The Ancient Towns of Yunnan
Arriving early in Old Dali, a town in stone and tile and warm wood, Sergi and I found the Four Seasons Hostel by asking around for Sizi Khezhan, but we had a few hours to kill before they had beds available. “Let’s go get some of that bāozi,” I suggested.
I have been told, on multiple occasions and by people divers, that I am addicted to bāozi, yet I have never been concerned. It is the most benign addiction imaginable: not for the sway it holds over my daily life, which is tangible, especially in the mornings, for like a cigarette smoker I can hardly get around to anything without a taste of that steamed bun and greasy pork—no not because of that, but because bāozi are delicious and not really unhealthy.
Someone once asked me, “How are you holding up with the Chinese food?” I repeated the question with perplexity and declared: “But I love Chinese food.” It is one of the world’s finest cuisines, especially in its simplest forms: fresh ingredients tastefully spiced and lightly fried. These days the great juggernauts of grease and sugar have destroyed much of the delicacy that once characterized Chinese food, but the seeker can still find it, on street-corners in the morning or in a dingy hole in the wall where the locals eat.
There was a woman on the corner who sold bāozi every morning out of a cart. You can always locate bāozi by the distinctive shape of the cookery: a stack of discs made of bamboo or aluminum, each hollow on the inside except for a the wooden slats and bamboo mesh, on which rows of dumplings are set to steam over a small pan of boiling water. With the woman I practiced the extent of my Chinese: “Dumplings!” I cried,—“Pork? Pork. Five of this. This, what is it? Two of this. Thank you. Much thanks.”
Sauntering down the street with a bag full of bāozi in the early empty dawn, I was feeling fine. The streets of Dali were very pleasant for sauntering, not crowded with tourists at this early hour, and lined with old Chinese buildings under curling tile eaves, the wooden doors slid open onto souvenir shops and restaurants, and to either side there was a pleasant stream in a canal set with sounding stones. Old Chinese cities were always built on a slope so the gutter canals would flow downstream, to carry away the rot and muck and to lull the city by their endless flowing. There were potted pines and red lanterns, and looking down an alleyway I espied a circular opening in a white wall and said we should investigate.
Within there was a stone courtyard, behind the imperious fortress that was the Dali Library, and a group of Chinese were spread out around the court in even ranks and making broad, synchronized movements to the tinny tune of a Chinese radio. Tai Chi Chuan, if translated, means “Supreme Ultimate Fist,” and is not nearly so supercilious as its title. It stresses balance and precision of movement and moves with too much ponderous patience to be a fighting art, though in drained basin of the public pool we caught three old men engaged in Tai Chi Jian, “Supreme Ultimate Sword.” The teacher followed each step in graceful sweeps of his blade, and the first student worked his way through them, while the second, a simple-minded old man in a camouflage vest, stared at his fellow student and did his best to emulate each motion without really knowing them.
In one court of this cultural park some old Chinese were playing croquet, and in the shaded court under the front of the library, beneath the young pines, each table was ringed with old men gambling at cards or playing mahjong. At night there was ballroom dancing, and each morning there was Tai Chi. Exercise is a daily activity among the aged of China, and they practice it in often picaresque ways, such as track suit strolls, kite-flying, balancing a spindle on a rope, and using the public gym equipment. Think nothing of the old man walking backwards down the road and clapping his hands, loud and regular—he is not crazy, he is exercising.
The next morning when I went to find bāozi the woman’s cart was not at the corner and some jerk got into the one dumpling store I’d found and bought all their ready stock. I was wandering around the kung-fu streets of the old town when I ran into a Cantonese girl named Miao Li, whom I knew from the hostelry, and we got noodles from a restaurant on the corner where Sergi and I had eaten a cheap meal the night before.
“So you like Chinese food,” she said. “So many lăowài, they just go to Western restaurants. Why do they come to China and eat Western food?”
“I don’t understand it either. I love Chinese food, especially from Guangdong. There are many people from there in America.”
We talked about travel, and this was Miao Li’s earnest passion, though her parents would not approve if she traveled for longer than twenty days. She was going through Yunnan and Sichuan before starting university, a school of business, and as far as she was concerned Dali was the most beautiful place in China. She had adorably saved her breakfast and lunch money in order to travel, and she said she does not understand people who do things that make them unhappy, just to make money to buy a big house or some other triviality, “but I don’t think it’s like that in America.”
“Well. . .”
We walked back to the hostel, the roads densely packed with Chinese tourists that were taking pictures of every eave and crossways. Tribal women in glittering costume―orange and turquoise or blue and green, with tall turbans―whispered at Western passers-by, “Hello, ganja? You want smoke?” When I walked with Miao Li, they offered many other things through the poor girl. “I never get bothered when I walk alone,” she said,—“it’s only because they see a lăowài with me.”
Back at the hostel, Sergi was off to a market town with some Spaniards, and I joined with an Andrew of Edinburgh (with a Michigan accent from his folks), who reminded me in his youthful chivalry of d’Artagnan, and Daniella of Buenos Aires, a classy Latin lady. We rented bikes and rode north past the Three Pagodas and on up the shores of Ěrhǎi Hú, “Ear-Shaped Lake”—though hú in the rest of China means “sea,” the word encompasses significantly less in mountainous Yunnan, where a short supply of seas makes the language a overly-ambitious. We went north to the town of Wushin, east past the Haixin Pavilion, and, by asking passers-by, made our way onto a narrow peninsula and I at least dunked myself in the lake. I was already very sunburned and returned exhausted.
“What happened?” cried Miao Li. “You are all red!”
“Yes I know.”
“You must wear sunblock!”
After dinner I went with Sergi, Daniella, and d’Artagnan to the gambling tables in the cultural park, with a few bottles of rice beer, to observe the Chinese. The old tribal women hassled us, and at some point this drunk in a showman’s golden vest and rainbow tie came up with a leaf, trying to explain something to us through the language barrier. He would hold his leaf up and float it down, and I guessed, “It is the first leaf of autumn.” “Oh, maybe,” said the others. The drunk pointed at himself and then demonstrated the fall of the leaf once more. “And it is the autumn of his life.” “That’s depressing.” “Is that really what he’s saying?” The drunk spun a finger around in the air. “But the world keeps turning.”
Now there was this Maoist, who I identified by the red star in his cap and on the breast of his army jacket, sitting sullenly by himself at a table, with a stack of handwritten papers before him and a bottle of beer, and a roller-bag at his side. After the autumnal drunk had gone away we talked for a while, until the crash of broken glass interrupted our conversation. Looking over, the contents of the Maoist’s bottle were splayed out on the pavement before him, pointing the way to a little old man in a black cap and jacket, who held his arms up as if against some sorcery. The Maoist screamed at the man and then chased him out of the park, waving the roller-bag over his head as a bludgeon, and all the card players around whom this sabre dance ensued did not even glance up from their games.
I spent another day eating bāozi, sauntering around, playing pool with d’Artagnan, learning from Miao Li, and haggling with the vendors that I might practice my Chinese numbers—yi, er, san, su, wu, liao. . . But otherwise I spent most of my time watching the Chinese tourists: the old men dressed for a safari, the tour groups whose leader shouted at them over a loudspeaker, the young teens out to screw about, and the charming spectacle of Chinese couples.
Some people say that the Chinese are an impersonal people, a rude people, a people without conscience; but they must not have seen a Chinese couple in action. They are as indivisible as Aristotle’s two-backed beast, though much more adorable than obscene—have you ever seen so many matching T-shirts as in China? So many shirts that say, “This is my boyfriend,” and, “This is my girlfriend,” with arrows pointed across the held hands, as you can see in Dali?
They do everything together, sacrifice any exclusive hobbies in the interest of multilateral unity, and jealously guard the other against members of the opposite sex. If she has an essay to work on, he will sit with her all night, in artless canine vigil, perhaps appreciating how her lovely fingers can yield such lovely phrases on the screen, and by that cast light of white incandescence does her face not become the moon, behind the black cloud of her glasses and the sweep of her hair?
And after a certain number of conversations, and usually not so long, because really none of us are that interesting—after this time has passed, seeing as they never do anything apart, the young couple is left to face Eternity with absolutely nothing to talk about. Instead they operate as one unit in conversation with other units or individuals, one bank of words and memories, completing each others thoughts, and knowing those intuitively by the suggestions of this or that particular tic, as all mankind was before Zeus, in his jealousy, sundered the unity of love and left us unlikely to ever find our separate partner.
Though the Chinese seem particularly canny at resolving this, I think that their success is perhaps only a willingness to take whatever one can get one’s hands around and be content to call that Destiny; and that’s no bad thing, really.
As for the tourists of China―in the words of another traveler, “The world does not know what it is in for.” The tourist is the highest level of nobility to which a modern Chinese can climb. Once he reaches that tier, he has two houses, three cars, kids in school, a healthy young mistress, and he is an asshole who can do whatever he damn well pleases.
And they climb rapidly. If the lowly comrade peasant has an idea in China, the lowly peasant enslaves the village, hires a factory, sends out his product, and within a year has gone from mud hut to millionaire, with five or six million in the bank, a new house, new car, and new wife. The Chinese have always been the world’s best businessmen, and tourism is today the highest expression of success at business.
What better way to show how wealthy you are than by flying somewhere and staying in the biggest hotel you can afford, paying the massive price of admission (which in a few short years Westerners will scarcely be able to afford), purchasing the largest bit of tribal junk you can carry, and taking pictures with the largest camera you can buy of your beautiful daughter posed languidly in front of some recognizable landmark, or even a sign that points the way—something to put on the mantel as a trophy piece that says, “Look, I was once somewhere!”
If you tell a Chinese tourist about a nice small Chinese town, off the tourist track, set in the midst of gorgeous nature, and without a trinket store or discotheque in sight, the tourist will most likely wonder, “Then why would you go there?” The Western backpacker is an entirely different beast from the Chinese tourist. Often their paths are wildly divergent, but just as often they come together in some famed destination to form a remarkable contrast: the shabbily-clothed young backpacker avoiding the tickets and seeking out real China, and the middle-aged bourgeois tourist in Western brand names looking at real China like an exhibit in a zoo.
At the World Expo being held in Shanghai until October, the Chinese go into the booths just to get the passport on their fake passport and to snap a picture in front of the name, then breeze on through and out to another line. What do they care for the textile industry of Sri Lanka or the Turkish kebab or the French booth, with its matte pictures of the Eiffel Tower and a baguette store—although these provide fine opportunities for photos and peace signs, and the Chinese will ask you to get out of the way of that billboard of information so they can take a picture with it—because what is inner enlightenment next to the outward appearance of status and affluence?
There are things you can show to your friends back home and there are things they will never understand, and Chinese tourists are after the former. (Personally I prefer the latter, but I’d still like to share it, O patient Reader.)
The tourists were worse in Lijiang, and the city itself looked much the same: perhaps a little more extensive in size and charming in its mossy bridges and wide canals and its strings of red lanterns along the old dynastic fronts of the houses, though the effect was largely lost amid the much greater press of the crowds.
It took several hours of wandering these cobbled medieval streets to find a place to stay, during which time we picked up two Polish girls, and we ended in Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse. Mama Naxi was an old woman who spoke so loud and fast that even the Chinese have trouble understanding her. He ran a huge house, surrounding two stone courtyards, with three servants, whom she called Number One, Number Two, and Number Three. Number Two, a mild British ex-pat, directed us inside, and the smiling Mama showed us the rooms and told us the price. I would stay in a dorm, Sergi in a three-bed room with the two Poles. We had flipped a coin for the honor.
I conversed with travelers in the main hall until dinner was served, and then Sergi and I wandered out into Lijiang, through the streets, alleys, courts, squares, and bridges. Bars furnished with red lanterns ran along the canals of the Jade River, and willows dipped their branches in the silvered water. The tile roofs hung low, and the walls bore intricate wood carvings. More mansions, houses, and temples ran up Lion Hill in ranks, to the pagoda towers at the top.
Lijiang was born in the twelfth century as a town of the Naxi Kingdom and lasted until the twentieth, when an earthquake destroyed the ramshackle it had become. The communists rebuilt it with the durable old techniques of wood and stone, as a tourist attraction. They had come in droves, filling every alley and every souvenir store and jeweler and workshop, taking pictures of everything, including Sergi and I, and only sometimes trying to be subtle about it.
At some fountain where Kublai Khan watered his army I went down the steps to inspect the pit, and a woman already down there asked to take a picture with me. Soon other people were asking and had formed a queue, and a father was encouraging her shy daughter to stand in with me, and I was absolutely incredulous.
Well we sat on the curb for a while, being stared at and staring back, then wandered to the main square and the old concert house of the Naxi Traditional Orchestra, which performed every night. A ticket cost about $20, so we resolved to sit outside and listen through the door. Two American girls were there with the guide their parents had hired, the parents inside with pricey tickets, and the guide said it was not worth it:
“The Master just talks and talks. It’s not very good. He talks for at least thirty minutes at the beginning.”
Having a half-hour before the music started, the Catalonian and I followed a perceptible discotheque throb through the crowded streets to a back alley that ran along a flowing canal and was full of people—young couples holding hands, mothers with babies on their backs, gangs of girlfriends, girls in heels waiting for their man to take a photograph on his huge camera. Bridges crossed the canal to bars of red lanterns, and inside there were strange sights: dancers in traditional costume doing traditional dances to techno beats amidst a smoke machine’s plume, acoustic cover bands singing Britney Spears in Chinese, rock singers belting out the chorus while someone bowed an erhu in the back, and bored-looking tourists clapping wooden blocks together. There was a whole line of twenty bars with this inside! We walked along to the end, and some girls asked Sergi to take a photo of them with me in it, and we were constantly giving each other looks and saying, “What the hell is this?”
Back at the concert house, we saw some lăowài come out and asked if the show was over. They seemed unimpressed, and one old pair gave us their tickets. “We’ve been there,” said the woman, “don’t worry about it. When we were younger.” Thanking our good luck, Sergi and I went inside.
There were twenty-seven musicians on the stage at the end of a black hall. They wore patterned silk robes in brown, blue, black, burgundy, or deep violet, with long white sleeves or colorful doublets. Most were venerable old men with long white beards, and one was blind. Only two were women, one singing and playing a wooden clapper, one playing a zither. The other zither was played by the youngest musician, also an expert of the sugudu, a sort of Naxi take on the Persian lute, as transmitted by the Indian sitar. There were sections of strings, plucked quxiapipas and bowed huqins, and of percussionists on drums, pots, gongs, cymbals, and bells. An old man so wizened he was cracking at the seams, in a black and gold silk robe, played with a long, curving hammer the instrument called Ten-Small-Gongs-Hanging-On-the-Rack, a Suzhou artifact that functioned as conductor and metronome for the orchestra.
The sound they together wrought was that of a thunderstorm: wild, willful, and breaking open; never repeating though always maintaining an indefinable theme, and in a technically mastered way both free-form and compulsory. Though Western comparisons are not entirely fair, not when Oriental composition and instrumentation are so entirely different, the music was not so bombastic as Wagner or Mozart, nor as calm as Debussy, but ranged between two extremes while never reaching either, nor ever finding a conclusion, and thus behaving as the world generally does.
Behind those twenty-seven the wall was the color of midnight, strewn with painted herons and clouds. Red lanterns hung from the ceiling, banners and tapestries and photographs from the paint-chipped walls. There was a high mezzanine, shielded by a thick banister, where photographers shot down at the crowd; and more poised like gunmen behind the red columns on the ground floor, as the songstress sang in her croaking style of a lady of beauty—elegant, smooth, subtle, and soft. They played a summer song, and the Moon Over the Mountain, and the Sound of Half-Steps of the Foot-Bound Beauties.
A middle-aged man in center stage played the xylophone, and one musician was once a member of the Yunnan Opera, now disbanded, because nobody cares about opera anymore. He sang a song about a borrowed wife in the howling Chinese manner with minimal accompaniment by the orchestra, gesturing with hands and arms and face, and a stiffening and quaking of the spine.
The Master Shan Kur, 82 years old, came out in a track jacket and jeans and talked for as long as he had let his orchestra play. When the ancients were not at their instruments, they sat straight and still with their hands clasped as if meditating, sagging under melancholic reflections and straightened by remembered dignity. Shan Kur said it’s pronounced “Nah-ki,” not “Nakshi,” and that he’s a Christian. While the tired old orchestra filed out, the Master showed a video of his Promise Choir singing Hallelujah, sounding like Christian choirs everywhere else in the world.
“What the hell was that?” we asked each other.
After the free recital Sergi and I stopped at a dumpling restaurant I’d spotted for a plate of jāozi. This is a variation on bāozi where the dumpling is not steamed but lightly fried, and we filled sauce bowls with chili and soya or vinegar to dip them in. We sat with a cool English teacher from Chengdu and his cute girlfriend, who was more attractive for being a police officer. The Chinese teacher told us his city was nice, with good food and beautiful girls, and at the end he paid for everything. “My treat,” he said.
It is customary in China for one party to pay for the table, and there is no polite way to stop a Chinese table companion from doing so. I began to fear a burden of karma debt, having received so many free things, and resolved to keep my money handy in the future, so that next time I might quickly buy dinner for the Chinese before they can buy mine.
I heard more music the following day. Sergi and I had met two pretty American girls, both kindergarten teachers in Beijing— Rebekah, who has lived with her missionary parents in Tokyo, Arkansas, Chicago, and now China, where they teach a Biblical marriage consulting course at the request of some zealous bureaucrat, and who herself studied Ancient Hebrew to better understand the oldest dictates of the Bible; and Helen of Dalles, a short blond-haired blue-eyed Texan commonly mistaken for a sixteen-year-old Swedish or French girl, whose eternal interest in China began with Mulan and led to a university degree in the language and a year contract, with no plans to return to the States. The girls arrived in China around the same time and claimed each other as friends.
We were very lucky in our company that day, having also entertained in Mama Naxi’s a beautiful and pleasant cosmopolitan from Colombia, Ana of Bogotá, who had been in Asia for five years and spoke Spanish, English, Chinese, Japanese, and passable French. She currently worked in the Columbia pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, mostly translating for Columbian dignitaries, which usually meant shouting at the Chinese restaurateurs to hurry up in the kitchen. She regaled us with a few stories and concluded with a sigh: “They are so inefficient.”
And there was a bitter Chinese girl from Macau who saved traveling money by working in a casino there and did not understand why English-speakers invented so many new words—the Chinese always remixed old ones. The word for computer, for example, is "electric-brain."
Well we all had dinner at Mama Naxi’s, plates of food and meat and fish and vegetables and bowls of rice and bottles of beer; and we sat with all these girls and with two more from Holland, Sarah and Ilsa of Utrecht. Afterwards we talked of the things worth seeing in Yunnan, and at half-past nine I went with Rebekah, Helen, and the Dutch girls to meet some Tartar percussionist at his bar, Terra Cotta Warriors Fire Pit—just go to the main square and call the number and someone will show you the way. “That’s how it always works in China,” said Helen,—“otherwise you would just get lost.”
We followed this plan and thus came to Muhammad, a Uighur of Xinjiang with a sallow Turkic look about him, who sat on a stage that was littered with instruments: Turkish darbuka and African djembe, a drum box, a rain stick, a tambourine, and a single acoustic guitar. The Uighur played one or several of the percussion instruments, and a thick-necked Mongol strummed the guitar and played a harmonica or sang in a deep-throated steppe growl. Neither of them looked Chinese, but then she is a large empire. Their worldly melodies were well-played, and at the end Rebekah asked Muhammad if he had a CD.
“Well you should make one.”
Across the bar several young Chinese sat noisily about their table, which was hidden under a few dozen beers. It is the habit of the Chinese to order a great many beers at one time, about four per person, and lay them all out just to show how many beers they can afford to buy when they go out on the town. That the beers turn warm is not a problem, because the Chinese like their beers that way. For similarly showy reasons, Chinese nightclubs often have huge windows in front.
On the way back we had jāozi at the same place. It was ten o’clock, and that is quite late for China, but this was a holiday town. Many Chinese tried to talk to us, and only Helen could reply. I envied her for what this revealed.
“That was a typically Chinese conversation,” she commented, after some portly father, who happened to be walking next to us and eating a stick of grilled calamari, began to ask her questions about where she’d learned the tongue without bothering to stop his mastication: “You’re a foreigner, huh?” the man had said. Another man came up to her and said in the national language, “Hello, how are you? My name is so-and-so. If you’re here tomorrow you should come to my store, such-and-such, and I’ll give you lunch. Goodbye.” Finally some half-drunk young men heard her talk and cried earnestly, “Oh you speak Chinese! We’re going to a bar to drink beer! You should come!”
I laughed and said, “My God, the young Chinese are such dorks.”
The one-child policy—implemented after Mao’s grand scheme of enlarging China ended in widespread poverty, famine, and overpopulation—is still in effect and applies to over a third of the nation. Minorities can escape it, as can all those living in the autonomous prefectures of Hong Kong, Macau, or Tibet. Rural villagers usually get by unnoticed with several children, and many wealthy families simply pay the steep price of the fine for a superfluous brat, which is permissible so long as they are not party members.
The “family planning policy” does not stop people from procreation, no more than “abstinence-only education.” Many are the young girls who at fourteen or fifteen find themselves dishonored and pregnant. They return to the homes of their grandparents in the country, are there secluded from view until the child is secretly born, at which time they return to the city and pretend such a thing never occurred, for they are permitted one child only, and they have to make that one count.
The unwanted infant is either disposed of in some Spartan fashion or deposited on the doorstep of an orphanage, to be adopted by some foreign family. Guangzhou is filled with foreign couples looking to adopt a Chinese girl or wheeling one around in a stroller before the flight back home. If you ask the Chinese about all these adoptions, they will reply with prideful reprobation, “No, no adoption, exchange!” as if there were Western babies being sent to Chinese families. It is in fact a matter of some embarrassment to China, and the nation responds in its characteristic way—not by addressing the problem, but by ignoring it, in the name of mianzi: to save face.
Similarly rough eugenics, in a country that has always preferred sons to daughters, has led to a widening gender disparity in China. There are currently around 117 Chinese men for every 100 women, and by 2020 around 24 million Chinese men will have to look elsewhere for a bride, these days to Vietnam, Laos, and Burma.
However some lucky family comes together and has its single child, and in a society which traditionally values large, tightly-knit families, that child is understandably spoiled with affection by the parents, who as benevolent dictators control every facet of the child's life, and by the grandparents, for whom grandchildren are the only distraction from death. Chinese high school is harsher than an internment camp, running from eight in the morning until six in the evening, with classes and activities, and then there is homework and studying to do and grandmas to be pet by.
So the young Chinese can be classified as dorks. At universities they live in gender-segregated dormitories and do not know how to talk to the opposite sex or what to do with all their free time, generally devoting it to Internet chatrooms and television dramas and video games. When they do go out on the town, it is to sing songs by Michael Jackson and the Backstreet Boys, if not some Chinese pop idol, in a karaoke booth. This is a serious hobby, and most Chinese practice at home. If they play Truth or Dare, they ask questions about shoe size, rather than any other more interesting length or number.
Dating is strictly prohibited by zealous parents, at least until the child graduates to a profession, and then everything changes. Every night beckons the parental protest: “Why aren't you out meeting girls? You’re already twenty-four. At this rate you will never get married! And I will never have grandchildren!” Yes, grandchildren—if husband and wife were only children, the state permits them two children of their own, and the parents are anxious to see such boons. China is one of those tragic places of early parenthood where the young mother and father work tirelessly and the grandparents raise the children; and around a certain age parents begin to demand a grandchild with the same subtle fervor and biological need shown around a younger age by childless women in the West.
Under such misbegotten pressures as this, most Chinese marry with an insane speed—after only a few months of knowing each other, and perhaps a few more months of chatting on QQ—and most Chinese marriages are unhappy ones, not only for the speed with which they proceed, but because the poor young Chinese go overnight from spoiled, regulated child to “liberated” adult with professional responsibilities, marital duties, and obligations to their parents and extended family; and all the weight of the clan’s future, in a country that thinks five generations ahead, and all the needs of the past generation are placed like Sauron's Ring on just two pairs of shoulders hardly conditioned to bear this great load.
Is it any wonder that suicides are so common among the ill-starred young? The facts of life wear with special weight on young women from the villages, told to show the pretty affection of a daughter and to take the place of the son that can never be, and who urban-bound depart the warm embrace of a familiar place for the crowded solitude of a city, pursued by all their parents’ unreasonable expectations and none of their family’s support. Such girls can commonly be seen falling from high buildings in Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Such is the sad state of ancient China!