Perhaps the greatest literary rendition of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ ever written, ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’ is a 1953 short story by the American writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). The story tells of two cities ruled by Mandarins or emperors, who continually seek to destroy each other by building their city walls into different shapes which will ‘beat’ the other.
‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’ is an allegory for the Cold War, so its signs and symbols need some unpicking and analysis to be fully appreciated and understood. Before we come to the analysis, however, it might be worth sketching out the plot of the story.
‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’: plot summary
The story is set in China at some indeterminate point in time, though it appears to be preindustrial, probably ancient. In one city, the walls are described by its inhabitants as being shaped like an orange. The story opens with a messenger informing the Mandarin or ruler of this city that the inhabitants of a nearby rival city, Kwan-Si, have reshaped their city walls to resemble a pig.
The Mandarin is worried that this means the rival city of Kwan-Si will ‘devour’ his own city, as a pig devours an orange. At least, this is how travellers arriving in the area will view the situation, and will form an unfavourable view of the Mandarin’s city as a result, opting to visit, and trade with, pig-shaped Kwan-Si instead.
Advised by his daughter, who conceals herself behind a silk screen while he addresses the townspeople, the Mandarin decrees that they will rebuild their own city walls so that they resemble a club, which will ‘beat’ the pig. Everyone sets to work and sure enough, the city walls are transformed into the shape of a club.
However, although this initially seems to do the trick, shortly afterwards a messenger arrives and informs the Mandarin that Kwan-Si’s walls have been recast to resemble a bonfire, so as to burn their ‘club’. So the Mandarin reshapes his city walls again, this time so they look like a shining lake (i.e., to put out the bonfire). Kwan-Si promptly change their city from a bonfire to a big mouth (which will drink the ‘lake’).
So the Mandarin decides their city will become a needle – to sew up their rival city’s ‘mouth’; but Kwan-Si respond by becoming a sword to break the needle. So the Mandarin decides his city should become a sheath for the sword; but Kwan-Si becomes a bolt of lightning to destroy the sheath.
This game of one-upmanship goes on for some time. While it does so, the cities’ inhabitants are too busy rebuilding the walls to get on with their everyday work. As a result, death becomes widespread, and the Mandarin himself falls ill. Eventually, the Mandarin’s daughter, behind the silk screen, commands for him to send for the Mandarin of Kwan-Si so they can resolve this.
The two Mandarins, both weak and withered from this conflict, agree to a truce. The Mandarin’s daughter shows them both some children flying kites. She tells them that kites need the wind to make them fly; without the wind, they are nothing. By the same token, the wind and the sky need kites to make the wind and sky beautiful. The daughter tells Kwan-Si that it should become the Silver Wind, and her own city will resemble the Golden Kite. This way, the two cities can live in harmony and mutual cooperation.
‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’: analysis
Bradbury preferred to view himself as a writer of ‘fantasy’ than ‘science fiction’, and like his contemporary, Ursula K. Le Guin – another writer of ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ whose works are often difficult to categorise using these terms – his work often has an allegorical quality. ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’ is a particularly strong example of this.
‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’ is an allegory for the Cold War and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union: a race which was already in full force by the early 1950s when Bradbury wrote the story. At the time, the US and the USSR were the two world superpowers, and their rivalry in everything from nuclear weapons (the arms race) to being the first to conquer space (the space race) consumed billions of dollars/roubles of each nation’s resources and diverted their energies away from other things.
Bradbury suggests, in ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’, that the rivalry is largely a phantom of the two Mandarins’ imaginations: the Mandarin of the first city is keen to act first to avert the destruction of his own city at the hands of Kwan-Si. Note how it is only a possibility that the different shapes of the cities’ walls will lead travellers and traders to favour Kwan-Si over the other city, and the Mandarin’s investment in the symbolic narrative that the ‘pig’ city will eat up the ‘orange’ one is founded in superstitious fear rather than economic reality. One can’t imagine many canny merchants deciding to do business with one city purely because their walls look like a pig.
In setting ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’ in imperial China at some point in the (presumably distant) past, Bradbury allows his allegory room to breathe, so that the subtext of the story (the Cold War) is clear to readers without crowding out more general or universal interpretations. We may believe ourselves, living in more modern and technologically advanced times, to have broken free from the shackles of superstition, but is that really the case? Are some things a timeless and universal feature of human nature, hardwired into our brains?
Observe how the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach the Mandarin of the first city takes becomes more and more frenetic as the story develops. The process of changing the city walls speeds up, so that we can easily imagine a film adaptation of ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’ in which the Mandarin’s initial consultation with his city’s inhabitants gives way to a sped-up film montage (set to fast-paced music, of course) shows the people hastily rebuilding and then rebuilding again their city so that no sooner has it been changed than it is time to change it again. By the end of the process, the Mandarin is even trying to second-guess how the Mandarin of the other city will try to outdo his own move, turning this game of imperial rock, paper, scissors into something more akin to chess.
The role of the Mandarin’s daughter is also worth considering. She is the one who comes up with the scheme to change the city walls so as to ‘beat’ the pig-shaped Kwan-Si, but she is also the one who decides that the two sides must have a détente as all they are ensuring through this process is a slow-burning version of mutually assured destruction. Bradbury’s hopeful ending would eventually come to pass, with US President Ronald Reagan telling Gorbachev, the leader of the USSR, to ‘tear down this wall’, referring to the Berlin Wall (fittingly, a city wall, though it was only erected eight years after Bradbury wrote his tale of city walls), in 1987.
The Berlin Wall divided east from west, not just in Berlin but, more symbolically, the western world. The Wall came down finally on 9 November 1989 – just 36 years after Bradbury wrote ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’.