Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Written upon stone.

From the Lonely Planet Guidebook for Shaanxi:

To see a library made of stone: yes.

We wandered through the galleries. Some of the tablets were under shelter but otherwise open to the air and elements. It was warm but not sweltering.

There was a time when people had touched the tablets so much that they were black. There was a time when there was a big earthquake, in the 1500s, and many of the largest and most important stones were broken into pieces. A scholar made smaller stones to fill in where the text was broken. In those galleries, it is as if the tablets are pages of a book. There were times when the center of power shifted, and the texts were lost to the "wild suburbs"; there were times when they were gathered together. The Nestorian stele was buried for centuries before it was found again.

It is a miracle, is it not, that any library survives, no matter what its texts are made of?

I suppose that a scholar would be able to look at the tablets and know things like the era, and the calligrapher, and the carver, and the nature of the text. The interpretive material was intermittent, so we could discern some of this. Not all. We could see, by the sweep of a cursive calligraphy for instance, that here we had entered a different period; by the minuscule, exacting characters, that perhaps this was a legal text. Each of the galleries presented its interests and its longeurs. We moved quickly sometimes, and lingered at others.

At the end, my son and I talked about faith on the steps of a gallery while we waited for the historian to finish his more deliberate examination. There were birds, and their song. A thicket of pillars with carved finials stood in orderly rows to our left. Stone is not eternal--it is susceptible to human touch and the earth shifting and burial and weather--but it feels eternal. Its breath is cool and unhurried. It speaks and it keeps its counsel.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

On museums.

I picture the end of the Roman occupation of Britain like this: somewhere around the late fourth century A.D., people looked around themselves, said, Hey, when was the last time you saw a Roman tax collector? and proceeded to take stones and bricks from Hadrian's Wall to use in their houses, barns, and stiles. They didn't even bother to raise a glass. They just raided, and why not?

Much, much later on the timeline, we went to visit. What is the Roman Wall? we asked ourselves. We bought maps and studied websites and visited sites and discussed things amongst ourselves. There are ruined garrison towns and forts and all sorts. People are digging them up, and providing explanatory placards, and suggesting pathways through the dig. In a word, out of the ruins of history they are making museums: exhibits that narrate a lost past, a past that would be all but invisible but for these efforts.


When we got to Sichuan, we had toured the following:
  1. The Forbidden City (aka The Palace Museum)
  2. The Lama Temple
  3. The Summer Palace
  4. The Mutianyu section of The Great Wall
  5. The City Wall in Xi'An
  6. The Terra Cotta Warriors
  7. The Forest of Stelae (more about this in a subsequent post)
In other words, eastern China's Greatest Hits. 

[Digression: on a first visit to China, would it really be possible not to have gone to see these monuments? Would it really? If I were going back to China, I would still want to see the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace again, because I know that I did not exhaust the interest nor the elements of either place. In fact, when I looked at a map of the Forbidden City, I realized that we had only seen maybe a third of what there was to see. And we spent hours there. Hours.]

[Digression 2: periodically, when we ventured down some dark alleyway or gritty, unpicturesque location, my son would turn back to us and say, This is real China, as if to say: what you've been seeing heretofore has been prepared for your consumption as a tourist. Not this. This is unprocessed, unfiltered, this is not arranged for your comfort or your pleasure, this is how they do it here. Examples: shopping not in the fancy Euro-style mall but down the narrow halls with a thousand booths selling a mad efflorescence of goods. Taking the sleeper train from Beijing to Xi'An. Eating porridge for breakfast on some completely un-touristy street in Beijing. Real China. Whatever that may be. You can feel it when you're in it. Not fancy, not Western-fetish-style clean.]

Resuming the narrative: when we got to Sichuan, we had done a lot of the Major Attractions. (They were awesome.) We had arrived very very late the night before, so we slept in while my son went to class. For lunch, we ate Yan Jian Rou and had some green tea with his friends. We walked around the campus, just to see it, had a smoothie where he often has a smoothie, went to the People's Park. 

What do you guys want to do in Sichuan? This was the big question. We had four days left before we would get on a plane and fly back to our lives.

There are temples to see in Chengdu. Museums. One thing I had imagined doing when we first started planning the trip was visiting an ancient irrigation system near Chengdu. It was right beside a sacred mountain. Also, it happened to be not too far from a panda conservation center. Sights to see: restored and preserved ancient technologies. Shrines. 

We mulled our options over, and my son said, with deliberation: The more I think about it...I think we should go to Four Girls Mountain. 

I was surprised. He'd been somewhat resistant to this idea when I mentioned it--I've already been there, Mom. Let's find a place I haven't gone yet. Which made sense, and was a point of view to which I had come around, if a little reluctantly. He was there with his friend. They posted pictures. I wanted to go there too, to take my own pictures.

[Digression 3: Is picture-taking a motive in itself? Or just another way of seeing?]

He continued: If we go to Four Girls Mountain, we could stay two nights or three nights. You'll see these beautiful valleys. 

I was in. We talked over the details, and the historian decided, yes, he too was in. It would be a completely different experience than anything else we had done. We wanted to see a different part of China, and here was our chance.

My son: To be honest, I'm just so tired of museums.

I think it might have been the Forest of Stelae that did him in. He said, I liked it for about forty minutes. And it's true: it was practically an infinity of stone tablets, engraved with all manner of ancient and historical texts. It was mesmerizing, it was overwhelming. It was, in a word, a museum. A shrine, a temple. Exhibit. Monument.

[Digression 4: I love museums. If there had been, in easy proximity, a straight up art museum anywhere we had been staying, it would have been hard for me to stay away. I love the way an exhibit is a narrative and an argument. I love the way an exhibit, its specific articulation of a collection, its specific gesture of preservation, is a form of cultural love and attention. I love parsing exhibits, and I love falling in love with the museum space. I just love them.] 

As we walked through the first valley at Siguniangshan National Park, my son said, Now what is your favorite thing you've done on this trip? And what he was implying--that this, this setting, the high, high mountains, the shifting mist and the snow, the Tibetan stupas everywhere, was surely the best--seemed inarguable.

Better than any museum, he said. Arguing, but only lightly.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Les étrangers.

It is inevitable, is it not, when one is in another country, the way we remark upon our differences, large and small?

Huh, noodles for breakfast again! we say. Or why does that man have his shirt rolled up so that we can all look at his belly? Am I supposed to look at his belly? But there it is, right there, right there where his shirt is rolled up.

Like that.

Or the time we were in an elevator in Xi'An, and the guy in there with us glanced at us, then looked back in a series of lengthening looks. He turned to his friend and they started chatting animatedly.

He probably thinks you look like Karl Marx, I said to my husband the historian, who is (a) bearded, and (b) a socialist, not that they would know that, except that maybe the beard implied it?

My son said, That's exactly what he just said. He said, He looks like Karl Marx. 

And that's when he leaned in for a selfie with us. In the elevator.

In China, we were the odd ones. We were strange and exotic. My tall, curly-headed bearded son was, of course, used to it, having lived in China, at different times, for more than a year. I loved seeing how people responded to him, once he spoke, and how he was able to negotiate so capably in this place so far from home, in a language so different than his home language. None of this grace was an option for us.

If you want to say 'thank you,' it's 'xie xie,' he instructed us. We were in a grocery store in Beijing, our very first morning. We wandered past the vegetables, past the dried fruit, the practically infinite varieties of dried mushrooms, past the nuts, practicing this tiny phrase in a spectrum of pronunciation manglements. A lady sitting by one of the stalls smiled. Hilarious. I smiled back, because it really was.

The historian said 'xie xie' the whole trip long, like a champ. I did too, but more hesitantly and less frequently. No amount of phrase-mongering would obliterate our strangeness, our otherness. It was right there, written on our faces.

In Rilong, in western Sichuan, I admired the canvas shoes of one of the young women working at the guest house.  They had hefty tread, black, a black toecap, army green canvas uppers, laced up.

My son translated: my mom likes your shoes. Where can you get them?

She said we could find them anywhere, and when we did find them in a little shop on the main road, a small group clustered around, watching while I tried them on. A local man laughed, although not in a mean way: her feet are bigger than my feet! he said. Back at the guest house, when I came down to dinner, the woman with the admirable shoes took a look at what I was wearing: cotton trousers, a light shirt and light cardigan, canvas shoes. She entered some text into her smart phone, then showed me the English translation, which read something like this: I am worried about the thinness. Please put on more thickness so you are not becoming cold. 

So much the clumsy-footed stranger, and, in a corollary, evidently unable to dress myself appropriately. It's possible that I had to rescue myself from feeling almost existentially incapable a little bit every day. I found this to be one of the recurrent threads in the whole narrative of the trip. It was unsettling, but then, I think I knew that it would unsettle me. I had a talk with myself about it long before we departed.

At the moment, I think this kind of experience is useful. It's useful to be reminded that you're are not the prince of everything, or the princess. That the world is not yours to command, that you are every bit as strange to some people as some people are to you. Part of the grace of this kind of experience--the experience where one feels lost and graceless and incapable--is to be reminded that you live in the world and the world is not made in your image. The world is enormous. The big world contains you and you might as well keep your eyes open, to see every last strange, unfamiliar bit of it you can.

I think you can see why these nice people wanted
a picture with me. Because I am a celebrity, obvs.
(Xi'An City Wall)

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

In which we went to China (part 1).

You guys need to decide what you want to do when you come, said my son. He sent us the link to the Lonely Planet guide, which we perused and out of which we made lists. We had basically decided on the architecture of the trip--meet in Beijing, train to Xi'An, fly to Chengdu--but what would fill our days? What places, what things, what experiences?

Proposition one: China is bigger than you think. Even when you think: China is big. It's still bigger.

Proposition two: You can never imagine, not really, what you're in for when you go to China. Where you're the foreigner--really, really the foreigner, the true Other.

China just isn't China without the Great Wall, said my son. To which I wholeheartedly agreed. In a conversation I had this morning, a man I work with said, It's like when you've seen pictures of things your whole life, and then you go see them in reality. It's like when I saw the Eiffel Tower. I was pretty much, Yeah, that's what I thought the Eiffel Tower would be like.

The Great Wall is not like that, not really. I don't care what you think it will be like. I don't care what you've read, what homework you've done, what history you've assembled, what pictures you've seen, how many times you've viewed Mulan. I don't care. If you are on that wall, you are in another place entirely than the place you imagined. It is much grander and much, much more difficult. 

Proposition three, corollary to Proposition One: You will not see everything. Not remotely.

Proposition four, corollary to Proposition Two: You will hunger for home and home comforts--the internet, ice in your drink, a sandwich--and you might feel a little bit ashamed of this longing, but that won't change the fact of it. And you will confront your limits, also a non-negotiable element of being in China.

I looked up at the steps, the stone steps ahead of me. They seemed almost vertical. I had not imagined them. Even though my son had told me about this--had said, it's pretty strenuous, mom, words meant to warn me and encourage me to prepare--I nonetheless found myself looking up those steps and thinking, I don't want to have a heart attack on the steps of the Great Wall and also I don't want to fall down the steps of the Great Wall, and sometimes I thought those thoughts simultaneously.

I said, I don't want to... and my son finished my sentence: ...have a heart attack? 

Exactly, I said. And also I don't want to fall. 

He said, but think about being able to say that: I had a heart attack on the Great Wall! 

Funny, definitely. I found myself thinking, plenty of times during this trip, that despite the great anticipation I had had for this trip--despite the planning and the itineraries and everything we had done to get ready to go--I found myself thinking that China might kick my ass. If that's what adventures are supposed to do: dominate you and make you, basically, submit to them.

Well, the people, I did. I submitted, at least sort of, to China. I climbed the steps and rested when I had to so I wouldn't have a heart attack and/or fall. When we got to the towers, we rested and drank water and leaned up against the cool stone. And then climbed some more. To be clear, I was the main person who needed the resting. The historian and my son were, comparatively speaking, nimble mountain goats. But it was so worth it to be there. To look and see the wall snake away from us, over the next mountain ridge, and the next and the next after that. To be humbled by my limits and still press on.


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