Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Back from two weeks of traveling. I may write more on this later. Right now, I’m too exhausted to think about it. Now, a related post.

During our vacation, we went to a place in Southeastern Yunnan called Yuanyang. Yunnan is the end of Southwest China. It borders Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet, and is home to something like 26 ‘officially recognized’ ethnic groups. The province is home to most of China’s biodiversity, and it contains a mind-numbing array of biospheres ranging from glaciers to rain forests. This was my second time to Yunnan, so I reckoned myself something of an old hand at the place. Three years ago, I went Tibetan chasing Yunnan’s Northwest. Having been there and done that, my wife and I decided to go towards the border of Vietnam to see jaw dropping rice terraces and break bread with the Yi and the Hani.

Unfortunately, Chinese New Year had passed and the hordes were unleashed. We secured a room at a hotel, but the proprietor’s accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand where the hotel was, or even its name (I googled [Yuanyang + Hotel] and got a list of nameless phone numbers). Our taxi driver took us to the wrong bus station, so we bought a ticket as far southeast as we could get, and looked forward to our transfer eight hours later. The roads were hours of air-condition-less bus, ninety-degree temperatures, and green-faced motion sickness. Bump after bump, we trundled towards our nameless hotel.

We arrived in Gejiu, our transfer location, at about 4 PM. The tickets for busses to Yuanyang were all sold out. But, maybe they weren’t. Everyone had such thickly accented, mouth full of bread and stones Mandarin that I couldn’t figure out what they were saying. Now, to give myself some credit, my Mandarin is good, and years at a Chinese restaurant taught me to deal with all sorts of different accents. But here was something I’d never heard. The sounds were familiar enough that I felt I should understand, but left me humiliated because I couldn’t. Desperate, we hired a cab driven by a swarthy, pockmarked, flip-flop wearing middle-aged man who insisted we’d get there without a hitch.

We did not get there ‘without a hitch.’ Yuanyang is on top of a mountain ridge, and the roads are two hours of the Mount Washington auto-road at insane Chinese speeds. Also, our driver decided to put us in a cab with his friend, who was “very familiar with Yuanyang.” So, halfway to town, we switched cars as traffic zoomed in both directions and each passing car promised to knock us off a two thousand foot precipice.

Once we arrived in town, we gave each other a, “This can’t be it” look. Yuanyang is perched on a ridge. Each side of the street gives a different view of mountains. It seems that the only things holding the town in place are the multiple piles of refuse weighing it down. Our opinion would probably have been better if we hadn’t been so travel weary, but at least we had beds to look forward to. Unfortunately, our new driver, who was much more familiar with the town, took us to the wrong hotel and drove away. I called our hotel’s phone number and a man answered. “Hello, we’ve booked a room at your hotel. Where are you?” “Mfph a-ge bridge mutter mutter.” “I’m sorry, can you say that again?” “Mfph a-ge bridge mutter MUTTER.” “Wait one moment. Can you say that a little slower?” Click. So, we walked. Soon we came upon a portly teenager.

The young, even in remote areas, tend to speak pretty decent Mandarin. Upon seeing our Buddha, I accosted him saying, “Friend, I’m sorry to bother you. But we’re a bit lost and I can’t understand anyone here.” He replied in beautiful mandarin, “Oh, no worries. I’ll help you.” I called the hotel again, and I immediately handed the phone to our savior. “Hello, I’m here with two foreign friends who can’t find your hotel.” A moment later he realized that his mandarin was as useless as mine. Then it was more, “Mfph a-ge bridge mutter mutter.” He hung up my phone and said, “I’ll take you there.” After ten minutes of walking up and down stair-lined alleys the Yi version of Kim Jong-il checked us into our dirty, urine smelling hotel.

Now, to the point. Liminal zones are frightening places. Both physical and metaphorical transitions unease us. It’s the rare person who can enter a liminal space comfortably and emerge unchanged (if they do, is it even a liminal zone?). Borders are the liminal zones of a country. Despite all the efforts of the political and cultural center, regions such as Coos (pronounced Co-os), New Hampshire; Belgium; Yuanyang; and the West Bank are uncomfortable for most visitors. Power means that borders will always exist. Perhaps the tension between the assertion or existence of something truly local (regional dialects) and its conflict with our familiar hegemonies leads the outsider to feelings of powerless confusion. You expect the normal to be stripped away in foreign places, but the combinations of familiar and alien, and half-comprehension found in border regions is much more jarring. Yuanyang jarred me. For most foreign travelers, all of China is alien. For me, it’s quotidian. Yuanyang was different in a way I wasn’t prepared for.

At least I know I’m not alone. Chinese people have been aliens in regions that are ‘politically’ China for thousands of years. So, I end this post with what originally inspired it. Two poems from the Tang dynasty (see my first blog post) on the western borders.

Both poems are by Wang Changling 王昌龄 (698-757?), and are written in the Han Dynasty (207BC-220AD) Music Bureau (yuefu) style.



Border Rhapsody A

Cicada chirping:
In empty forest of mulberry.
Early Autumn,
To the pass that takes us west.
We leave our borders,
Returning in the cold.
Everywhere, yellowed grass.

Men, from the other side of the country
Come together to grow old in dust and sand.
Un-educated, our traveling heroes.
Only interested in bragging about their horses!



Border Rhapsody B

Horses drink,
Then ford the autumn river.
Frigid water,
Wind like blades.
Expansive sand,
Never ending day or night.
Faintly, we see a river.

Long ago, there were battles at the great wall.
Everyone speaks of lofty heroism.
The yellow dust, spreading from the ancient times to today.
Bleached bones stick from the sand chaotically.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Last night I dreamt. My Technicolor visions came in three parts: I was being chased by an intangible being of fear and anxiety (a polar bear?). I hid in a cave, but it was too narrow for me to maneuver. I tried to turn around to get out, but my foot was stuck. Panic induced hyperventilation. I slid a rock to escape and the sandpaper surface rasberried my fingertips. Next, I was in a kitchen. My wife’s family was cooking trout and mashed potatoes. But this second part wasn’t a reset button, I still had anxiety and sore hands. Suddenly, her grandmother started pouring sauce over the fish. It was wrong. I rushed up to stop her, shouting, “Don’t be such an idiot!” Which caused everyone to reprimand me for my lack of filial piety and, I was subsequently disowned. Then, I was watching Superman. Louis Lane was dead in childbirth, and someone had secretly taken a tissue sample from Superman. The sample was used to clone three Supermen. When Superman found out he rushed to save his “children.” Superman believed that they were the same as him, but their genetic redundancy didn’t prevent something dark from dwelling in their souls. His attempts to train them failed. All three combined their powers to kill their benevolent father. Not one for Jungian dream analysis, I can only conclude, “Weird.” There are redundant family themes in all three parts, but I’m not willing to reevaluate my relationship with the people I love based on the occasional, Qingdao-beer-induced nightmare.

Highly articulated dreams are one of the things that define us as human. But what we take from them is highly cultural. Next to God, they have more power over our lives and political destinies than anything else that’s (possibly) not really here. That’s why the Beats loved Zhuangzi and his catch phrase, “Am I a person? Or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a person?” There’s something undeniably humanist in this statement. After all, only humans can entertain the idea of being something other than we are.

Zhuangzi is one of the sources of a deep wellspring of Chinese actions and musings based on dreams. Dreams are everywhere. Here are two examples of dream inspired political action:

Various histories attribute the introduction of Buddhism into China to the influence of a dream. In 65A.D., a the Han Emperor Ming (r.58-75A.D.) dreamt of a giant golden man. The next day he asked one of his misters what it could mean. His minister replied that he had heard of such a figure worshiped in the far west. The emperor dispatched a mission to seek the figure out. They returned to Luoyang a few months later accompanied by two ‘western’ monks, and a white horse loaded with both scriptures and a statue that wan an exact copy of the ‘golden man.’

In 1008, the Song (960-1279) Emperor Zhenzong (r. 996-1022) dreamt that an immortal came to visit him. The immortal informed him that he would receive three ‘Texts from Heaven.’ He told his ministers, and soon after the texts started appearing. Although the texts have been unanimously declared apocryphal (his son buried them with him), his dream was viewed as a legitimate source for political action. It inspired the construction of a massive temple, and two hugely expensive imperial sacrifices.

On a more personal level, dreams were recorded by intellectuals as particularly useful for reflection. Man/y dreams are recorded in biji (usually translated as ‘jottings.’ Jottings usually consist of hundreds of small entries on anything (sometimes thematic). When complete then they would be published. In short, pre-modern blogs.).

Here’s are a couple of accounts about one of the people I’ve spent a great deal of time with, Yang Yi.

From a history of his home region, Pucheng Xianzhi:


Before Yang Yi was born, his mother, neé Zhang , dreamt of a Daoist priest. He said that he was the reincarnation of the Immortal of the Wuyi [Mountains].

Later she gave birth to a crane chick. Everyone in the room was frightened, so they laid it aside and then abandoned it in a river. The hatchling’s paternal uncle said, “I’ve heard that in this mundane world of men, there are those whose birth’s must differ. This birth is of the same sort as Jiangyuan having Qi , and Jiandi giving birth to Ch’i. ”[1] He searched on the bank of the river, and its crane form having already been shed, [found] a baby boy.

From the Song Shi, the standard history of the Song dynasty.


Yang Yi, known by the literary name ‘Great Year’, was from Pucheng, Jian Prefecture. His grandfather was Wenyi, the Southern Tang Director of Yu Shan. When Yi was to be born, Wenyi dreamed of a mendicant. [The Mendicant] claimed that an person from Huaiyu Shan was coming to pay his respects [to him]. Soon after, Yangyi, with a coat of hair over 8 inches in length covering his body, was born.

[1] Jiangyuan was the wife of the mythical Emperor Di Ku. She gave birth to Qi after becoming mysteriously pregnant due to stepping into the footprint of a giant. She abandoned the child numerous times, but after observing a number of animals come to his aid, she decided to keep him. For the full story see:

Anne Birrell, Chinese Mythology: An Introduction, (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 118.

Jiandi gave birth to Qi after swallowing the egg of a black bird.
Ibid.,, 256.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Children and Morality: Or, I was a Bully

Something I wonder is, “Why am I moral?” This isn’t to say that I doubt the existence of an objective morality or moral action (not very scholarly or post-modern of me, I know), only its foundations. I went to Sunday school, but I slept through class. I watched violent movies, played violent video games, and was an elementary school bully. I broke a kid’s glasses because he annoyed me; I threw a ball of ice at, and injured, a different kid because he annoyed me; and I put snow in the backpack of another kid because, well, he annoyed me and had my name. So what precipitated my change from a low class, insecure, angry, manipulative youth into an unyieldingly (perhaps inconveniently) moral young adult? My answer is not part of this blog, but the question of how we learn “morality” is.

I would argue that the most influential Chinese philosopher is Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200). Confucius as both a fictive and historical persona is certainly more famous, but Zhu Xi told the scholarly elite how to read The Analects. For better or worse, the scholarly elite, responsible as they were for running the state, decided what morality was.

One of the most important acts of Zhu Xi and other Song (960-1279) period philosophers was their revalidation of Mencius and his ‘love thy neighbor’ philosophy. This predicated a major philosophical shift best summarized in a single Zhu Xi quote: “Love and hate are feelings (qing), whereas love of good and hate of evil are part of human nature (xing).” [1] So, there you have it, love of good is part of human nature. We are all ontologically pure.

But if it were that simple we would all be unfailingly moral, living in a society free of crime and MTV. The Neo-Confucian (as Zhu Xi, his predecessors, and the inheritors of his tradition are called) hypothesis was on shaky ground from the start. It was then decided that despite our Heaven granted, fundamentally pure human nature, our psychological selves are subject to change after gradual habituation. Born pure, we immediately start to accrue defilement from our environment. The only solution was to begin immediate moral inculcation.

Which brings me back to children and morality. Pre-modern children’s education manuals are everywhere. Intellectuals were puzzled by the process of creating a moral society, and they quickly realized that it’s best to ‘get em’ while they're young.’ One of the earliest and most popular texts for early childhood moral education is the San Zi Jing 三字经, or Three Character Classic. Written by Wang Yinglin 王应麟(1223-1296), the text is a little over three hundred characters long and some fifty, three-character-long parallel lines. The text was chanted to aid memorization, so future little Wang’s first exposure to study would most likely have been spent internalizing and digesting this enthralling work. From there, little Wang would have memorized a few more important childhood primers (there are heaps of these) before getting to the more complicated stuff. After all of this, his/her parents could hope to have a morally upright and filial child. So, without much further ado, here’s the beginning (A very free translation):

When a person is born their nature is good.
Our natures are alike, [but] through circumstances vary.
If we’re not instructed, then our natures change.
When pursuing education, focus is the key.
[So] Mencius’ mom moved to live near the school.
When her son didn’t study, she threw him into the loom.
At Douyan Mountain, there was a righteous house.
They taught their five sons and all attained their fame.
Being raised but not taught, is the father’s fault
Being taught without expectations, is because the teacher’s a lout.
It’s not right, for the child not to study
and if when young you don’t inquire, when you’re old you can’t retire.
So polish the jade, to become something.
If a person doesn’t study, they’ll know nothing.

[1] Quote from:
William T. Rowe, Saving The World:Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 104.

This was really just a new phrasing of the Chinese Buddhist philosophical concept of Buddha Nature (foxing).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

An Overworked Train Story

An un-crowded train station. It’s a rare sight in China, and apparently you need to travel to the middle of nowhere to find one. After an eight hour bus ride north from Xining, over a ridge of wind-swept, yak dotted plateau, and a rough descent down mountain roads into a desert with town names like ‘Happy People,’ my wife and I arrived in the self-proclaimed ‘tourism capital’ of nowhere, Zhangye. Zhangye can apparently rightfully claim the title of ‘tourism capital’ because in the middle of the city is a statue of Marco Polo, who was like us, on his way somewhere and stuck nowhere, and a 25-meter long reclining Buddha. As far as Chinese cities go, it’s a nice place. The air is clean, there are a few spots of historical interest, and the shops don’t blast techno music. Despite its niceness, four hours in the city were sufficient. Tickets in hand, we waited in the empty train station for the 8PM train to Turpan, raisin capital of China, home of the deadly Uighur.

Unlike the train station, the train was crowded. We arrived in our car to discover middle-aged men in sweat-stained muscle shirts and dirty underwear, the air choked with the stench of three days of MSG enriched instant noodle, spittle soaked sunflower seeds, and the collected morning breath of fifty seven chain-smoking Chinese men. They eyed us cautiously. Foreigners, especially ones boarding in the middle of nowhere, were trouble. It’s not because we’re dishonest, or dangerous, but because we have a higher probability than the average Chinese of doing something dumb. Unfortunately, I did my best to warrant their cautious, unwelcoming stares.

Tiptoeing our way through the settled masses of bleary-eyed passengers, we managed to make our way to the center of the car where our bunks, the middle tiers of rows 15 and 16, waited vacantly. No one moved to avoid our swinging backpack straps. Countless bystanders were slapped in the face as we shifted our bags off and heaved them onto our bunks. The slaps only elicited sighs of laowai, foreigner, and more skepticism. We were hungry, the train arrived late, so after a brief, disenfranchised conference we decided to go to the dining car and force down some oil-soaked train food. We checked our tickets, and I dug my wallet from my backpack.

The dining car was four cars away, and each car was as welcoming and friendly as ours. The train vibrated, jumped, and whirred as we avoided stepping on discarded beer bottles and slippered feet. People noted our passing, but their commentary was reserved for low whispers and mumbles.[1] The dining car was blessedly empty. It was already 9PM; so most people had eaten their cup-o-ramen and dried duck’s neck. The kitchen had already started to close, so our options were limited to pork fat, vegetables and pork fat, and twice baked pork fat. Personally, I’m a fan of pork fat, but my wife is a little more ‘American’ than I, so we opted for vegetables and pork fat. Although it’s common for visitors to rhapsodize over the virtues of Chinese food, this meal deserved an elegy. Slimy, snotty, and mysterious are all viable adjectives, arrange them as you please.

After eating, we begged a Styrofoam cup from the kitchen for our nightly instant coffee and went back to our car. Taking the two folding isle seats at the foot of our bunks, we mixed our sad Nescafe, and drank it in remembrance of real coffees past. After we finished the cup, my wife clambered into her middle bunk and gave me one of those loving ‘only for you would I put up with this crap’ looks. I shifted my bulky backpack, took my sweater off, and reached into my back pocket for my wallet. I dug my hand into empty space. No wallet. I checked my other pockets to discover only flashing neon vacancy. My bag was next. I emptied it on the floor. It was 10:45, so lights would go out at 11:00. My time was limited. My wife looked at me, I said nothing, but my furrowed uni-brow betrayed me. Gone was my: Massachusetts Driver’s License; miniature New Hampshire Birth Certificate; miniature High School Diploma; State Department Issued Insurance Card; Student I.D.; Credit Card; Debit Card; and, worst of all, my Stop N’ Shop Card, with its years of accumulated shopper’s points. In place of my beloved cards was monstrous shame, pointing and laughing.

My bag was a pile of tangled wires, poorly folded clothing, and Tibetan dictionaries. I woke up the man and woman in the two bunks below us, and they helped me scour the floor, pulling all of their belongings from beneath their beds so that I could be assured of the absence of my wallet. The man, an average looking, overfriendly Chinese in his mid-20s helped me search the car. The lights flicked off. I told the man to forget about it. He’d done enough already. “No, really. Go to bed, it’s my problem not yours.” I thanked him, and decided to make my search more official.

I went to the woman in charge of our train car and, in my most polite and deferential Chinese said, “Excuse me, I’m really sorry to disturb you, but it seems that my wallet is missing. Is there anything you can do to help?” She gave me an irritated look. I smiled pleasantly. “That was stupid of you. Try to look again. If you can’t find it, then come and get me.” “But, I alread…” She walked away. I steeled myself for more hopeless searching. I dug my flashlight out of my bag, and rechecked everyplace I had already looked. In a flash of creativity, I looked in the toilets, in garbage cans, and in the aisles of all the cars between our car and the dining car. Still, there was nothing.

By the time I found the woman again, it was 12:30 AM. Despite my scurrying and frantic light shining, snores filled the train. When I found her I was desperate. “Please, aunty, I’m begging you, what should I do?” Her perm snaked and she gave me a look of shriveling disdain. “Get the police, they’ll help solve the case. They’re in the dining car. I just don’t understand why you can’t remember where you put it. Why did you do something so stupid? ” Her words hurt. My weak American ego, coddled by years of positive reinforcement, hated the booming truth of sha, sha, stupid, stupid.

Slamming his cigarette butt into the faux Murano glass ashtray, the police officer said to me, “How could you be so stupid?” I winced. “Try to remember harder. Where is your wallet?” “If I could remember, I would. Maybe it was stolen?” He lit another cigarette. “No,” he said confidently, “in three years there hasn't been a single incidence of theft on this train.” His lackey, a train police officer, nodded behind him. Still, these guys were bored. For three years they’d seen no action, and now a helpless foreigner was asking for their aid. The Urumqi Police Officer told the train police officer to go to my car and wait for us. The Urumqi Officer squinted at me as his took a final long draw on his ashy cigarette. Finally, he stood up, put his hat on, and walked with me to my car.

We turned the lights on in every car, rechecked the toilets and garbage cans, and they watched me empty my bag on the floor. The result, despite their fine police work, was the same. No wallet and a confused foreigner. We ended our search in the dining car where we sat dejectedly around a table. Then began the interrogation. It started benignly. “Did anyone help you or see you look for your wallet?” “Yeah.” He looked at the train officer and barked, “Go get them for questioning!” Shit. I knew that there was a reason why no one helps anyone else in China. “Who helped you?” “Ummm… No one?” “But you just said that you were helped.” “Well yeah… But only by the guy in the bunk below me.” Before I finished speaking the train officer vanished. He reappeared a few minutes later dragging my foggy-eyed acquaintance behind him.

Lacking car batteries, sleep deprivation served just as well. Our dual interrogations began at 2:00AM, and with each passing minute I cursed my wallet more and more. The questions were endless. “Tell us everything you did from when you boarded the train until you discovered your wallet missing.” The story line rapidly became confused. Tired and dejected, my narrative Chinese was spotty. The guy who helped me search was forced to answer the same questions, but he was afraid. He kept saying, “I didn’t do anything!” to which I would shout, “All he did was help me look! Let him go to bed!” He detailed watching my wife and I drink coffee, or maybe he heard me say that, and then claimed to have witnessed it. As far as I could recall, he was asleep most of the time, but the police fed him a story, the cliff notes to my longer tale. The Urumqi Officer kept passing me cigarettes, which I repeatedly failed to turn down. My head hurt, I was dizzy from the nicotine and burnt aftertaste, and I was exhausted. My shame increased as the officer kept inserting my carelessness into every part of my story, until finally, we had an acceptable narrative of the event. Then, after all of this, came the written confession.

Typing Chinese isn’t a problem for me. I know the characters; I can dash off grammatically incorrect emails or thoughts without much effort. But when sleep deprived and frustrated on a moving train, Chinese milk and honey floweth not from my pen. The Urumqi Officer handed me his fountain pen, the bane of all left-handed foreign sinophones, and I tore the cheap paper while writing the first stroke. The now assembled train staff gawked at my left-handedness and my awkward strokes, all the while they were assured of the difficulty and inherent superiority of Chinese. Finally I convinced the officer to give me a ballpoint pen, and then I began to write my ‘Confession’ as the officer dictated to me.

“I, Devin, am so grateful to the warmhearted kindness of the Urumqi Police and the train police. [Insert narrative of events here]. After all of this, I stupidly and carelessly lost my wallet. The caring and warmhearted police helped me, their foreign friend, attempt to find my foolishly misplaced wallet. Despite their valiant and very, very, helpful help, my wallet was not to be found. Signed: DEVIN XXXXXX”

Before I finished writing my confession, my acquaintance completed his verifying account. He refused to go to bed until the police wrote him a note guaranteeing that he would not be falsely prosecuted, which, after much discussion, they agreed to do. By 4:00AM I finished writing. The police took our confessions, glued the twelve handwritten pages together, and thanked me for my help. I shamefully walked the four cars to my bunk and collapsed in a frustrated heap.

No one on the train found my wallet. In the morning they announced its disappearance over the PA system. I just wanted to be in Turpan, to nurse my bruised and sleep deprived ego. After excruciating hours of avoiding eye contact with the man in the bunk below me, we finally arrived. As we left the train station, in one last vain attempt I searched my bag. I opened the top pocket: my wallet. All I heard was sha, sha, stupid, stupid.

[1]People say some wonderfully candid things about laowai, who, as a species, generally cannot understand Chinese. Once, while hiking outside of Beijing, I rounded a mountain path to come face to face with a grandmotherly Chinese woman and her daughter. The old woman looked at her daughter and said, “Every time I see a laowai, it scares the shit out of me.”