Good Dross & Bad Joss
It was a poem by Tu Fu that drew me to Taishan. He wrote it over a millennia ago, during the Tang dynasty, when Greeks and Arabs were the dominant power in the western world, and he wrote it in a written language so far removed from my native tongue that, with the attempted translation before me, I cannot help but wonder how much more significant the verses once were to eyes that read their ancient characters.
By the time I had walked into downtown Tai’an, I could no longer catch sight of the fabled peak through the cloudy gloaming. The youth hostel, in a strip mall a few blocks from the Dai Temple, was entirely full, and I was directed by a girl there to an alley down the way where there were many cheap hotels. I went there without much expectation of finding anything—though I was in a perfectly good mood, I was completely pessimistic, and had already settled on sleeping on the top floor of the strip mall. Upon entering the alley, lit solely by signs of flashing neon, my first thought was, “Wow, these are all hotels for prostitutes,” but I was surprised to find that one of the hotels also had dormitories with young Chinese travelers inside them. I got one eight bed room all to myself, then went out for beer and barbecue on a street corner. The chairs were as short as a kid’s picnic set, and the tables had a diverse crowd, young teens and families and old drunks. Down the street a Chinese woman sang in a shrill voice as part of some promotion event. Cars swerved by, but sometimes the act of eating is an isolation from the busy world around.
The dormitory was full when I came back. There was a big tour group from some big city, men who smoked too much and snored horribly, and who woke up in the pre-dawn hours to step up to the top of the Great Peak.
I never planned on climbing Taishan: I looked up at its graceful curves and left those for bolder men. Rather, the morning after I arrived, I made friends with a little daughter of the hostel staff and spent all morning playing Connect Four on a Gō board, the brat ever victorious. She followed me back into the dorm room and was trying to communicate something and giggling at the same time. I put a finger to my lips and pointed at the old Chinaman snoring in the corner, and she laughed into her hands and begged me for another game, though I could not oblige. I checked out of this back alley hostel, shouldered by bag, had my fill of bāozi across the street, enjoyed the warm sunshine of late morning, and walked back up the street and across traffic to the Dai Temple.
The temple’s high front gate opened on a courtyard of red walls and tiled roofs, with trees and potted plants artistically placed to create a divine sense of symmetry. Through an arch there was a stone dais, crowded with people, all beseeching the goddess of the mountain for a fortuitous journey up her flanks. They bought huge joss sticks on one side and lit them in braziers on the other, then planted them smoking in the crowded confines of a roofed altar, black with ages of smoke, before which they bowed incessantly, as emperors once had done. Statues of a scholar and a soldier stood guard. At the far end of the dais stood the temple, a wood-columned front with colorful, almost arabesque capitals, and tiered struts that supported the vast, curling roof of yellow tile. Within presided the Princess of the Azure Clouds herself, a ten foot high icon of gold adorned in a cloak of green silk, installed in a red pavilion, and a gong was struck as they bowed to her. Two other deities were housed in smaller shrines on either side of the courtyard, less often attended, and in the back through the garden, past more pavilions and under a great stone arch, began the path up the Great Mountain.
Taoism reveres five Chinese peaks, perfections of natural beauty formed by the head and limbs of Pan Gu, who died after creating Heaven and Earth. Tai Shan is Pan Gu’s head, the highest peak, the farthest east, and thereby the most sacred of these. The emperors conducted sacrifices to Heaven at its feet. When their reign was ended, Chairman Mao climbed it and pronounced the east red. Tourists have always thronged to see the sacred mountain, and these days there are millions who “will reach its peerless summit / And behold all mountains in a single glance,” for tradition’s sake, I suppose.
The urban Chinese are not religious people, and really despise religion in the way of modern city-dwelling elites in every country. They already have to suffer the intrusions and moralities of the CCP, so why add the shackles of a church? (A general rule for China is that the degree of religion in a city is inversely proportional to its proximity to Beijing. Mohammedan Xinjiang, Buddhist Tibet, and heterogeneous Yunnan are the most fascinating and spiritual provinces.) Christianity is microscopically present in the country—conversion is a fine way to make inroads in commerce with the West—and for very different reasons, in almost every city in China, one can find the turrets and crescent moon of Islam. But the hypocritical asceticisms of the Semitic faiths and the glamorous fingers of European atheism have only touched China in her great cities. Many in the often unseen corners of this country adhere to the Confucian hierarchy, respect traditions, and follow the Way of Buddhism and Taoism, as their people have for millennia preceding the outbreak of communism. They burn offerings for the ancestors and bow to the gods. For the urban Chinese, these are quaint practices, maintained among a minority as a living museum, to be cordoned off by a ticket office and respected by the best camera equipment. Tourism is their new ancestor worship. For all the rest of China, these queer practices are life.
No one sold a ticket for the Dai Temple, nor did any visitor take a photograph in those sacred precincts, where they lit the joss sticks and prayed to the Princess of the Azure Clouds for a propitious climb up the steps. The goddess was once a she-fox who lived on the mountain, and by practicing a strict asceticism became a deity. Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, tried to trick her into leaving, that he might build a Buddhist monastery in that beautiful place, but his exorcism was as unsuccessful as that carried out by the secular communists.
When I had seen the temple, I took a bus back to the station and waited there with a Chinese student of Japanese, who kept substituting “hai” for “yes”, until a bus left for Beijing late in the afternoon. The plains of southern Hebei were once part of Mongolia, and the road ran straight across that vast and empty space. The sky darkened, and the bus kept the lights off and some television show on, so I read by flashlight. An atomic red blossomed on the horizon: it was the polluted haze of Beijing, a sprawling hive of thirty million people, an urban sprawl as big as Belgium, and I looked up and said farewell to the stars.
The Dreams Travel hostel had doubled the price of a bed, on account of National Day. Schools and government offices had the whole week off. Tienanmen Square was a solid mob of people. They streamed in familiar disorder through the tunnels under Chang’an Jie to the Forbidden City, the palace of the emperors north of the square, where Mao’s great portrait watched them funnel in through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and into the long courtyards, where the line for tickets was three hours from the end to the counter.
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t care man,” said Pablo of Bogotá, who I had met at the hostel. “If you want to do it, let’s do it.”
“No, forget about it. Let’s get out of here.”
Forsaking the Forbidden City, we went to haggle at the Pearl Market and to look for lunch nearby. A family eating takeaway in the doorway of their store pointed the way to the source around the corner. It was in a building that looked like nothing from the outside, but within was loud and crowded with people, serving good food from a menu with pictures of it. Pablo could not believe how cheap it was. This was his first day in China, and he was full of the energy and excitement that a new journey stirs and the good humor for which Colombia should be famed, if the country were not so misrepresented by Hollywood and cable news.
I intended to go visit Colombia, and perhaps to teach bad Hollywood English and learn elegantly accented Spanish in Bogotá, so I asked Pablo about the country as we ate—about the decline of the FARC, the food in Bogotá, the beaches in Tayrona, and the beautiful paisas of Medellín. In turn I told him what I knew about China. Pablo was on his way to Hangzhou, to study Chinese at a college there. He was not signed up for the program and had left in a hurry, because his father, an artist with the nom de guerre of Flores de las Montañas, had finally and perhaps only temporarily agreed to support his son’s studies there. Pablo intended one day to study underwater welding in San Diego and make a fortune working on oil wells in one Gulf or another.
Across the street from the Pearl Market there was an iron barricade all around the Temple of Peace Park, except for those few areas where visitors might pay a fortune to enter. (Almost everything of interest in China has a ticket booth and fence. Denizens of the city can get around payment by showing their identification.) Pablo and I walked along the fence, testing for a place to jump over it. We saw a family rush up under the eaves of an old birch. The man was already on the other side, and his wife began to pass the children over the iron.
“Alright, let’s try here.”
“I used to do parkour in Colombia. Hold on,” said Pablo. He rushed at the fence from an angle, grabbed the top, and swung his legs up to vault over the railing, but did not make it and nearly fell on his ass. We both climbed over laughing. Some guard in a tie began to follow us almost immediately, alternately shouting at us and into his walkie talkie. We argued in different languages and then there were four more guards standing around in confusion. All of them escorted us to the ticket desk. This was my first run-in with the Beijing authorities, who were everywhere that week to deal with all the National Day crowds.
Pablo was laughing and talking all the way out about what an unnecessary display it was, and the comedy of his failed display of parkour. We met a girl near the subway station who recommended that we visit a food street in the warren east of Tienanmen Square. There was a long line in the subway for a metal detector and bag check, and once I had my ticket I breezed right past it. A guard tried to stop me.
“Hey, you must—”
“Nah, I’m in a hurry.”
Pablo followed me laughing.
“Man, she had this look on her face when you said that like, ‘What do I do?’ ‘Nah, I’m in a hurry.’ I can’t believe you get away with this.”
We emerged from those tunnels onto a commercial drag with Gucci and Burberry, and Pablo laughed about this communist country. Once the whole area was occupied by the hútòng, “narrow alleyways,” that crisscross the city from east to west with ramshackle dwellings and small courtyards. Most of them have been knocked down to make way for the factory print of skyscrapers that represents progress to the Chinese.
There we found the Wangfujing Snack Street and lined with food stalls, some serving the strangest fare imaginable. Scorpions squirmed on the ends of skewers, and there were silk worm cocoons, larval bugs, starfish, horsefish, snakes, dog livers, goat lungs, and all manner of things ready to go in the fryer or the stew. The Cantonese say that the Chinese eat everything that flies except airplanes, everything with four legs but tables, and everything that swims except submarines.
“I want to eat a big scorpion, but I don’t know. I want to see someone eating it first.”
“You’ll eat it raw?”
“Sure man. But only if someone else does. My grandmother always said, ‘Lo que se ve, hacer.’ Do you understand? It means, ‘What you see, do.’ “
Pablo’s grandmother had a library of wise aphorisms, several for each and every occasion, and Pablo’s head was filled with them.
Around the corner we bought rice beers at a store and sat on crates out front to drink them and watch the traffic go by. Pablo told me about his country’s war against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the longest running civil war in the world. President Álvaro Uribe Vélez turned the tide when he was elected in 2001, and with substantial American aid pushed FARC guerillas away from the cities and roads and into the deepest jungles and the farthest mountains, where their coca plantations remain. In September President Juan Manuel Santos announced that Mono Jojoy, the FARC’s second in command and its top military commander, was killed in Meta in a massive raid by the Colombian army, which miraculously suffered no casualties—none, that is, except for a bomb-sniffing dog that was killed by a landmine in the aftermath.
Colombia is known for its free and critical press, and Pablo normally questioned the news; but when it was announced that this villain lay dead he cheered with glee at the television, was filled with love for the soldiers, and mourned that poor dog, to whom the Republic later dedicated a statue. In the afternoon the news arrived by the narrower channels of family that Pablo’s cousin’s cousin had died in an unrelated skirmish. He had been shot through the heart by a sniper, during a council of war held after the combat ended. Suddenly the images and patriotism of the screen were put into their right perspective.
“I started to see how stupid it was. We cheered that a man was dead, cried that a dog was dead, and no one cared that my cousin is dead. What the hell is this? It’s a fucking dog. Soldiers die in the jungle every day, my cousin died, and all we care about is the fucking dog.”
It’s what the media would show because it’s what a Disneyfied people want to hear. The body of Pablo’s cousin took four days to arrive home, moving by bus across the jungle, and was too decomposed to unseal the coffin for the mother to take a last look. Pablo did not know the cousin well and remembered him as a man who showed up from the base on Fridays to pick up his keys, make a few happy jokes, and head off into town. It seemed as if that man and the man in the casket were two different people.
We sipped our beers and talked as late afternoon faded into twilight, and Pablo remarked, “Man I don’t get all these Chinese girls with such ugly guys.”
“Me neither. But you see a lot of that.”
“When I went to Costa Rica, I was on this great party beach, with all these hot girls. Americans, Europeans, blondes, really hot. And all of them—all of them!—were with the fucking reggae guys. Black guys. Stoned all day. Fucking bums. Some of them just pick up garbage or something. And they get all the tourist girls. I was with these Americans, big muscles and blonde and nothing in their heads, just like Colombian girls like . . .”
My face lit up and I tapped the sun-blonde ends of my hair.
“. . . and we couldn’t figure it out, why we couldn’t get any of these girls. They were all with the fucking reggae bums. But yeah man, the Colombian girls will go crazy for you.”
“I just need to dumb down.”
“Just start watching MTV. It’s all they talk about. In Colombia the same thing as Costa Rica. You go to Tayrona, all these girls go down there to fuck the black fishermen.”
I told him about the Bedouin in Jordan, romantic desert horsemen with rotted teeth, picking up all the French and Italian girls. Later we were talking about finding seafood, and Pablo said, “Then we’ll have to get some girls. You know, fish, or like, prawns and that opening thing . . .”
“Yeah, they’re like, you know . . .”
“You don’t know this? Yeah, man, you eat that stuff, like prawns and . . .”
“You get the power. Everything. That’s why all the Colombian girls go down to the coast to sleep with the black fishermen.”
“Because of how many clams they eat? But that’s crazy.”
“I’m serious, man! Black guy, strong from working as a fisherman, eats lots of seafood.” Pablo was by then holding up three fingers and had a look on his face that said, “It’s so obvious.”
“What about the reggae boys? Weed is not an aphrodisiac.”
“I don’t know man. It’s so weird. Those girls, what are they thinking? . . . You know, my sister married a reggae guy.”
“Yeah. He’s stoned all the time. Just smokes all day. He’s cool, though. . . . Sometimes I stay at her house, when my girlfriend comes from Costa Rica, since my mom won’t let us stay at home. This guy will come in every morning like, ‘Hey man, wanna smoke? Let’s get high.’ I’m like, ‘No, thanks man.’ He has this dog—Gambaldi—this fucking dog, and the dog smokes, too. He gives it weed and the dog goes around, all stoned.”
“What does your sister do?”
“She’s a psychologist, married to this black reggae guy. She’s having his kid. I don’t know, man. He makes her happy.”
Pablo saw me wave and smile across his shoulder, and he turned to look. He turned back with all the signs of barely contained laughter.
“Nothing man. She’s cute.” The laughter began to crack.
“She was staring.”
“I thought there would be this hot girl there, and there’s this fat little Chinese girl. How old do you think she’s? Fourteen?”
“Thirteen I’d say.”
“Hey man, if that’s what you like.”
“I just waved, goddammit.”
“Forget it! I’m joking. It’s just, man, that fat little girl . . . okay, let’s go find some girls.”
We got lost in the artificial hútòng north of the Wangfujing Snack Street, and on returning south on a pleasant tree-lined road between the Forbidden City and the Imperial Archives, we stopped to closely inspect a black Jaguar parked out front of a restaurant on the corner. From behind us a man asked, “Nice car?”
He was middle-aged and middling in height, with cool Chinese features and a golden complexion, well-kept hair and a white polo shirt: perhaps unremarkable in appearance if it was not for his bright eyes and the calm elegance he possessed in every motion. He was smoking a cigarette and watching us from a railing near the road. We talked for a while about the policemen who were dining in that expensive restaurant and who owned all these nice cars, and how afterwards they would go across the street to the coffee shop of some descendant of Deng Xiaoping and spend twenty thousand yuan for a cup of coffee, the government footing the bill. (A granddaughter of Deng owned the souvenir shop in the Forbidden City, and other big tourist businesses besides.)
The man with whom we spoke was a painter named Aaron Shii, whose studio was nearby, and he invited us to visit it. There are common scams in Beijing, where students of art will lure the unwitting lăowài into some overpriced exhibition or to an isolated store to push his wares as hard as any Turk ever pushed a rug. Painting can be a vulgar trade in China. There is a city in the interior entirely devoted to reproducing old works. They make art in an assembly line, each man responsible for one specific stroke or coloration, and capable of painting that fragment alone with the perfection of long years of study, despite a lack of any artistic talent, aptitude, or even interest.
Aaron Shii was a different man, and his studio was a different place. He shared it with four other artists, one of whom was just leaving. This jolly-faced man was a famed painter of tigers, and screens and scrolls of the beast littered the first of two rooms. Along with Aaron, he was the most honorable and venerated of the four painters to use that space. The studio was on the left side of a long, dark courtyard in through an old styled gateway on the main road. Its two rooms were long and simple, stone floors and whitewashed walls hung with art up for sale to gallery owners, who ask collectors for ten times the amount they pay the artist.
“You should ask for more,” Pablo and I both said to Aaron, at one point or another, as we looked at his larger paintings. They were in the deceptively simple style of Chinese art: scenes in elegant lines and few colors without a clear focus or subject, but with a fine-crafted simplicity and perfect artistry. The subject was usually some urban corner of Beijing, often amidst the old hútòng, and each had a sticker in the corner with a price written backwards. The art seller would recognize it, but an ordinary customer would dismiss the note as some serial code.
“Now I do not get so much for my paintings,” said Aaron, “but it is more than I got for them eight years ago. And eight years from now I will sell my paintings for much more.”
The three of us sat down on folding chairs in the middle of the room. There were unfinished works near the feet of mine that I carefully nudged towards the wall. Aaron sat next to his desk, littered with painting supplies and piles of art and bits of rice paper. Out the window all the garden was black, except a few errant stalks of grass that stood like voyeurs at the window, illuminated by the half-gold light from within. The wiry artist leaned back in his chair and told us his story.
Aaron Shii’s grandfather was a famous “kung fu man” and much feared in Xi’an. He served as bodyguard to one of the warlords that ruled China before the communists took over. His son, Aaron’s father, followed in his footsteps and practiced the martial arts, though he diverged at some later point and became a painter of some repute, in the classic tradition. His dual specializations in no way diminished his mastery of either.
“Once we walked through the park to where the kung fu men would play,” said Aaron, “and they called my father over to practice. Two seconds and they were in the grass.”
When Aaron was young, he much preferred the company of his father’s painter friends to that of the kung fu men.
“They would say, ‘Hey, have you practiced?’ They grabbed my thumb, like this. My thumb still hurts when I think of it. I would run away when they came. My father would call for tea, and I would shout, ‘There’s no tea!’ and run away. But the painters! They were scholars, artists, gentlemen. They talked gracefully, and they wanted good tea. I loved to serve them tea.”
So Aaron followed his father as a painter, while his brother, who loved to be thrown around by those kung fu friends, became a police officer—not one of the blue-uniformed ones, but one of the hard boiled men in black, not to be taken lightly.
There is a mafia element in Beijing, but it is amateur at best due to an absence of firearms in the capital. Aaron told us, “They come to you and say, ‘You need protection! Pay me, or I will . . . break your window!’ You pick up the phone to call the police and they run away.” A mafia lord once went to a restaurant his friend had opened and demanded protection money. His friend said, “How much do you want?” and the mob boss asked for clams and shellfish to be brought out. “Here,” said the restaurateur, “you want shells? Have these walnuts.” He threw nuts at the criminal, as if he were a beggar, and sent him packing.
“Do they come to you?”
“No, not to me. My brother is a policeman.”
Forsaking his kung fu studies, Aaron studied the tradition of art and worked as a painter for many years, in small shops around Beijing and in the Dashanzi Art District, the old 798 Factory, and he once appeared in the Lonely Planet, which netted him some business. He painted landscapes and bamboo and scribed the names of tourists for a small paycheck. In those days he made four hundred yuan for a good piece. Then, seven years ago, when he was thirty-eight, Aaron began to develop a new style. He played with oil paints, added more vibrancy to the simple color palette, more modern techniques to the ancient ways, and produced a new art, robust and unique. He spoke of it, waving at his paintings on the opposite wall, with evident pride.
“Those who follow the traditional style, they are nothing. They are just students. The masters have been following this style and improving it for a thousand years. What are you? You do the same for maybe one hundred years, and it is nothing next to a thousand. Now people paint like I do. They can be a hundred years old and paint much better than me, but they are still my students, because they follow me and do not do anything new.”
One of his colleagues had arrived with a crate of beers, and he handed the cans around and called the drink his tea.
“This will last me tonight, tomorrow, and maybe tomorrow night. I maybe have fifteen in one night.”
“Does your father like your style?”
Aaron thought for a long time and looked far away. “He . . . does not.”
“Because it’s different from tradition?”
Since composing his style, renowned by some and maligned by others, Aaron found this new studio, began teaching at the art institute, and made a good living doing what he enjoyed. He had married a software programmer, who was a fan of his art and much younger than him, and they had a daughter who was two years old. He sold his paintings to art dealers from Beijing and a few other cities around China and internationally, and they resold them for four times that price.
“I could ask for more,” he said, “but then they would not come back. Slowly I move up. In eight years the art dealers will pay me what their customers pay them now.”
“Patience is important.”
“Yes, you must have patience.” He pointed to a painting on the wall of an alleyway in the hútòng, a slender and romantic place. “This is south of Tienanmen Square, in an old market. It is worth much, because the place is not there anymore.”
“It was destroyed, after I painted it. This was two years ago. They destroyed it to build a shopping mall.”
I cursed the fate of the hútòng, but the artist seemed almost gleeful about it, sensing the beautiful irony that ever graces the world, and I wondered if he were religious. Pablo said, “All for the Olympics,” and I replied, “They do this all over China, tearing down beautiful old buildings to build McDonalds . . . shit.”
“I had another painting like this,” said Aaron. “One day an old woman came and asked to see my paintings, and when she saw this one she said, ‘Oh, I remember this, it is just like when I was younger! How much for it?’ I told her the price and she said, ‘I only have a little money on me, but I will give you a thousand yuan for it,’ and she threw the money on the table and told me to send it to her. Old ladies never carry around a thousand yuan,” and Aaron scoffed at the notion,—“some people are too rich.”
“And this painting here?” I wondered, looking at a vertical scene of autumn trees on the floor below me.
“I may finish it tonight. It is only a quick painting. Just a few hours. Which paintings do you like?”
Pablo pointed to an alley scene, a girl riding a bike out of the mist, with a white pagoda behind. I indicated one near it, but my real fancy was caught by the silk scroll sketch of Jian Kuai—the legendary hero. But we talked about the paintings of the wall of the Confucius Temple in Beijing, and I asked “You always paint outdoors?”
“You must be there to paint something. You must see it in front of you. Chinese paintings are all about details, and how can you see those if you are just looking at a photograph? There is no emotion, no feeling in it. You need detail, but sometimes there can be too much. The more detail in a picture, the easier it is to make a mistake. If it is simple, there are no mistakes. The artist takes care with every stroke. The colors, organization, material.”
He caught me looking at Jian Kuai. Rough strokes traced a brawny figure with a grey cloak and a beard like black leaves. His feet were blurred, and his shoulders, and his wide eyes and bellowing mouth were somehow firmer, as was the hand that drew the broadsword.
“That was a quick work,” remarked the artist,—“one of a set of twelve, and this is the last. I do not want to get rid of it. There was one, Jian Kuai pulling the sword out of his back. A woman bought it immediately, a mother, because it is good luck to have in the house with children. I regretted that I had sold it.”
“I like the quick way of it.”
“I paint it in winter when there is nothing to do.”
“You like to paint him?”
“Yes. My wife likes it. Jian Kuai stop children from crying.”
Aaron rambled more and more as the night progressed. Pablo was too tired and drunk to understand what he was saying, but I paid attention with fascination. “Have one more beer with me,” said the painter, “and I will give you a hundred dollars. But first, I have to piss.” When he was outside I scribbled notes to paper, and when he returned I opened another can for myself. He opened his sixth and chugged it down in two great gulps, and he offered to give me the scroll of Jian Kuai and to sell Pablo his favorite painting. We gently refused, and he seemed somewhat offended that we had, as if it insulted his art. “Are they too expensive?” Not at all, we are too poor. I said, “They’re too cheap, Aaron. You should get more from your art dealers for them. I wouldn’t know what to do with them.” When he insisted again on the scroll of Jian Kuai, saying, “I told you I would give it to you, and I will not go back on my word,” I replied, “Keep it, hang it in your house. It would make me very happy.”
“I already have enough in my house. My wife thinks they are good luck. I did not call you in here to sell you anything. I wanted to have a beer with you. I like to share new ideas. You really like my paintings? You like the winter?”
“What is your favorite season?”
“Autumn. No, winter. I hate the summer. Autumn and winter. The world dies, and then goes cold. You think about all that has passed. It’s purifying. Then comes the spring. I like early spring, not the deep spring.”
“I also like the autumn. In Qufu, in the Confucius forest, I—”
“What about this painting here?” asked the painter, desperate to justify his career. He explained its subtleties. “I am forty-five now. At fifty-five artists retire, stop painting detailed works, and make lines on a page and sell that as art. Some painters, when they turn old, their hands shake and they cannot paint, or they paint with a new style. They drink too much rice wine. I only drink beer, never rice wine, because I do not want my hand to shake. I must master my art before I turn fifty-five. When I am fifty, I will reach a new height. When I am fifty-five, or perhaps sixty, because maybe I can extend it, I will be finished. I have ten years to finish. If you cannot make it by the time you are sixty, then there is no more for you. You can make a living, but you will never do anything new and your name will never appear in the books of art.”
“Do you think you will be remembered?”
“No,” he said, with a wild grin, the same grin which he always showed when discussing some melancholic irony, some horrible fact of life, but he also said, “maybe. Yes, I think so.” He said this as if conscious of all the difficulty and loneliness of this idea he had formed and wished to preach, but with all the courage of Jian Kuai in facing that specter. Or perhaps he was only drunk.
It was eleven and we had to go to catch the last subway back to Dong Cheng. We shook hands and promised to pay a visit someday, and Aaron Shii followed us out to the gate to say goodbye.
“Will you go back to work?” I asked.
The artist replied, “Yes, I still have to finish the painting. I will paint tonight.”
There are sites that every visitor to Beijing feels obligated to see, and I only had a few days there before the ferry to Incheon departed on Thursday. And so the next morning Pablo and I bussed, haggled, and hitched our way out to a section of the Great Wall of China, just north of the capital.
We could see the wall of Simatai from the highway, following a distant ridge line like the frequency spectrum of a rock song, but the gate was closed and barricaded by several guards. I convinced Pablo that we could still get in, and we began to climb down the hill, out of sight of the guards, into a rubbish yard. Up into a thicket, and down a stone wall we came into an abandoned city of rundown concrete structures, all empty and strewn with weather. We rushed from corner to corner and slid quietly through houses in the manner of action movie stars, to avoid patrols. Pablo had climbed up onto a hill when we saw a guard come out into the yard of a house, just across a concrete wall from us, to do his laundry. Pablo began making hand signs to try and transmit something, but I transmitted that I had no idea what he was trying to say. When the guard had gone, I followed him up the hill and through the brush, which opened onto a yard of garbage. A guard was wandering through it, and we waited for him to leave before climbing down, not worried about the old woman who was knitting in the shade, and who gave us directions.
From the next hill we could see the road, which bridged a deep ravine and continued on into a busy construction area. Once a policeman had driven by on a scooter, there were no more guards in sight, only the laborers.
“If they see us this far,” I said, “they’ll think we must belong here.”
So Pablo and I took the road, walking as if we knew where we were going. We were halfway to the wall of Simatai. Then the cop came back on his scooter, which was bright green and decorated with flowery stickers. There was an argument, and we kept walking. He returned with backup, and they returned with a van full of guards in black jackets, hassled us into the car and drove all the way back to the barricade at the entrance. Pablo thought it all hilarious, and I was bored and irritated by this second run-in with the Beijing law.
We hitchhiked from there to the highway, with two young sisters, and I grinned cockily at the guards who had arrested us as we got into the car. Hitchhiking from there was difficult. It is foreign to the Chinese, and they could not understand why a foreigner would do it. Those drivers who stopped would ask, “What do you want? What are you doing out here? Where is your car?” I had a feeling that most people refused not out of unkindness, but because they were not going all the way to our destination, and it would be rude to kick us out of the car on some desolate intersection. Eventually we found a driver to take us all the way to Jinshanling.
There we climbed a long, steep set of stairs up to that rebuilt section of the Great Wall: stairs and towers that serpented along the rolling hills, romantic, picturesque, and wonderful to behold in the fading light of the day. There were a few flocks of Chinese tourists, who pointed at my footwear and wondered if those red flip-flops were adequate. Still, and until the end of the trip, I had only the sandals I had bought in Burma.
Pablo and I walked to the highest tower of Jinshanling and looked out over the country: Beijing to the south and Mongolian Hebei to the north. An old woman with a basket of books told us that it was her country, and her village was just beneath the hills. She walked up and down the wall every day to sell her books, which we refused. When it was four o’clock we ran down the wall and the stairs, in a great hurry to get the last bus from Mylinea back to Beijing, and two motorcycles drove us out to the highway, where we made a sign for Beijing with a slab of cardboard and bits of charcoal from an old fire. We hitched in a car that was pulling a van by a chain and moving very slowly, and that parked suddenly in the sixth circle of the city, around eight o’clock, long after the city buses had ceased to run inward. After many attempts to avoid it, we settled into the taxi of a friendly Mongolian woman, who set the fare fairly for us, back across the vast span of Beijing to the nearest subway station.
Getting back to Beijing had been a nightmare, and on Wednesday I told myself, “There’s no way I’m coming back here, so I have to see the Forbidden City.” I woke up early, with not nearly enough sleep, and bought bāozi on the way to the station. Tiananmen was already crowded, and I took a place at the end of a long line waiting for the ticket booths to open.
Within the high red walls, painted with the same sanguinary paint as Confucius’ graveyard, burnished with jade tile and gold dragons and yellow tiled rooftops, I escaped the vast crowds posing for pictures in the imperial courtyards before the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and found a measure of peace and solemnity in the long back alleys. I attended the small museums and the carefully maintained imperial art collection, which the Southern Song had begun and a dramatic effort preserved from the Japanese invasion, of paintings and books through which the Emperor was supposed to absorb old skill at rule.
Again I got in trouble with the guards, as I tried to leave by a gateway that was only for entering. The guard shouted at me through his megaphone and held a finger on my chest to keep me back. "You know Chinese, I know you do!" he said.
"What are you talking about?"
I spent the rest of the day securing tickets for the ferry to Incheon. By good luck, the travel agent at the hostel had bought the same tickets for some Americans a few months before, and still had all the necessary phone numbers filed away, though buying the tickets involved a lot of running around, with a final sprint to the train station.
It was only as I was leaving Beijing that I realized what had me loathe it so much: the city was far too organized for my habits. As I tried to buy train tickets, close to the last minute, I was directed around until finally coming to the designated window, and this was the only window I as a foreigner could use to buy these particular tickets; and it was only in the long cordoned line to get to the metal detector that I realized they were for a train five hours from then—the vendor had thought I could not make it in time! I went back to argue with her, to no avail, because only these few slow trains left from this particular station, and only those tickets were sold at this desk, and there was no such thing as an exchange, and I was in such a rage that I said to myself, “I just ate, but I need to go eat something.” Rice and meat always had me feel better, and when I was filled at the canteen I went into the station to wait for my train.
Exhausted already, I would not arrive in Tianjin until after midnight, would sleep on the floor in the station, and would wake up at 6:30 to find a way to the ferry dock, but all that food and the excitement of leaving and arriving deadened me to this bit of bad joss.