beijing. Already then Chai had taken refuge in the passageways of her father's library, unable to acknowledge that Étienne had abandoned her or, probably even more onerous, that he had never loved her.

That night, they say, Chai left her house in the company of a maid and a laborer, who led her to the Qianlong Emperor's workshops. As she entered, her father observed her with a convulsed face, but such was her surprise that neither he nor any of the workers who handled the cast iron dared to question her about the reasons for her unusual visit.

"The bell will be perfect," she whispered with tears in her eyes.

Taking advantage of the general confusion, Chai kicked off one of her slippers and taking momentum from her bare foot, he pounced on the molten metal, delivering her body to the fury of the flames.

The following day, the bell was presented to the mother of the emperor, who learned of the immolation of the daughter of the mandarin Deng. Months later , she spread the rumor that Chai Deng had sacrificed himself to the deities of the night so that his father would melt the best bell in the empire. Such is the interpretation that popular culture preserves, quite preferable to the details of an idyll, a separation, a humiliation and a suicide bordering on academic and loving obstinacy.

On October 4, 1924, at about seven o'clock at night, Carrasquilla had the opportunity to distinguish the harmonious ringing of the Chai Deng bell from the palace of the concubines, located twenty kilometers from the sacred city.

Chai's poem, written before throwing himself into the bell forge

In fiery blaze, my soul doth ascend high, Within the flames, my fated path I grasp. In sacrifice's forge, my voice doth resound, My self I yield, seeking a melody vast.

The molten metal, mirror of my desire, In each spark's dance, I find redemption near. Though body fades, my spirit doth aspire, In this grand act, my essence doth appear.

Oh, bell eternal, harmony's dear treasure, Thy ringing carries forth my melody's strain. Awake the virgins in the palace's measure, With dulcet tones, unravel their slumb'ring reign.

My love forbidden, Étienne, my heart's knight, In whispered notes, by thee forever embraced. Though life's flame quenched in forge's blazing light,

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