Long-time SUN readers may remember David Grant’s “Peace Nigger’s Long March” [Issue 46], an account of a two week journey he made on foot, carrying a petition calling for military disarmament. He maintained silence during the trip, communicating with the people he met by writing in a notebook.
“South China Journal,” based on a journey he made with his wife, Barbara, in 1983, is part of a longer, unpublished work.
David is looking for a publisher who will support “an account of my family’s move from ‘The Gateway To The West’ — St. Louis — to the northwest. It could be a walk of the Oregon Trail, Lewis and Clark’s route, or a new route. It might be a bicycle ride of the TransAmerica Bicycle Route.”
David can be reached at 3309 Arsenal Street, St. Louis, MO 63118.
Yangshuo is a riverside village set amidst all the ancient landscape paintings of China. Tourist groups disembark here after a half-day boat trip down the Lu River. At the dock, they board an air-conditioned bus to take them directly to their hotel a couple of hours north in the city of Guilin.
The Spring rains have soaked the land green. The air can be ladled.
We arrive by local bus from the south. We choose the cheaper of the two available places to stay. The hostel is one of several long, low buildings enclosing a large courtyard; this is probably a farming compound converted from commune to lodgings.
About a minute’s walk into the courtyard are two buildings. Pipes connect them. In one, hot water pours from spigots as men and women wash their laundry. Another wall steams with a dozen shower stalls beckoning the travel-weary. In the other building, a father and young son fire boilers with shovelsful of coal. The heat beats its way past the two workers, through the wide-flung wooden doors. Outside, where I stand, the heat defeats the cool evening air. Inside is a room, black with coal piled two men high, all light absorbed by the coal. Man and boy are grimed and sooted.
I stand there for a minute. Then, with towel and soap in hand, I turn into the showers and use the least hot water I ever have.
We drink tea, of course. I think of tea as a slightly formal practice, but I delight to see people spitting out the leaves with utter disregard for ceremony. We spit out the leaves as they do, on the floor, any floor: restaurant, hotel room, sidewalk.
In the rooster-crow morning, we rise and place the thermos outside the room door. The thermos is as obligatory in the room as a bed. A comrade soon collects the bottle and returns it full of piping hot water. Everyone carries his own choice of loose tea.
We take a morning bicycle ride past walls of stone: hand-broken and hand-carried stone, hand-chiseled and hand-fitted. Miles of it throughout the fields, walls retainig the soil. Fields of rice, wheat and cabbage. The soil itself hand-carried, fertilized by humans — by both their digestion and their labor.
“Hao bu hao,” I greet the comrades. Comrades are ticket takers, store-keepers, waiters, maids. They are comrades, not servants; tipping is not allowed.
A Chinese language course from long ago still stands me well. With the added help of a little phrase book, hearts open, as do doors. Doubtless my grammar is atrocious and my pronunciation worse. But the smiles of appreciation reveal language’s humble role as a prop. The girders of life are spirits, yearning for contact.
I walk through the hostel corridor, past one open door after another. Some groups play cards, some are snacking, others simply talk. I could walk into any one of these rooms and be a brother.
Black bicycles flood the streets with urban workers. Most bikes have rear racks carrying leather folders or wrapped papers. Toward late afternoon, hunks of duck or pig will dangle from handlebars; satchels of greens will drape the racks. Proud mothers or fathers will bring home their kindergarteners on delicately woven bamboo chairs, straddling the top bar, facing front between pumping adult knees.
The future of transportation is here, gentle and sane.
Communication is the name of this game, and nowhere do we play it more earnestly than at the restaurant. Sometimes the challenge leads to serendipitous gastronomic adventure; sometimes, to a frustrating ordeal.
The big woman standing behind a ceramic crock points to its contents in a querying mime. I respond that, yes, I will take some of the urine-colored liquid. I happen to know the word for beer, but I’m feeling particularly game and do not want to confuse the issue by asking if that is indeed what it is.
We find an empty table and enjoy a bowl full of warm draft beer. We are off to a good start at this place. Our first wild card is a winner.
Next comes the real shot in the dark. I walk to the ordering counter. Pictographic writing is splattered all over a blackboard — the day’s menu, plain as Chinese. I enter into negotiations with the laughing, matronly comrade. In terms of volubility, the proceeding are heavily weighted in her favor. I buttress my long silences with charades of slow but diligent scholarship, delving deep into my phrase book.
After five or ten minutes, we approach an agreement. She states her final terms and, although I do not understand the fine print of the bargain, I agree. Unfortunately, however, I succumb to an afterthought and decide to add yu, fish, to the meal. This causes considerable consternation. I know they have the fish, but perhaps the addition of the fish causes an imbalance of some sort — too much yin or not enough yang, clashing colors maybe. In any case, further volumes of friendly and consoling noises are directed toward me.
My ignorance is anything but feigned. I am lost. The woman pays me an undeserved and unwanted compliment. She begins to write, in Chinese of course, what she is trying to say. This is common practice for a speaker of one Chinese dialect to employ with the speaker of another dialect. The written language is standardized, but the spoken versions vary as much as English and German.
I appreciate her effort but quickly wave her note away. “I only speak a little Chinese and read it not at all.” This well-practiced sentence of mine usually concludes conversation. In this woman’s case, however, it spurs her on into a transcendent bliss. She nods her head vigorously, a physical portrayal of the Oriental dialectic. She is the language itself, with its yes and not yes, but without any no. She is serene, inscrutably benign, fluvial.
I resort to my last ace, “Ah well, it does not matter.”
Smiling now and bobbing our heads silly, like ducks, we stand facing each other’s mirror image, in agreement and at repose.
At this point in the restaurant experience, we enter into the area of suspense. I have a cast iron stomach and an attitude to match, so I sit here ready for any ole shooting match. Barbara, on the other hand, is more demanding; snakes and eels turn her queasy.
Th first plate arrives piled with what we had hoped: greens, dark green leaves, no matter what sort. They are greasy greens, as to be expected. Carbohydrate is what poor nations are still looking after. Here in the restaurant, they display extravagance — a heavy hand with the cooking oil, for status as well as body warmth.
We would prefer soaking up the oil with rice, but the rice always comes last. We learn a new food habit: eat rice last. We assume it is to clean the palate. It matters little, since now we are in ecstasy with thick, dark greens.
Next appears a succulent head-to-tail carp, glistening with translucent fat. We are spending fifty cents, U.S. We take our time. We await the cleansing rice.
Our worst fears go unrealized. The wild cards worked. We had an adventure. Even so, the truth remains close to the joker: “Ah well, it does not matter.”
We stand in front of an apothecary, waiting for a bus. I spend the first ten minutes imagining ailments which would require the remedy of a whole pickled snake. After staring for a while at the prime example displayed in the window, I resolve never to contract any ailment for which whole pickled snake is a cure. I conclude thereby that whole pickled snake is a broad-spectrum preventative medication.
The bus arrives after fifteen minutes, the maximum wait. As usual, hordes of young men ram through the four-foot wide door a dozen at a time, as if they were playing rugby. They compete for seating, of which there is little. The only people fortunate enough to sit down, besides the most aggressive of the young men, are expectant women or women with babes-in-arms — to whom even the brutes defer. The few elderly are physically solid and they stand, hip-to-hip, with the rest of us.
Once loaded and accustomed to the cramming, the bus rides are slow and pleasant. We cruise at twenty miles per hour, maximum. The slightest hill slows us to only double or triple walking speed.
Automobiles are all light green, all the same model. Something like the boxy things of the late Forties. A few are driven a bit recklessly, with too much horn; but most are nearly as slow as the buses. There are only a few, in any case, and none (so they say) are privately owned.
The trucks are an unfortunate exception to the human pace. Too often I cringe in the wake of a blasting horn and a blaring engine, heedlessly roaring along at forty.
Rarely, a horse-drawn cart will plod along the streets. The horse is never larger than a pony. It takes land to grow horsefeed. More often humans themselves are the beasts: pullers of nightsoil wagons, haulers of refuse carts, luggers of cabbages headed for market.
But the predominant traffic is on two wheels. Like a black river, thousands of black coaster bikes flow together in one-speed rhythm, slow and easy. Despite the numbers of people, too many people, I have space to breathe. Life hums a soothing tune, with a whir. Bicycle bells are the spice.
Shan means mountain. Mt. Emei is one of three mountains sacred to Buddhists in China. Pilgrims and monks have been ascending since 900 A.D.
We walk through a gauntlet of hawkers offering maps of the trails, walking canes, souvenir hats and sandals made of grass — the authentic peasant style. Pushcart vendors reach into a well full of thermos bottles, from which they pull flavored sugar-water frozen on a stick. Three or four food stalls fill corners and nooks of these former monastery grounds. There are even a couple of old, unreconstructed Buddhist monks tottering about. The place is ramshackle, too slapdash for quaint.
From behind a caged window, the teller hands us our walking papers — passes for the climb to the top. Without regret we depart this zoo, the Chinese equivalent of check-in at the ranger station.
We are backpacking, as usual. Barbara carries a flight-bag soft pack. I have my blue day pack and also a small, red shoulder bag with “TWA” splashed over it. We are set for a four-day hike, knowing we will sleep under roofs and eat out of canteens. We carry two books, two umbrellas, film, camera, micro-cassette recorder, raincoats, and warm clothes for the heights. One knife, one palm-sized telescope, eyeglasses, two notebooks, a bunch of oranges, two loaves of bread, three or four pens and lots of plastic bags to protect it all from rain. We consider our burdens light, about twenty pounds each. In comparison to the Chinese, we are the most heavily weighted walkers.
One item we could have dispatched with is the water bottle. Every hundred yards or so, there is a stand selling “Emei Shan Mineral Waters.” Wizened old men or women — or, at the other end of the scale, cherubic girls or boys — offer these bottles at every turn. They have lugged the cases up this steep trail for our enlightenment and perfection.
We climb the final stone steps into a Buddhist monastery. A small pagoda houses a sculpted white stone elephant. Chinese tourists enter the building and walk about the elephant like the proverbial blind men.
We are given keys by an old monk and shown to our room by a young worker. It’s the sweetest little room we’ve had. The bed is canopied with mosquito net. The floor and walls are dusted clean. Our spirits are raised.
We locate the basic essentials: the toilet, showers, canteen and hot water boiler to make ourselves some tea. I notice that practically every visitor has an official Mt. Emei wooden walking cane. Many wear the hats from the vendors below. Everyone has one of the maps. I get the feeling that the Chinese have successfully performed human cloning.
This monastery is finally a little bit of the experience we came to expect. I am learning again the dangers of expectations. The walls of these building are red, dark red, painted wood. Black painted wooden pillars hold the roof of tiles. I have been here before, through books and museums. The space is more functional than I had realized, and much less exotic.
More impressive than the human structure is the surrounding forest. For the first time in China, we see true forests. I savor nature’s complexity, unbound and unkempt.
I wonder how the people themselves feel about all of this. If I had the language abilities, I would speak with minority peoples in their traditional dress, the true Buddhist pilgrims trudging heartily up this mountain. I would ask them what they feel as they prostrate themselves before the dirry and disfigured statues. I would ask them about the crowds of detractors, the people who point and jeer at them while they make their oblations. I expect the jokes and jibes roll off their backs, but I’d like to hear their rejoinders. Amongst themselves they are always laughing.
I am a student of toilets. I had hoped to find the Chinese recycling feces through a sanitary composting system. I am not disappointed, but neither am I elated. The privy of this monastery, a typical example, tells why.
A wooden building overhangs the steep mountain slope. Inside, a wooden partition separates the two dozen squat holes into sections for men and for women. Twenty feet below is an open concrete pit. The pit is constructed so as to make the cleaning-out easy. Thus far, I admire the system: squatting to defecate is a healthier position than is sitting, and the manure is being used locally.
I am disappointed, however, at the lack of a venting system. The rank smell could be directed up high and be dispersed. The only things needed are a simple bamboo vent pipe, covers for the squat holes, and a bamboo wall around the pit. As it is, fetid air from the soupy muck spreads out in all directions.
Furthermore, the manure is not composted. With the addition of leaves or grass, the nitrogen value could be increased. As it is, nitrogen bubbles off odorously from the pit.
I spend the first ten minutes imagining ailments which would require the remedy of a whole pickled snake. After staring for a while at the prime example displayed in the window, I resolve never to contract any ailment for which whole pickled snake is a cure. I conclude, thereby, that whole pickled snake is a broad-spectrum preventative medication.
Personal sanitation habits are another sad story. For example, a woman instructs her child to defecate outside the privy, on the ground. She leaves it there, for people to walk around.
On the other hand, society’s attitude to the haulers of nightsoil is much advanced. These people are respected for the valuable service they provide; they are not denigrated as untouchables or garbage men.
Defecation itself is a neutral act. There are no stalls; but sometimes there are two-foot high partitions between places. Defecation can be a social event, with neighbors exchanging gossip and conversation.
Immediately outside the toilet is a set of three big, painted Buddhas. Incense burns at their feet. With so few forests and so many people, perhaps incense is more appropriate than toilet paper. But despite the incense, the stench of the toilet creeps into the monastery itself. The sleeping quarters of the “lesser equal” are fairly close by and the odor drifts through the broken windows.
We spend a good deal of time thinking about the elimination functions. Much of our contact with people centers around finding the john. The toilet is one of the “intimate” places of the culture — the only one, you might say, that we are allowed to enter.
We are judging the culture by its toilets.
A cold morning rain whips around amidst mountain vapors.
In our room, we consume oranges. Then we enter a large hall full of pilgrims and tourists. We share a table and slurp thin rice porridge together. Breakfast for two is twenty-seven cents.
The weather says to wait. But we’re anxious to move on up.
Within a half hour we are soggy. We enter a small shelter, one with a roof and three sides open to the view of fog and blowing drizzle. A half dozen people huddle inside, all soggy too.
Up from the trail below, into the shelter, bounds the most animated person in China. In his late sixties, he is wispy-bearded and sparkling. He plops himself down in the middle of everyone and immediately begins belting out a laughing monologue. Without care that we two do not “understand,” he includes us in his audience. Soon he is shouting out a long narrative folksong.
I am thinking that nothing will faze this guy; so I bring out my tiny tape recorder and record his singing. He is, indeed, unfazed. I play it back for his, and everyone’s, delight. He smiles and hums along with himself, swinging his arms and wiggling his fingers in time, approving his own recording. With the playback finished, he pays the gadget no further mind and launches off into more conversation and song.
This is the man I have come these thousands of miles to see. With his vigor he strongarms us away from the feeble, forlorn and sodden. But within minutes he’s gone. The audience is over. We are back struggling up the slick, muddy trail.
Wind and rain swirl. Lungs and brain suffer. We learn the way of cold mountain.
After several hours of wind-chill empiricism, we reach the next lodging, another ex-monastery converted to the people’s convenience. We are shown, as usual, to the upper class section: one of the top dollar private rooms (two dollars, to be exact). Of course these inescapable privileges impinge upon our longing to relate with the proletariat.
The proletariat sleeps directly on the damp stone floor, next to the wall for urinating. Rivulets of rain course down through holes in the ceiling. Latecomers must huddle in blankets at the splashing’s edge.
We are wet and cold and sloppy, inside and out. This place is outright disgusting. The “middle class” dormitories are an utter wreck, broken furniture, cobwebs, stuff thrown about, dark and dank. The dining hall is slippery with snot, spit and other kinds of human ejecta. One serving window is adorned with an obstacle course of garbage and trash. A pile of rice and noodles and dirt composts on the floor in the corner.
Up here in the heights, the hostel rents greatcoats. These are army green, huge things with brown, furry, stand-up collars. Everyone doubles in size.
The rain pours hard in the inner courtyard of the dilapidated ex-monastery. The floors are slippery with mucus. It also is a dirty place, dark and gloomy.
In the midst of this depression, two shining little lights appear. Children! We have seen no children on the hard hike here.
They are boy and girl; eight, nine years old. Happy and bubbly as can be, soaking feet, no socks. They wear the white, cloth, “Emei Shan” tourist hats.
Their young mother leads them to the Buddha and teaches them how to bow before it. She does this with amused, but not derisive, laughter.
We maintain the warmth of this scene until supper time. Then we reinforce it with greens, soup, potatoes, tofu and rice. Two hungry people are happy to pay seventy-five cents total for a big spread.
This food is pure Szechuanese up here and we’re glad of it: hot pepper tofu, hot pepper potatoes, hot leeks in the hot soup.
The first buds of Spring are just peeking out. We’re sitting in a glen, away from the beaten track. No wind in the short trees.
Humans have trampled everything. The shod foot falls without regard. The stink of my species pervades and prevails. This land has been offered to the altar of unlimited human reproduction. Too much of a good thing.
Thank you, China, for committing the sacrifice of excess. Hopefully we will learn from you and avoid fouling the nest with too many of our own selves.
Despite the more equitable distribution of goods and despite the amazing agricultural competence of a country with only a tenth of its land arable, there comes a limit as to what one billion people can do.
Shout your slogan to the world, comrades: “One Child Per Family Is Best.”
Humans have trampled everything. The shod foot falls without regard. The stink of my species pervades and prevails. This land has been offered to the altar of unlimited human reproduction. Too much of a good thing.
Life takes an upswing. We eat a Western-style breakfast in a tourist hotel. Despite the enjoyment — but not because of it — I am ashamed. I am demanding the special attention and efforts needed to meet the imported tastes of the foreign elite. I am seduced by my own money, ensnared by my own culture. Toast, coffee, jam, butter, hot milk in the coffee. A relief, a salve.
The marmalade especially hooks us. We would like to carry some to spread on the local breads. A search through town brings us to storekeepers who answer that marmalade is available only at the foreign guests’ hotel.
The hotel’s restaurant manager is in her mid-twenties, a recent graduate of the Szechuan Tourist Middle School. She speaks English adequately, but she delights when I reciprocate with my survival Chinese.
I stretch beyond limits and ask for peanut butter. I have not seen peanut butter anywhere. I am surprised that such a cheap protein is not used, especially when we have seen peanuts in the shell. I assume it is a matter of taste and the use of tofu and soybeans. But not even at the tourist hotel does peanut butter exist.
But do they have jam? Ah, yes. She is happy to sell me a can of plum jam, a luxury from Shanghai, a thousand miles away.
And yes, also, they have toilet paper. (I think of the exceptional forests at Emei Shan. But there is no scrap paper around. I don’t want to use my hands or a stick. Money is easier.) Yes, yes, I’ll take one roll, please.
We are loosening up, slipping back into the privileged class. I suppose the hard travelling is getting to us. Having made the decision to go home, it feels better to go slower, through more of China, and to take it easier (richer).
We splurge on the most deluxe lunch yet. Piled duck flesh, the first green beans we’ve seen, spiced cucumbers and white rice; $4.50 U.S. for the two of us. The price is a shock after where we’ve been, but we adjust.
Alone now in our room, we dine on the juiciest oranges, sliced fine. We spread flat bread with jam. We imbibe sweet wine.
The toilet paper is standing by. What more could we ask?
We pull into the Chongquing station; we are coughing, exhausted and dirty. We stagger up a long flight of stairs to the bus stop. It is eight o’clock at night and I am surprised when the bus loading suddenly becomes as packed and jammed as it usually is a couple of hours earlier.
As I shove through the crush of young men at the door, I vaguely realize that an unusual event is occurring. As soon as I am dislodged into the bus interior, I realize that my wallet has been pickpocketed. I know that the thief must be one of two or three young men standing next to me. What can I do? I could feel their pockets; I could shout, in English, to stop the bus, make a scene; I could assume he needs the money more than I do, or at least that it is his responsibility and that I am beyond this game — the game of attachment, perhaps greed; my Chinese is not good enough to quietly and politely ask the gentlemen for my wallet back. And so the bus lurches on through five minutes of this dilemma. At the next stop I watch my ninety dollars U.S. and fifteen yuan ($7.50) walk out the door. Our hotel stop is another fifteen minutes farther and I resolve to solve this later on.
I consider that I have just personally experienced the implementation of the New International Economic Order. It is the old story, however: as my father’s child, do I owe my father’s debts?
At the police station, the top official is a woman. She frowns a lot, but is warm and polite. She is of the age and disposition to have been a fanatic Red Guard.
Through a translator, she launches into what sounds like the beginning of a prepared speech: “In China, we have a socialist society. Whereas in New York City. . . .” I nod vigorous assent and the sentence fades away. In a moment of hesitation, years of vitriolic propaganda flow through two minds.
She continues, “It was young men . . . a bunch of young men, correct?”
I begin to apologize to her. I am a rich man in a poor country. I do not deserve it; it comes by birth. (What am I doing here, in this police station, if I believe this?)
The first of my words, through the translator, startle her. We are running up blind ideological alleys.
I am here primarily because of the opportunity for engagement — an incident out-of-the-ordinary, a chance to compare systems of police. I can afford to lose the Chinese equivalent of four month’s income. But I also want to prevent the strong from preying upon the weak.
The police woman faces her own dilemma. She cannot send me off to a “re-education” camp. I hope she does not really want to catch her countryman, the poor thief. And yet she is deeply ashamed for the dishonor.
Although we approach the problem from differing aspects, the concerns are mutual: justice and honor. We end our conversation without conclusion.
A night at the Szechuan opera: our hopes high with guidebook descriptions of singing, acting and acrobatics.
The graystone opera building stands on a downtown corner, indistinguishable from other small stores, factories and apartments. Inside, the wooden floor and walls remind me of a neighborhood community center. The audience files in, filling the place to near capacity. They are working class folk, nothing operatic about them.
She apologizes for her countrymen who gather around foreigners and stare at them — “like animals,” she says. But she defends them as well, saying “If I were in your country, people would gather around to stare at me, too.” The comment elicits a twinge of homesickness. “There are many kinds of people,” I respond, “in the land I come from.”
The house lights dim, the stage brightens, and the first actor appears and speaks. The audience, however, has a momentum of its own; the hubbub continues unabated. The show goes on. The actors are oblivious of the audience; the audience likewise, in return. It takes a full five minutes for the two groups to recognize each other’s presence. The audience finally defers. It is as if two groups of intimate acquaintance were entering the same room — neither group immediately ceases its own conversation. It is an informal welcome for a thousand-year-old friend.
The music is akin to that of the monastery: gongs, clappers and hollow wooden shells. The instruments are played, backstage and out of sight, faster and with more flourish than at the monastery. I hear the difference between a forested mountain and a metropolis of busy people.
Actors and audience share a penchant for pizazzy costumes: bright reds, yellows and oranges. The opera people have more sheen in their blues, purples and greens.
After a couple of hours and one intermission, the performance ends with ten seconds of applause from the audience and about twenty seconds of applause from the performers to the audience. Standard theatre etiquette: short, sweet and mutual.
The audience is up and moving out at about eight seconds into their ten-second clap. Most people are middle-aged and older. The young are at the movies.
At ten o’clock at night, we walk back past carpenters busily sawing away under street lights. A printing press whirs; the sewing shop is lit and clacking.
Firecrackers crack out loudly half a block away. They are powerful blasts, sounding like gunshots and revolution. I guess I’ve seen too many movies.
I wonder why the firecrackers? Maybe the occasion is simply that it is Saturday night.
Nobody else pays any attention to the explosions. We all just keep moving along in the streets, the wave of opera goers. I am amongst the masses, the proletariat, the people — an amorphous organism flowing through the streets.
I am exchanging money at the tourist hotel. The office is little larger than a closet; the wooden desk and two chairs fill up the space.
I am the only customer; I sit down. The young woman engages me in conversation. She apologizes for her countrymen who gather around foreigners and stare at them — “like animals,” she says. But she defends them as well, saying, “If I were in your country, people would gather around to stare at me too.” The comment elicits a twinge of homesickness: “There are many kinds of people,” I respond, “in the land I come from.”
She asks that I teach her the words to “This Land Is Your Land.” She probably learned parts of it at the Tourist Training School, or maybe on the radio’s English language lessons. I give the song my best and she successfully learns a verse and the chorus. I ask for a Chinese folk song in return, but do not venture committting it to memory.
She tells me that she “fell in love” with a teacher at the university. I wonder what she means by that. I have seen Chinese-published bilingual dictionaries full of queer, quaint and political biases. She says it has been three months now. “I will marry him,” she asserts, “in three years.” She is twenty-two and does not approve of the recent tendency to marry earlier than twenty-five.
Fifteen minutes, no other customers. Time for me to return. She smiles ingenuously and says, “You come back and play with me again sometime.”
I am still prey to the dangers of my expectations. I read in a brochure of “hot springs;” I envision a long, hot, perhaps communal bath.
We take an hour’s bus ride out of the city to a public park. A small river runs through a rock cliff valley. The slow green waters are clogged with Sunday-outing family groups, some of whom nearly swamp the small rented rowboats in which they muddle about.
A small fee gets us into the park. Another small fee gets us a towel, a pair of rubber thongs and a private concrete shower stall. Mildly hot, sulphurous water pours directly out of a pipe onto the floor. The walls are slimy with algae; a bare bulb dimly lights the space. But I am glad to be here; I hope these mineral waters will unclog my sinuses, clear my lungs and rejuvenate my dragging body.
I stand under the thudding warm water for a long time — twenty minutes or more. I know that no little man is shovelling coal into a boiler next door.
Women and men break boulders with chisel and sledge. Women and men carry night soil from village to field. Women and men lay bricks, dig ditches and till.
A man on the train says, “We are poor; a poor country.” He juts forward his jaw; his fist clenches. “We must work hard.” He smiles.
I remind myself of the progress made in the last thirty years: the famines, the class oppression, the illiteracy — all profoundly diminished. I pass large calligraphy scrawled in red on village walls. The paint is chipped and fading. Perhaps they are past their time of long travail.
I criticize the present. I do not belittle the past or deny the future. I acknowledge my narrow perspective. I am nearly deaf, practically mute and utterly illiterate.
Back to Chongqing
The Chinese society I contact is the external one only. I am not invited inside anyone’s private living quarters. What I observe of the public social organism lends itself to stereotypical “heavy socialist” caricature: stolid, frugal, dour.
I read the Beijing-published English language newspaper. All the news is economic. The peasants are diversifying crops; urban housing space is increasing from nine square meters a person to fifteen; seven hundred thousand telephones will be installed next year; agricultural production is planned to quadruple by the turn of the century.
The newspaper reflects the street life I see: little play, nothing for the hell of it. No comics, no goofing.
Badminton in the parks is the predominant exception. Swimming in the rivers or few urban pools is another. Except for the few older tai chi adherents, children and young adults are the only ones who physically recreate.
The newspaper, though written for a foreign audience, does not withhold self-criticism. Several articles and editorials deal directly or indirectly with the problem of jealousy. A news story reports on a group of railway freight handlers who purposefully destroy washing machines as they load them. They are the zealots who seek homogeneous equality. The article criticizes the workers’ actions. The newest policy is one of economic incentive. The peasants can reap private profits from the vegetables they grow on marginal lands. The workers will get washing machines, eventually; but some will get theirs first.
I wonder how this account relates to the two slick new Toyota automobiles I have seen: one out of a train window at a whistle stop station; the other at the hotel in Dazu. The state allows no private ownership of automobiles, but does allow automobiles to be given as gifts from relatives through Hong Kong. Aside from the curious legal complexities, how does one relate to envious neighbors, especially when they also empower themselves with the political clout of the people’s committee?
The answer, I think, is as brand new as those two automobiles or those washing machines . . . or my being here alone and unguided. A more equitable distribution of the available goods has been accomplished; purges, both political and cultural, have largely accomplished their goals, at least for the time being; the revolutionary purists are either jailed or “laying low.” It also helps that, for reasons both climatic and social, the harvests are abundant.
Thanks to the People’s Republic, the average citizen has no access to foreign currency . . . which is why my U.S. dollars are back in my pocket. The thief had no way to convert.
Times are expansive. The newspaper can afford to crow about a big town mayor who is not a member of the Communist party. This mayor even fines spitters on downtown streets. To do so, however, he must buck the objections of the comrades. Fines are uncomradely. But the paper applauds the absence of spitters, noting diplomatically that newly arrived visitors are given only warnings.
This same mayor is also lauded for refusing to kowtow to a party official whose wife wants the new public toilet installed farther down the street. The moral, of course, is that, irrespective of rank, every household gets its neighborhood toilet — equidistant and no more or less smelly.
As much as I am saddened by the Western homogenization of Third World cultures, I admit, on the other hand, to a delight in the frolic: the proliferation of hybrids in technology and art. It is with two minds then that I read the newspaper feature stories on the new Beijing supermarket, full of processed foods; the photographs of the latest (first and only) Shanghai cosmetics and fashion show; the plans for country clubs and spas to attract the tourist dollar.
I pass an alleyway that looks well-used, but is empty. Inside is the stone facade of a slightly gothic church. I try to open the large wooden doors and find them locked. But a man emerges from elsewhere and asks me to wait. He returns in a minute with an older man, dressed with the civilian signs of a political higher-up: neatly pressed, light gray, modified Mao suit with two, not one, shiny ink pens in the shirt pocket.
He meets me at the doors and, with a deferential nod, unlocks them and leads me in. He kneels reverently in the last pew and suggests I do the same. We genuflect and kneel, inside a well-kept Catholic cathedral. The candles on the altar are burning; the walls and rafters are clean.
We share a few moments of stillness in the empty place with room for more than a thousand. Upon leaving, we meet another gentleman, dressed in black but not a cassock. “Parlez vous francais?” he asks. I exchange a few greeting words and compliment him on the church. He smiles and bows as we walk through the gate.
I have read reports of a semi-underground upsurge of interest in Christianity. Exhausted with thirty years of political harangue, so the story goes, some people are seeking spiritual solace.
For me the irony is that I find that sense of meditative poise, not in the Buddhist monasteries in the mountains, but by accident here in a Catholic church in the middle of Chongqing.
We return to the Chongqing Police Station. A young man appears, apologizing for his limited English and wishing to speak in German. In German, we go over the details of my fabulous luck: they have recovered my wallet and, except for the fifteen yuan, everything in it. He hands me the wallet with a big smile. His superior takes us into a special, empty room and, through the young man, relates how a postman found the wallet in a mail drop. I am relieved to regain the ninety U.S. dollars and my I.D. cards. But I’m glad the pickpocket didn’t get caught; I hope he uses the fifteen yuan well; and I secretly thank him for the cheap lesson.
Thanks to the People’s Republic, the average citizen has no access to foreign currency . . . which is why my U.S. dollars are back in my pocket. The thief had no way to convert.
We’re up early one morning to catch the boat. Ahead: three days and two nights on the Yangtze River. We slip along a muddy footpath to the wharf. Hundreds of others are jamming themselves onto a floating dock. The river is high, the scene chaotic. When the gangplank is lowered, we are we are no longer humans of free will. We are one more glob of glop, inside a squeeze bottle, inexorably oozing our way to the tip, spilling into the guts of the boat.
Heroic martial music from the ship’s public address system welcomes us on board. We are directed to the uppermost deck, rearmost stern; our fourth-class tickets land us in a cabin of four bunks — all foreigners.
First night out, the boat ties up in Wanshan. The gorges ahead are legendary for their beauty — and their danger. Although engineers have blasted a channel, the gorges are not run at night.
After a night’s sleep on board, we are up early to witness our descent into the famous gorges. For thousands of years, the river has been the only major link between eastern and western China. Until only a few decades ago, hundreds of loinclothed men spent their lives pulling on hawsers. On pathways cut into sheer rock cliffs, they inched their way along, heaving boats up and down river. Grim stories abound: strings of men yanked into the rapids; passenger boats smashed, losses total.
I look into the water at a large, round shape floating by. It is a pig, dead and bloated. I am surprised that so much meat is being allowed to go to waste. Another pig rides by, high and bloated. I would think that entire pigs are not allowed to float away down the river; especially not after I have seen boatmen pluck cabbage leaves from the dirty waters at Canton. Perhaps a barge of pigs went down upstream and there were just too many to capture before they rotted. We are just about to enter the first of the three big gorges.
Another body spins by, pirouetting in a whirlpool. This body is clothed, spread-eagled and human. It drifts by dreamily, high in the water like the others, like a balloon.
I would like to think, for base and romantic touristic reasons, that the body is one of the barge haulers, so cruelly dragged into the waters. But we are as yet upstream of those trail-chiseled walls; and besides, this is the late twentieth century.
Later in the day, I return to the cabin and the conversation there. The young British woman says, “Too bad about those bodies.” I am incredulous: “Bodies? Plural?” “I saw three,” she says. “Someone else saw five today and one last night.”
Next morning, I am peering into the turgid yellow water. A small body with long streaming black hair, in a pool of swirling debris, balloons along tranquilly. Fifteen minutes later, another big balloon, this one a pig. Another fifteen minutes, a bigger balloon, male, naked below the waist.
I am up in the prow, the uppermost section, “second” class. A guided group of French tourists finds the scenery as exotic and incredible as I. Upon each sighting, a few of them jump up and zoom in with their movie cameras. A woman clenches her stomach and grimaces as each corpse floats by.
An Australian traveller, a young guy also astray from the fourth-class area, asks the tour group’s guide what is it with these bodies. The guide replies, “Probably bad swimmers.” The Aussie tells the guide he’s seen one of them headless. Straight-faced, the guide answers, “Perhaps that one made a bad dive.”
Placid French horns accompany the body count. The music is as mellow as today’s flat river. The last one could have been Santa Claus, covered as he was with tight, long, red underwear. Violins and xylophones.
An Austrian says that the dead bodies are not unusual. Others have taken this trip and seen the same.
This is the Yangtze River. For us dozen independent foreign travellers and the French tour group, this trip is an adventurous branch off the mainline tourist route. For our eight hundred fellow travellers, it is a lifeline. Many of them step out to enjoy the beauty of the gorges; but even more crowd the decks to view our passage through the locks of the big, new hydroelectric dam.
One young Chinese traveller stands out from all the rest. He is travelling “second” class, one of only three or four Chinese. He wears a torn flannel shirt and jeans. His hair is long; he has a scraggly beard. Two cameras are slung around his neck, one a large format Nikon. He takes so many pictures that I assume he is a journalist from Hong Kong. I am surprised to learn he is a student from Beijing. His English is good but he seems occupied and uninterested in talking. I ask him about the corpses and he responds flatly, “Murders, maybe.”
The final body count for three days: nine.
I smirk when I hear myself say: “They herd the people like cattle and slop food in the people’s trough.” I remember my secret derision at Mr. Lu, the travel agent in Hong Kong.
Mr. Lu had been to the mainland. He wanted to stay in the tourist hotels. But “they” put him up in hotels for “overseas Chinese” and, worse, in hotels for the locals. He had to sleep on hard bamboo beds. He had to eat the people’s food. I snickered at his complaints: Mr. Lu, the travel agent, preying upon the uninformed; Mr. Lu, the petty, pudgy, bourgeois capitalist; Mr. Lu, the pampered parasite.
Mr. Lu assured us: “they” would never allow us to live like that; “they” would save face with false fronts; “they” would prevent us from seeing the realities of Chinese life.
I haven’t met “they” yet. But I thank Mr. Lu for the warning. Even more, I thank him for his laughing little time bomb, his fat finger pointing at my hypocritical heart.
“They treat the people like animals,” he said. Ha!