In Heaven There is Paradise

With yesterday’s rain on the window sill
I leave my home behind,
All for the sake of anticipating a stranger.
—A Poet From Chengde


Autumn came south dragging
the cold hem of her dress, and I rushed north to meet her. Old Hangzhou lay across the Yellow Mountains, in the fertile plain of the lower Yangtze, at the southern end of the Grand Canal that dug over a thousand miles to Beijing, and on the eastern shore of West Lake. All this geography brought to Hangzhou a worldly prosperity.

When the Song Emperors ruled China, Hangzhou was a city of philosophers, poets, politicians, artists, and other men of worth, in palaces and towers, as well as two million soldiers, artisans, peasants, and slaves, scurrying across a thousand bridges and between a hundred thousand wooden buildings. Marco Polo of Venice traveled there in the thirteenth century, when Hangzhou was the largest city in the world, and its grandeur so impressed him that he called it a hundred miles wide and “beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world.” Ibn Battuta also visited in the fourteenth and found it wonderful.

A long series of misfortunes reduced Hangzhou to what it is today. Kublai Khan’s Mongols took the city in 1276. The harbor silted up during the Ming Dynasty. A man named Hong Xiuquan, calling himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, twice captured the city in the middle of the eighteenth century and each time damaged it more and more, as a center of the human vices he sought to abolish. All the buildings of the old town were destroyed. Deng Xiaoping included Hangzhou with old Canton in his economic reforms, and the city boomed with new business and luxury shopping. But it is not the same.

At least West Lake remains. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of lakes in China called West Lake, and this one is the premier: a wide and serene expanse of blue, formed when Kangxi Emperor drained a swamp, and since elaborated with silted islands and three great causeways, ringed by misty hills of purple, temple pagodas, willow gardens, and floating beds of lotus flowers, all furnished by ages of donations by wealthy aristocrats, who also wrote the long list of jingdian, that is scenes or viewpoints, worth seeing about the lake.

The Qianlong Emperor issued the first list of top ten perspectives of West Lake, including “Spring Dawn At Su Causeway” and “Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake,” which are to be seen from specific points around the lake, marked by stelae in the Emperor’s own hand, and even more handily on all tourist maps. Later reappraisals of the list, prolific and always listing ten, included more abstruse scenes, such as “Lingyin Zen Buddhism,” “Beishan Street Meditation,” and “Precious Stone Hill Floating in the Rosy Cloud.” I can only assume that such lists had their providence in that same noble impulse that drove the Victorian Brits to write long accounts of perfect walks through London and Oxford, though unlike that British arcana, the imperial jingdian are still followed religiously by photocentric Chinese, after some vision of a famous age.

I arranged through Couchsurfing to stay in the apartment of a Chinese girl working in Hangzhou. Scarlette was her English name, and she was studying English that she might pass the language test to receive a work visa for New Zealand: “But I don’t know if I can.”

“Your English is very good.”

“Not many Chinese people travel alone. It is not like America or Europe, where everybody wants to travel to other countries. We travel in big groups. All Chinese are very worried about the things that can happen when you are in foreign country.”

We talked in the room she had set aside for me, in the apartment provided by her work, twenty minutes walk from the northeast corner of West Lake. There was an old creaky bed under stained walls, and a tattered curtain concealed a pile of boxes. It was much nicer than the garret I had in Xiao Likeng, and her hospitality put me in a good mood. It was the Mid-Autumn Festival that day, and though the sky was too gray for the classic viewing of the moon most everyone had taken off from the city for home during the few days of vacation. Scarlette remained in Hangzhou rather than return to her family’s provincial town, because the much longer National Holiday began on the first of October. She spent that time studying English and showing me around.

I tried to reassure Scarlette that New Zealand was a fine place to go; but working abroad for the sake of experience was apparently an odd notion for a Chinese to entertain, and Scarlette was very skeptical. Her English was intelligible, but it was clear by the stilted way she spoke, with many sighing interrupts of ah between syllables and words, that she was unused to speaking aloud the studied grammar and vocabulary of her classrooms.

“I learn English many years, in school, but oral English not so good. All Chinese people learn in school only to do exam, but many, they do not want to speak English because they are afraid of their face—to make mistake, it’s very embarrassing.”

“Face is important in China. Mienzi. And English is difficult. Too many words.”

“Sometimes I cannot think of the right word. I know what to say in Chinese, but in English, I do not know. It is embarrassing.”

“It shouldn’t be embarrassing. It’s just difficult. It’s hard to learn a language. I’m trying to learn enough Chinese to get by, but I can’t say much. A lot of times I have to just make gestures, like this one if I want to find a hotel.”

I put my palms together and turn them sideways to lay my head on them, then point around like, which way?

“But I want to communicate. People can understand me if I just do that, but I don’t want them to just understand me. I want to have conversation.”

“Then it’s good your practicing.”

Scarlette grinned. “I’m very glad we can communicate.”

“That’s the hardest part about coming to China. I can see things, but I cannot talk to people or ask them questions. There’s a big barrier or wall to stop me from understanding China. It’s really not possible to know a country unless you speak the language.”

Perhaps it is impossible even if you do. In the gloomy, rainy morning, Scarlette asked me what I would see, and I said, “I’d really like to see where Yue Fei is buried.”

“U F A?” wondered the girl.

Yes, Yue Fei! Hero of China! For when the Mongols descended, and the Emperor retreated south to Nanjing and Hangzhou, in the days of the Southern Song, Yue Fei had his mother tattoo on his back the four character phrase: 尽忠报国, meaning, “Give life for the nation.” He was the son of a farmer, raised by his own sword arm and sharp mind to the rank of general. Battle after battle he won against the Mongol horde, but when he was encamped within sight of the old northern capital, the Emperor had Yue Fei recalled. He was put in prison and strangled for the eternal crime of subversive popularity.

“You want to see that? I think only foreigners want to see this. No Chinese want to go there.”

Sure enough, Yue Fei’s tomb appeared prominently in the English version of the tourist propaganda, while the same site was relegated to a small corner of the Chinese book.

“This is very funny!” said Scarlette.

We took a bus out along West Lake’s northern bank to the northwest corner and got out into the rainy street in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken that neighbors the tomb of the hero. As Western restaurants went, it was Scarlette’s favorite.

“I like KFC. You can sit and talk, and I like chicken sandwich. Chinese people call everything hamburger, but my English teacher says not hamburger, sandwich. He likes Subway very much. He is very big, you know? Very—hmm, big.”

“Fat?”

“Yes, he is very fat.”

“Too much hamburger.”

“No, not hamburger. Sandwich.”

Yue Fei was buried in a wide complex, where there stood two shrines to his noble memory and several ancillary shrines for his subordinates. There were statues twice as tall as a man, and the Chinese bowed to the altars. Some rooms contained artifacts and paintings, and some murals of the hero’s deeds. His tumulus was in the garden, at the end of a stone path lined with statues of soldiers, scholars, and beasts. Beside him was a smaller mound for his son. Near the entrance of the garden were four statues behind a fence.

“There are the bad men,” said Scarlette,—“you can throw things at them.”

An iron Qin Hui, who took the blame for Yue Fei’s death, or rather martyrdom, that the Emperor responsible might save face and absolve himself of blame for a crime he did not regret—he knelt there in chains near the entrance, along with his wife and his two cohorts in malice, ready to receive the blame that should rightly fall on higher shoulders. There were Chinese people taking photos in every direction, and I looked back towards the grassy mound of the tomb.

“He’s not even buried here.”

“Wait, what?”

Alas! it was true, for after Yue Fei was executed, when the Mongols took the city, they desecrated the grave and stole the corpse of their great enemy.

Scarlette and I walked out to the lake and across the bridges and small causeways that encircled a garden of reeds and lotus lilies. A gentle rain tapped on everything and stirred the water of the pond. Across one of the great causeways that cross the lake, a strip of trees and bridges and strollers, there was gray West Lake and its blue hills. The poet Su Dongpo famously compared West Lake (Xī Hú) to Xi Shi of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China:

Rippling waters shimmering on a sunny day,
Misty mountains shrouded in rain.
Plain or gaily decked out like Xi Shi,
West Lake is always alluring.

The banks abound with such stories. Scarlette tried to tell me the romantic legend of some lady or other, but ended up in a frustrated admission: “It is hard for foreigners to come to China. There is much you do not know.” I know now that Xi Shi was so beautiful that fish would forget to swim and sink away when they saw her face, and I saw that Xī Hú was full of koi, flickering gold between the lilies. The water was eutrophic, overflowing with nutrients from frequent dredging, but there was a beauty in its cobalt opaqueness.

Scarlette took me on another bus back downtown to lunch at Zhiweiguan, a famous restaurant where all the Chinese tourists like to eat: Hangzhou noodle soup and some of their famous pork dumplings. Scarlette abstained from the latter, saying, “I have had them too many times. When you have something too much, it is not good anymore.”

We went through a park where a stage had been set up for the Mid-Autumn Festival, and there were Korean and Japanese dancers performing a mixed number. The Koreans wore bright, wide, simple hanbok dresses, the Japanese simple linen, and they announced their numbers in three languages. A seventy-year-old Chinese woman danced with a rope that had a saucepan of water on each end, swinging it all around her body in a savage way and finally dumping the water out to show her grace. There was a Chinese dragon dance, and the Koreans performed the fan dance and the t’alch’um masked dance.

Scarlette and I walked on through the royal willow garden to the Hefang old street and looked at the crowds in the early twilight. There were hawkers hawking chopsticks and clothes, and a man made candy creatures at the end of sticks. We bought roasted chestnuts and ate them in a pavilion with free medicinal tea from a crowded apothecary. An old vagrant reclined on the bench across from us with small change spilling out from his pockets. He looked at Scarlette and I, exchanging words and comparing our nations, and said, “He learns from you and you learn from him—it is beautiful,” before moving on.

A mother in an autumn dress and her curious-eyed daughter sat down. The girl was maybe eight, with her grin half empty of teeth, drinking some ice drink with the straw set in the gaps of her smile.

“Is he an American?”

Children are usually the easiest people to talk to when learning a language, and I could reply in Chinese, “Correct. I am an American. Hello.”

“Is America nice?”

“It is good—beautiful. You should come.”

The girl said something that made her mother and Scarlette both burst into laughter. Scarlette told me, “She said, ‘I want to go to America to drink fresh milk,’ but why? We have fresh milk here.”

“A delicious drink”—Hǎo hē.

“Which do you like more, America or China?”

“China.”

“You are American and like China more, I am Chinese and like America more.”

“We should trade,” I said in English.

It is generally impossible to get a good rest in a Chinese dormitory, what with one party staying up until two, repairing a bicycle or throwing bags and chattering with all the lights on, and with another waking up at six and doing the same. Elderly lodgers add to the morning racket by bringing up all the night’s phlegm out of their throat, with a noise I will not describe, and spitting it into the sink. I do not agree with those who call the Chinese rude, but they can be inconsiderate, understandably: there are too many people around to worry about stepping on a few toes now and then. The Japanese respond to a crowded situation with a universal virtue of quiet, polite dignity; the Chinese by simply ignoring everyone else in frenzied pursuit of their affairs.

The way in which the Chinese men brush their teeth astounded and horrified me a number of times in various hostel bathrooms and is worth description. He hangs his lips open over the basin and moves the brush in his mouth like a jackhammer. His eyes bulge out, foam gushes from his mouth, and he grips the countertop with his other hand as if it were a gunwale in a storm. He begins to gag with bile from ramming the brush in the back of his throat, but he goes on with it for more than a minute in the same motion, ending by spitting and hacking up phlegm. Where the Chinese learned this technique is among their many mysteries, but it is practiced only by the men: women being far too delicate before the mirror for such dental brutality.

I spent my first day in Suzhou, a mild and clear-skied day, finding the old walled town and the sleepless youth hostel, and then looking for dumplings. I have found that I possess an ability, when the stomach is in a certain vacancy, to walk directly to a hall of bāozi. That night I strolled aimlessly the old road, which would have been peaceful if not for the horn-wailing E-bikes that crashed across the cobbles, until some intuition of the gut bid me turn aside on a perpendicular alley. I followed this to a main road and crossed that to a small and crowded local eatery, with noodle soup and heaped plates of pan-fried dumplings that squirted grease everywhere if the bite was too hasty. The Chinese gnawed and slurped vampirically at these greasy viands, so that the whole place sounded like a spit orchestra.

In the morning this feat of gastro-perception directed me to walk directly out from the hostel and down an alley, with no idea of where I was going, until I espied the familiar tower of bāozi trays in one of the stores. “Ah stomach,” I thought, “what do I need a compass for when I have you?” It was as if all that bāozi I daily consumed had somehow polarized my gut into a tracker. When I return home I suppose my stomach’s trick will point me eternally westward toward a kitchen in China, as the Mohammedans always face Mecca, until my gut instinct magnetism is recalibrated to some more convenient lodestone.

Suzhou was the other paradise of Marco Polo: he called it the Venice of the East, a city of canals and gardens with romantic names that drew me there: the gardens of the Master of the Nets and the Humble Administrator, the Garden of Cultivation and the Garden For Lingering In, and the Couple’s Retreat. The last was the only one I visited, full of tourists and in no way serene or spiritual, losing in shouts and posing all its aesthetic. Folly, folly—the Liberation is folly! This is why I cannot stand socialism: because some people do not deserve affluence and access to high culture, because they sully it by their ignorance.

Shen Bingchen, governor of Susongtai, retired to the mansion of the Couple’s Retreat in 1874, cultivated and expanded the eccentric garden and gave it its name, as much for the garden’s two parts as the wife who shared them. It is not so much a garden as a series of courtyards with subtle plantings, stark and carefully made, with many pavilions to consider certain scenes of grottoes and ponds. The east garden featured at its center an extravagant rockery named Yellowstone Mountain, made to look like the ridged peaks of Anhui, and surrounded by such structures as the “Amongst the Mountains and Water” Pavilion, named for a Song dynasty poem, the Moon Viewing Pavilion, the Thatched Cottage at the City Center, and the Studio of the Returned Ink slab, where a young scholar found an ancestor’s ink slab five generations after it went missing; though my favorite building was titled “The Balcony of No Frippery.”

On my approach, I heard some racket from within. “Is it a wedding party?” I thought. But no! there were tourists by the bus load, mobbing every passage as their guide shout over loudspeakers to compete with other guides doing the same; and there were trash bins everywhere and incontinent tourists peeing in the corners, spoiling all the gardener had once achieved. The elegant construction and careful aesthetic of the old cultivation was entirely lost by way of the noisy throngs, as a saintly cloth is tarnished by an unhallowed touch—and this place was pawed by the greasiest plebeian mishandling! Some things should remain the province of nobility alone!

I went outside the white walls of the compound and strolled down the canal, mourning the beauty that had been lost in liberation, and reflecting that perhaps Saturday was not the best day to visit the gardens in the world’s second most beautiful city according to Marco Polo, when I heard the wild melody of an old folk song carry down the canal from around the corner. An old peasant woman in blue was paddling a raft across the stream by the contrivance of an oar roped to the stern, which she managed back and forth like a fish tail, and she sang to the water as she furrowed it. The Chinese voice is an earthy sound, born of toil and soil, best when accompanied not by electric guitar or Madonna pop, but by crickets and waves and wind-russled leaves.

I resolved to leave the gardens of Suzhou for somewhere more natural, somewhere like the towns of Anhui and Jiangxi that I had so enjoyed; but to do this I had to pass through Shanghai.

My friend had always despised this vast, urban development for its filth and the manners of its people. I had seen worse filth, and by not speaking Chinese I think I avoided the worst of the Shanghainese rudeness; but I could not appreciate its vast, urban scale, as much as the Chinese, who seem to revere it in brochures and travel pamphlets. The towers were impressive monuments to the ingenuity of capitalism and the insignificance of individuals within an economy. They once called it “the Whore of the Orient” for all the debauchery celebrated there by Western entrepreneurs and imperialists and their Chinese cohong collaborators. A missionary in the 1930s said, “If God allows Shanghai to endure, he will owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology.”

God did not allow it, and the instrument of Armageddon was named Mao Zedong. Shanghai became a hotbed of leftist radicals, who snatched at the chance to rise up against their exploiters. All foreign industry left for Hong Kong, and the Gang of Four was based here for the ten years before Deng Xiaoping revolutionized the country. Then Shanghai became the capital of trade it had been before and is today the wealthiest and most populous city in China proper.

It was raining when I arrived. My sandals had no traction on the wet streets, and if I did not have a good skill for recovering from a fall, I would have fallen many times over. I dropped by things at a hostel and wandered through the urban jungle to the Bund, where I found the rain suited the old hulks of European buildings now flying Chinese red from every tower. The modern skyline of Pudong was a jagged futuristic mass across the Huangpo River. I visited the Shanghai Museum, where the habits and activities of the other visitors drew my attention away from the Han coins and inlaid Ming furniture—inspecting this cupboard with an energetic movement of the spine, circling that statuary with a camera recording, photographing themselves amidst those winter furs from Tibet.

I drank that night with an Australian in the hostel bar and discovered something of some interest from the bar-girl. She was a healthy Mongolian girl, a student of Japanese, even though she once hated the nation as much as most Chinese. All autocrats need an enemy for the masses, whether its gays or blacks or Islam or France, and in China that enemy is Japan: in school they learn the whole horrid history of Japan’s invasion during the Sino-Japanese Wars, the bombing of Shanghai and the rape of Nanjing, and in the news there is always some reoccurring matter, some insult by the Japanese Prime Minister, some issue of who owns this island or that, and recently a fisherman who was arrested by the Japanese for crossing into their waters. So this girl was brought up hating Japan, at least until she met some Japanese and found out they were just as friendly and generous as most people are everywhere. Since her sister began working there, and her parents have forced her to start studying the language as well, she has made many Japanese friends who help her with studying and tell her about Japanese culture.

The 2010 World Expo in Shanghai was as organized and maniac an effort as the 2008 Olympics had been to show off China’s exceeding global worth. There were great eruptions of fireworks, and Jackie Chan and Quincy Jones wrote the theme songs. The theme was the environment, and was elaborated on by way of a huge park on the southern bank of the Huangpu, filled with the entirely unnecessary constructions of 192 countries—Vegas facsimiles and Borg cubes and various designs which, had they been airborne, would make perfect UFOs—that all lit up brilliantly at night: a park of propaganda, fast food chains, souvenir stores, and corporate sponsors—but those were electric buses crossing the vibrantly rainbowed bridge! In the future, there is no need to turn out the light.

Initially I hesitated to go, but decided that I might regret missing a world expo, which are at best random events, held whenever a nation decides to improve its image through mummery. And I went straightaway to the American Pavilion, because I was filled with an unpatriotic and almost perverse fascination with the way my country advertised itself. A compatriot from Connecticut let me in past the line and I entered, along with a seething tourist crowd, the first of four great chambers. There were three screens along the back wall, and a Chinese-American girl from Florida announced in English and Chinese that we would see several videos, the first of which would begin shortly.

It began in this way: “Nihau, I’m Kobe Bryant and welcome to the American Pavilion.” A camera crew tried to teach a few New Yorkers to say as much in Chinese, with the forced humor of most government videos. It was apparently beyond Kobe’s linguistic skills, and the skills of most American statesmen, who spoke in English to the crowd. In the next room we were all seated for a second video, wherein Hillary Clinton, children of carefully chosen ethnicities, and corporate spokespersons commented on helping with the environment; and in the third chamber a little girl wanted to turn an empty urban lot into a garden, amid much singing and montage—but by then the Chinese were ravenous to get their fake passport stamped and have their photo snapped, and then to hustle on to the next queue on the map. They rioted against the door to get at the set for the New York Stock Exchange and the Disneyland castle background. They were not here for enlightenment, but for collectibles!

I tended towards the pavilions that these truant tourists avoided. I saw the Peruvian hut and went through the Caribbean Pavilion to kill some time—all the poor nations of that sea sharing one roof! Disco-lit stalls in a long warehouse, all dealing rum and reggaetón, and morose islanders sat behind the entry desks to stamp passport after passport with the fake seal of their national booth, with an endless stream of Chinese circling round the place for nothing but that. “Yes it ends next month,” said Barbados,—“thank God.” Most pavilions functioned in the same way. The Chinese waited for as long as an hour to receive their stamp, take pictures with every sign or poster, and then stroll back out to the next long wait.

Mostly the Expo was organized by region, but Iran, North Korea, and Lebanon were all jammed together on one side, like the unpopular crowd at a high school dance. I went that way, wandering into any pavilion without a line, and in this way seeing Belarus, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Qatar. (The latter had an especially interesting exhibit about the life of a Qatari pearl diver, that compared so favorably to the American pavilion I had to wonder what was the matter with my countrymen.) There was a lame parade and several performances planned. Jaime Torres played the charango with an Argentinian band in the American Square, and there was a beautiful dancer as well. The event in the European Pavilion was billed as Russian Songs and Dances, and featured three half-naked dancers, gyrating as if in the worst Slavic nightclub, and one Russian DJ in a red top hat, spinning beats and shouting into the microphone, “Yo Moscow!” The Chinese had never seen anything like it before.

The Iranian Pavilion proudly featured maps of old empires, pictures of fallen capitals, and statues and busts of the nation’s proudest sons: the poets Ferdowsi, Roudaki, Rumi, and Hafez, the polymaths Omar Khayyam and Avicenna, and several noble kings. But it was closing up for the night, as was most of the park, so I took a bus back across the Huangpu and a subway home, to plan my journey further north toward Beijing.

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