Jim Feast & Nhi Chung
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 121 in December, 2009.
Part 1: Hai Wei
Why did we make the trip? I had come to love China from our previous trips and I was particularly keen to see Kunming after reading about it in Barney Rosset’s letters from the area, written during World War II. For Nhi, though, sometimes I think she meant it as a surrogate vacation, a substitute for a never-made visit to her homeland, Vietnam, to which she’d not returned after leaving in 1980. After the Communist takeover, her family had suffered many indignities there: loss of property, death of her parents, subjection to endless criticism/self criticism sessions.
Vietnam and China have changed since then, but, still, on our trip, examples of regimentation and even collective self criticism sessions were not hard to find, the kind Nhi had experienced in Saigon, post-1975.
1. Mountains of China
The Chinese, like the Swiss, are forever climbing mountains, and we hiked them in both provinces. Nhi (Chinese from Vietnam) also loves these uphill treks, but perhaps for a different reason. Judging from photos, Vietnam is also filled with picturesque mountains, so maybe her climbing is partly a form of reminiscence.
In Yunnan, near the city of Zhang Jia Jie, there are towering cliffs, arranged in pillars and formations whose unusual shapes remind one of the odd rock groupings in the Southwest. However, where the American desert has been sculpted by wind and rain, these cliffs were split by foliage, which seams through them in lush rows of bushes and trees.
This foliage is home to many creatures. One afternoon our group was starting to cross a bridge on a path in the forest at the cliffs’ base when a tribe of monkeys came tearing out of the trees on the far side and scrambled over the stones in the stream. In their haste some fell right in the water. Mother monkeys, as they scrambled forward, carried their babies every which way: some kids rode piggyback, some with their arms clasping their mother’s neck from in front, some hanging from below as if they were hammocks. This ragtag bunch was looking for handouts, but we hurried on when the guide said if we feed them, they would try to steal our cameras.
The best views were not from the base but from above. The next day, after waiting in the type of endless line you find in Disneyland, we took an elevator to the top. From there, we looked over the railings at the soaring ramparts, rising hundreds of feet, going down and down, till they disappeared in the trees. The cliffs leaned and yawned at all angles and in unique combinations: couples and triplet groupings, in which stones of separate, adjacent formations, momentarily fused at the top or midway up. Others, lone maidens or bachelors, stood like separate wedges of wedding cake, whose frosting was daubed with greenery.
The Chinese are mad for resemblances. Our guide’s most frequent description, when she called our attention to a rock, was to point out what it looked like, whether the five fingers of a hand, a dog’s head or a mother‘s face. Such similarities even extended to scenes, as when she showed us two rocks close together and another off to one side, then said, “See, the cat plays with the mouse, and the dog gets jealous.”
By contrast, the mountains of Yunnan, a province abutting Tibet, are lofty and streaming with clouds. I remember driving on a high road with the peaks to our right. There were passels of clouds ringing the adjacent cliffs at a level below us, then a clear space of mountain, then a second diorama of cloud castles, above.
These peaks look especially lovely, framed in the far distance, beyond miles of marigolds or a pasture of horses or cows (or both mixed together). The lower levels of the mountains were thoroughly, obsessively, terraced for farming, filled with crops, often rice, which in August presented a deep green mesh of tufts.
In Kunming (in Yunnan), we saw the famed Stone Forest. Here it is as if one were a sherpa, crossing paths at the tip-tops of mountains, moving along jagged cliff faces, intertwined rocks, stopped-up avalanches and precarious ledges. Yet the cliffs are no more than three or four stories high. Adding to the illusion of height, moreover, was the fact that while it was steaming hot (over 100 degrees) outside these tiny ranges’ shadows, clambering among them, one felt an Alpine chill.
Our guide had a field day here, finding not only the already mentioned cat pursuing mouse, but the legendary “Rock of 19 Monsters.” The resemblances are not really to monsters, but more mundane animals, going from tiger to monkey to dragon, all visible on one extremely fissured cliff face.
The trips up above the cliffs and in the Stone Forest were on perfect days, but on other occasions the weather was against us.
This happened in Zhang Jia Jie in relation to the area’s most famous sight, one we caught sight of busing in at twilight. In the distance where a shadowy outline of hulking mountains blocked the horizon, right in the middle of the silhouette was a near circular hole, “Heaven’s Door.” Standing in this door was to be the high point of our trip, the guide informed us, all we had to do tomorrow … was climb 999 steps.
We had to drive quite a bit uphill to the steps, which rose from the courtyard of a Buddhist temple. Being the slowest climbers, Nhi and I were soon outdistanced. About halfway up, we stopped, noticing the temple below was lost in the thick mist as were the climbers ahead. We kept climbing, as if through a heavy fire, which was lanced by the otherworldly chanting and temple bells ascending from below. When we finished the stairs, we were a bit chagrined to learnmost of door’s arch, under which we sat, was invisible behind fog. No problem. An accommodating camera woman, for a fee, took our picture and photo-shopped it to appear we were beneath Heaven’s Door on a clear day.
Weather conditions also spoiled a looked-for visit to Yunnan’s Rock Mountain. Not only didn’t we see it, it caused a tiff among our tour personnel.
To get to the top of Rock Mountain via cable, we had to pay a special fee, 200 “bugs.” After the guide had announced this, the bus driver broke in, saying it wasn’t worth the money, because “the snow on the Rock has all melted.”
“What,” a mother yelped. “No snow!” Being from Guangzhou, neither she nor the other travelers with us had even seen snow and had been looking forward to it.
The guide shot back, “He’s wrong. There is snow. I guarantee it. You can touch it. Eat it.”
The driver: “I’ll cut my head off if you find snow up there.”
He never did cut off his head nor did we eat snow, because the night before the trip, a heavy thunderstorm hit and, next morning, the park was flooded.
2. Crowds, Landscapes and Massification
Visiting nature’s wonders in China, even taking steep paths up mountains, is all about crowds. People tend to mass around the well-known views. I mentioned walking the cliff top in Zhang Jia Jie. It was mobbed. And that wasn’t the only inconvenience.
The Chinese use umbrellas on two occasions: when it’s raining, to keep dry; and when it’s sunny, for shade. In Zhang Jia Jie as we maneuvered the cliff path, a weak sun shone and one-third of our fellow gapers sported parasols. Then it began raining. Nearly everyone, Nhi included, put up their umbrellas. Keeping an eye on the ravishing scenes, all the while climbing and descending the mismatched flagstones underfoot, and dodging and ducking the prongs of umbrellas above, called for exquisite timing indeed, that, or end the day with numerous umbrella wounds.
As to picture taking, it seemed no photo of a stunning natural scene was complete unless it included, smack dab in the center, the photographer or her or his companions. I guess Americans are the same. Given my wife is both naturalized American and Chinese, we had to queue up at every picturesque spot and wait our turn as a parade of romancing couples, ingénues, pouting teens and grandparents occupied center stage for their snap. Still, it could be charming to watch a pretty woman strike various poses against the dynamic vistas, even while a disgruntled person in line muttered, “Khui dan” (hurry up).
I was of two minds about these demonstrations of mass culture. On the one hand, it was encouraging to see average people were not spending their vacations going to commercialized and vapid theme parks, but to cradles of natural wonder. This is how people want to spend their free time: hiking through and sometimes scaling mountains in ecological parks that have been set up in ways that prevent their spoliation.
On the other, as Nhi reminded me, in post-fall Saigon, a major change in her life was that she had to attend numerous mass meetings, including collective “struggle sessions.” Doing things in big groups was in vogue then in Communist Vietnam, and remains so in China to this day. On Sunday mornings in the parks of Guangzhou, a hundred people do synchronized tai chi. On a Friday night in Chongqing, we watched another hundred older couples dancing a cha-cha to music booming from couch-size speakers. While these Chinese were exhibiting a tremendous group spirit, the actions also suggest a high degree of regimentation.
No wonder people were always rushing to be first: first to board the plane, first to get on the bus one took to the plane. It was as if they had a huge crowd on their heels at all times. Our most comical experience of this tendency came when we were flying back from Beijing to Guangzhou and, as one of our money-saving schemes, we decided to fly from Nanyuan, a small, out-of-the-way facility that had been a military airport. When it was time to board, we walked down a ramp and found ourselves … on the air field! It was pouring rain, and we followed the other passengers who were running over the tarmac, dragging their wheeled carry-ons, and, to get ahead of the crowd, making a detour under another plane, to reach the flight first!
3. Mothers, Children and Criticism/Self Criticism
We noticed another aspect of a highly collectivized society in the disciplining of the children.
I mentioned the children were occasionally trying, but who wouldn’t get a little crazy sitting so long on a bus. As Nhi said about Yunnan, “You visit one mountain, then drive four or five hours to the next mountain.” We travelled around in a large, decrepit mini-van, seating about 20, which had no air conditioning, lurched over the road like a drunken sailor, and spewed black smoke like a Satanic mill. Every day we put in four or five hours traveling rocky roads on that bus. At night, as if in compensation, we stayed in good hotels, five-star-ers with swimming pools, lavish lobbies and expensive appointments.
One day, before starting, we stopped at a shop where the guide recommended we buy oxygen since we would be climbing higher all day. We took the bus to a national park, where, as is customary, we disembarked and re-boarded a park bus to go further. This particular park bus driver seemed to be auditioning for a part in a Death Race 2000. One rider fell out of his seat on a wild turn and three of our kids began vomiting as the others sucked desperately from their oxygen bottles.
By the time we got to our hotel in Dali, it was already 11 p.m. We came into the lobby of the swankest place we had yet visited. The lobby held a monumental set of chimes, a goldfish bowl on the floor that was the size of a pot for a palm tree, and a sloping incline that led to the now-closed dining room. What can I say? As the exhausted mothers looked on, two kids started riding pieces of rolling luggage down the slope, two began grabbing the fish by the tails and trying to pluck them out of their bath, and two began a rough mambo on the chimes. Before the mothers got the energy to shush them, the kids fell from their luggage scooters, fish tumbled on the floor and the mambo changed to heavy metal. The Marx brothers could have gotten some pointers from these tykes.
Truth to tell, though, this was atypical. On the very first day, the kids had been unruly, causing Nhi to comment, “This trip was a big mistake.” Lo and behold, the next morning, they were subdued, eating breakfast with barely a peep. Nhi asked a mother about this, who replied, “Last night we had a self criticism meeting. The children all signed a pledge. On the bus, they must each sit with their mothers. And there is no talking at breakfast.”
The kids pretty much kept the agreement, though, once they got out of hand during a walk through an ethnic village. When we got back to the bus, the mothers formed a circle right there in the parking lot, and held another collective criticism meeting.
Again I was of two minds about this procedure. One can say this manner of enforcing discipline, doing it in a group context so the individual saves faces, has merit. Still, it probably also leads to depersonalization and group think.
Let me close this section more positively by adding that these were all bright kids. Second and third graders, who were too shy to speak English, they were willing, encouraged by their mothers, to write down English words for us to show what they knew. Also, the mothers wanted us to check their spelling. Each made a list, writing with surprising rapidity, given their desks were the thin arms of their seats as we travelled a bumpy route. The lists the better students produced had more than 100 words, and not only obvious things such as the days of the week or the months of the year, but animal names (such as dog, hippopotamus and killer whale) and such advanced terms as “celebration,” “invitation,” and “courtesy.” Remember, these kids were seven and eight years old and already spoke fluent Cantonese (to their mothers) and Mandarin (to their school fellows). Should I say we were impressed to the point of that we were … at a loss for words.
4. Ethnic Customs
Once we saw a slide show on China’s 55 ethnic minorities. (90 percent of the Chinese population is from the Han group.) Each group was labeled as to dress, customs and location. Somewhat more than half had representatives in Yunnan.
Ethnic minorities have been one of the Chinese government’s sore spots with so many separatist movements periodically erupting, not only (as they have for decades) in Tibet, but with Muslims in other vicinities. In July, right before we came, the Muslim Uighurs in Urumqi (capital of the Xinjiang region) had engaged in street fighting and rioting against the majority Han. The military had been called in and the province shut to outsiders. (Yunnan is the western-most province in southern China, while Xinjiang is the western-most in the north, the two being separated by two other huge provinces.)
Perhaps for that reason, perhaps for another, security was tight in Yunnan. Never before in China did we have to pass through so many checkpoints, ones that controlled access to every major city. Moreover, for the first time in our experience our bus was flagged down on a main road and a government functionary boarded. He went around handing out flyers to the passengers. I asked Nhi what was written on these papers, and she said it was a list of places we were not allowed to visit.
But I mentioned another possible reason that the province was militarized. This feature was brought out to us both when we saw, in a sleepy tourist town near Kunming, among the morning shoppers and strollers, a fully outfitted army unit, marching by in tight formation, and when, traveling farther north, we saw, nonchalantly parked in a lush mountain meadow, more than 100 tanks. Nhi asked the guide about these vehicles and he said that given we were near the Tibetan border – the far northern part of Yunnan abuts Tibet – the tanks were stationed there for quick deployment in case rioting broke out in the embattled province. The guide added that it would be too provocative to warehouse the tanks in Tibet itself and so they sat here.
When we talked to our guide Hui, we learned more about the economic reasons for the restiveness of the ethnic minorities – the Uighur riots started in a factory where the minority claimed the Hans were getting better treatment. However, before broaching that topic, let me mention the religious and also permissive nature of the ethnic Yunnan culture, something that doesn’t endear it to the secular rulers of the state.
The minorities who work in and live in the tourist-attraction, ethnic villages are Buddhists. The guide gave us the traditional house plan for these villages: bottom floor for livestock, the second for an altar, third for living. And outside the houses, the countryside is studded with Buddhist stupas. These are squat pillar-like structures, festooned with a string of flags, that radiate out in all directions, giving the site a passing resemblance to a used car lot.
Everywhere in the recreated villages one finds prayer drums as well as statues and wall paintings of Buddha and Kwan Yin, their stone effigies wrapped in scarves and bunting. There are also free-standing flags, fields of them, inscribed with religious sentiments and lined up in long rows. Placed at a town’s outskirts, they seem to run off into the vast, unscheduled steppes.
I don’t know whether Buddhist societies are usually Puritanical or sexually libertarian, but these ethnic enclaves were replete with bawdiness. We went in a young woman’s dorm, and were told that, traditionally, each evening the women’s beaus scaled the walls, spent a night in dalliance, and were out at the peep of day.
Such preserved buildings did not only feature a view of the interiors, but also tableaux that surpassed the weavers-at-work type seen in the U.S. In one village, we entered a room to see four veiled, lamenting women: a bride, her mother and two sisters. They were enacting the customary crying over the daughter’s coming marriage, when she would exit the women’s world of her childhood home. In another town, as we were climbing a steep street, two young women began singing a gay melody from a balcony above, and were quickly joined by young man tooting a soaring, zesty accompaniment on an oboe-like instrument.
Working in such tableaux or otherwise donning ethnic garb to perform in some capacity is one of the chief ways of earning a livelihood in this depressed province, according to our Yunnan guide Hui. Himself a handsome young man from the Bai minority, he wore a cowboy hat, jeans and the traditional long shirt, which fell to his knees and was tasseled at the bottom.
We had been talking to him as we lounged in a park rest area. A second guide came up and each offered the other a cigarette. Every male guide we met smoked, and when Nhi mentioned it, Hui said that when he was ten years old, he and his friends so admired the masculine vice, that they got pipes, stuffed them with forest leaves, and began puffing. A few years later, they all picked up the real habit. (Where else but in China does one find in public men’s rooms an ashtray set on the porcelain top of every urinal?)
So, to return to the question of the roots of ethnic rebellion, our guide put it down to chafing under prejudice. Hui was poor and could only afford two suits of clothes, one to wear and one to wash. He blamed his poverty on being stuck in Yunnan. If an ethnic person such as himself went outside the province, he would not be able to get a good job or enter a good school because of discrimination. As he put it, “We can never leave the mountain.”
Although I can’t confirm this, another guide, Hung, a chirpier female from Kunming, dismissed while obliquely confirming Hui’s complaint, by saying, when Nhi brought up the other guide’s complaint, “What difference does it make? We have everything in the world we need right here in Yunnan. There’s no need to go anywhere else.” Note, she lived in Kunming, a metropolis of 5 million people, while Hui lived in the more circumscribed countryside, near Dali.
One of the tourist-related professions aside from acting in tableaux, was singing and dancing in stage shows. In Shangra-La – yes, it exists though the name is pronounced in Mandarin: Shang ge li la – we saw a big-budget theater piece, which was billed as revealing the traits of the province’s minority cultures. Again, bawdiness was front and center.
One revealed custom was the already noted beaus’ midnight visits. In a witty piece, three men approach women who are lolling out their windows. A minute later, the guys appear next to them. In the first frame, the woman takes off the man’s coat and they hug. In the second window, the man takes off the woman’s robe. They kiss. In the last, they take off and each other’s garments, and then slowly sink out of sight beneath the window.
The evening ended with the depiction of a famed culture hero involved in a courtship. He was a short, squat, comically mugging character, who’d set his sights on a young charmer. He began his address by playing a tiny pan pipe. She was interested at first, but then, as her ardor cools, he switched to a larger wind instrument, and he kept trading up, till, at the end, he could barely hold an instrument that looked and sounded like a giant Jew’s harp. That nailed her.
The next town we visited, Dali, is something of an art lover’s paradise. By state arrangement, every shop, hotel and office has its façade inset with reproductions of famous, classical works of Chinese art, so as our bus moved down the streets ,we felt we were moving through a city-size art gallery.
It was in Dali while visiting the Zhang Family Mansion that we came to a decision. The mansion is a museum of vividly penned and colored paintings, sculpture and calligraphy. After touring it, we were taken to a private theater and seated at tables where we were told that, as we watched the show, we would be served three types of tea, ones that would encompass all we had experienced in life. During the first act, we drank an astringent, bitter brew. Next, as things in the plot got rosier, we were given a sweet concoction. The play ended happily and we were given the last cup, which, it was said, was “hai wei.” It would help us “recall back all the good and bad times in your life.”
I don’t know if it was the effect of the tea or the fact that all during the trip Nhi was steeling herself to put up with the regimentation, security-mindedness and group criticism we were seeing in Yunnan, but as we were leaving, she turned to me and said, “I think next year, next year if our health holds up, we should go to Vietnam. Just to see.” Next year in Saigon.