Chungwo, China, Middle Kingdom – but my sense is “Middle Kingdom” may not give the full flavor of the name.   Kingdom that is the center of everything may be better. Or simply center of the world.

Bicycles are gone. Urban China belongs to cars in bewildering numbers being driven so assertively that it seems that a twenty four hour game of chicken is being played on the roads.   The pedestrian does not have the right of way and the carnage is considerable. Vehicles collide with vehicles and vehicles collide with people on foot.   You have to be very alert crossing the street.  

On the last thirty years China has built a road system that spans the greater part of the nation. This has involved the construction of innumerable bridges, overpasses and tunnels. Much of motor vehicle travel in China feels modern, although there are anomalies.   On a road outside Pingyao a shepherd and his working dog are moving a flock of some hundreds of sheep. This brings to an unhappy halt convoys of heavy trucks headed in both directions.

Cars and trucks produce carbon emissions far beyond what bicycles do.   This is not good for the air.   In fact, the air in cities is often miasmatic, obscuring the sky, threatening the health of the lungs that breathe it.   Of course, the burning of coal, often coal that is dirty, is responsible for much of the degradation of air quality. The energy is needed to power development, but it comes with a bundle of costs.   Could development be smarter and slower?

“Ah,” says one of our local guides one morning in Beijing, “a blue sky day, We should enjoy it.”

In our time in China, we never saw a scrubber, not a single one. This might have been because we were not skilled in noticing them, because I have read that the Chinese government has mandated extensive use of scrubbers. People smoke, too, compounding what is already a very bad problem. Between the smoking and the poor air quality China is incubating the worst epidemic of pulmonary diseases in history – asthma, emphysema and lung cancer. Heart disease and stroke will be consequences, too. The costs, the human toll, are in the future, not so far off, steadily approaching.   It does not help that the Chinese state profits from the sale of cigarettes.

In Luoyang a young Chinese man with whom we were discussing the critical air pollution situation observed that, unlike the American system of government, the Chinese mode of government actually made it possible to make decisions on important matters and to implement them. Across northern China we saw millions of trees that had been planted as the result of government edicts. These seemed likely to be intended to be a buffer against the Gobi desert as well as to improve air quality.   The paralytic situation of the American federal government certainly did not add to the appeal of American institutions in the eyes of many Chinese.

We encountered clean air – crisp, cool, clean air – during a visit to the Hanging Monastery, perched on the west cliff of Jinxia Gorge at the foot of Mount Hengshan,. Here, in the monastery built in 491, Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tzu seem to coexist peacefully in the same space, testifying to the immense cultural wealth of ancient China, which is surely available and operative at some level in modern China in spite of Mao’s immensely destructive Cultural Revolution.

It is the first day of school in Beijing.   A well dressed mother is walking her stylishly appointed little daughter, five or six years old, briskly along to school. The little girl is dressed all in pink, slacks, shirt with a Disney logo, pink running shoes, a pink bow in her hair.   It could be a little girl in New York, in Chicago, in London, in Paris, in Melbourne.

Part of globalization is that costumes, appearances, have been homogenized.   Perhaps that is part of the homogenization of aspirations. The little girl and her mother are a perky couple, off on an important adventure, but there is an element of sadness for an observer in the spectacle.   China has succumbed, like so many other places, to the invasion of American style, the American way of looking and so the American way of seeing. Nike, Adidas, Disney, not to mention Apple and Microsoft are everywhere. Kentucky Fried Chicken has a serious presence, too.

As we went from Beijing as far west as Dunhuang, we had six different local guides, each of whom spoke excellent English.   Only one of them had ever been in an English speaking country.   When asked how they had learned English, they all said that they had learned it in school. They were all university graduates. One replied, “I learned it in school. I worked very hard.”

In Chinese schools now English is the obligatory second language. If a student wishes to take up another language, he or she has to do it as a third language.   The Chinese are very aware that English is the lingua franca not just of science and technology but also of international commerce.   China is acquiring English much faster and more ferociously than any western country is taking on Chinese.

One of our guides had a serious heart attack as we were off on an excursion somewhere else. We had been scheduled to rejoin him. He ended up for a number of days in the intensive care unit. We did not hear the outcome, nor did we know anything about his medical history, but he had a substantial gut indicative of the change in Chinese diet with more wealth. We presumed that he smoked. He was in his forties with a wife and child

But what this sad event brought home especially was that he was unlikely to have had any preventive medical care, any measuring of blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and so forth. These systems may be in place for the elite, for the super wealthy, whether or not they use them, but they do not exist even for those who are just doing well and involved with the modern sectors of the economy.

China has a serious Mao hangover. If he was the mad emperor whose two most destructive whims were The Great Leap Forward in 1958, which brought starvation to as many as thirty million Chinese, and The Cultural Revolution begun in 1966 that aimed at nothing less than the destruction of the cultural patrimony of China, he was still an emperor who unified the country, who brought independence from foreign hegemony, who brought hope of change to a desperately downtrodden peasantry.

The Chinese Communist party has a hard time with Mao’s legacy. If it disavows him, if it treats him as the mad and ignorant emperor that he was, then it threatens to destroy the foundation of its own legitimacy.   If the “Great Helmsman” is removed from the helm, then all different flavors of demands for change might have to be countenanced. So Mao is honored in a time when leadership is charting a very different course.

Mao’s picture remains on the currency, peculiarly still, the way portraits on currency always are.. His picture is on the walls of myriad homes, even one we visited up on the Tibetan plateau just a stone’s throw from the Labrang monastery, home to a thousand monks of the “yellow hat” Gelukpa sect. Was it there as an expression of allegiance and admiration or as an effort at inoculation from persecution?   We were not in a position to make this discrimination, but we suspected it might well be the latter more than the former.

The cultural revolution launched by Deng Xiao Ping , when he said, “To be rich is glorious” and introduced market motivations and measures into the economy seems to have been more lasting and influential than Mao’s purported cultural revolution. It has modified how people think, act and live.   It has unleashed forces that have remodeled the physical environment. Nor is it spent.   The bizarre phenomenon of 20+ story apartment buildings that sit mostly empty in so many cities testifies to its force, but also to the fact that some of its impulse may be errant.

China’s Communist Revolution and the Maoist period of Chinese government had as their avowed aim a break with the perverse past, its injustice, its cruelty, its poverty, its approach to women etc. To some considerable degree it was successful. It did break the past, shatter many of its conditions and its ways.   However, as revolutions most often do, it had its own perversities.   The result has been a considerable degree of ambivalence about the past.

In Datong we were told that what looked like the old center city, was not in fact old, but a relatively recent effort at replication. The old center city had been destroyed and replaced with a motley array of buildings, serving diverse functions. Then a dynamic mayor had come in and launched a vast project to rebuild the old at great expense.   The center city was leveled again, The aim was to produce something that was an amalgam of homage and theme park.   It was a peculiar half resurrection of what had been lost. In fact, the commemorative impulse may have marked the sealing of the past’s more or less definitive doom.

In Xi’an we were told that the wall around the city was not ancient but rather the product of a relatively recent replication.   Xi’an is now a smog beset city of some eight million. Coal and gasoline are twin banes of its air. The traffic jams all the time.   Nothing even hints at the conditions under any one of the twelve dynasties Xi’an served as capital.

The terra cotta warriors unearthed outside Xi’an when peasants were trying to dig a well seem not just from another time, 210-209 BC, but from another world. They were designed to go with the First Emperor, who came to the throne at the age of thirteen, into the next world, to keep him safe and testify to his greatness.

The sense of being under pale protective light in the presence of that part of the terra cotta army and cavalry that has been excavated is one of immediacy, of intimacy, of a curious kind of rapport.   Here they are and they have been marching in place for more than two millennia to reach this hall now where we encounter them.   They are a mass but also individuals, even without their colors.

Each one is different than the others, just as we are in our ranks. This individuality is unexpected, a real surprise with which we can not help connecting.   The big men, the generals are bigger than the others.   Each soldier bears its maker’s mark.   Hair dresses as well as size distinguish the ranks.   As far as I know, this array of figures of so many kinds includes not even a single woman.   We linger as long as we can, but know that this army will remain long after we are gone.

What did it take to produce this army? How many men, children of how many women, labored at the great work for how long? Second century BC historian Sima Qian tells us that 700,000 men were involved, but we have no way of testing his estimate.   What backlog of skills, centuries in the perfecting, were required? What portion of the variable agricultural surplus was diverted to this enterprise? How much poverty supported this outpouring of wealth?   What symbolic functions did it perform for a whole society?   Surely the next world was close at hand. How much pride was involved in its making?   There is no way to approach these questions much more closely than simply to pose them.

China’s past is deep. This past, often not consciously acknowledged, is the keel of the vessel of Chinese civilization as it voyages the stormy seas of time.   It is a deep keel, too, extending far below the surface.   Just as state capitalism is propelling China into a brave (or not so brave) new world, the nascent Chinese middle class has discovered an appetite for the things of the past, its ways and meanings.   Thirty years ago, I am told by many observers, the few tourists there were at Chinese cultural sites tended to be in large majority foreigners.   Now the vast majority of tourists at all the sites we visited were Chinese who were reclaiming their patrimony.

(At places like the Jinci Temple in the neighborhood of Pingyao we saw ancient trees, cypresses said to be two millennia old, scholar trees said to be five hundred or more years old.   When one of these ancient cypresses at last dies, its trunk is supported and it is maintained in place as an ancestor tree.   These trunks are things of beauty with bark elegantly and intimately patterned by their – far longer than our own spans – lives. There is a devotion in the maintaining of these massive ancestral remnants that speaks volumes about the culture that produced the preservationist impulse.)

Not far from the battleground where the terracotta army fights its engagement with deep time is the Shaanxi Historical Museum. It contains the underground Tang Dynasty Fresco Hall. The Tang Dynasty extended from 618 to 907.   Here are frescoes that are a good bit more than a millennium old.   The depictions are charged with life. There are servant girls, polo players, musicians, dancers, foreign emissaries being received and, from the tomb of the unhappy Prince Zhang Huni,a stirring hunting scene.

He was sent into exile in 684, the first year of the reign of Wen Ming. Later he was compelled to commit suicide. In 706 he was buried in Quanling Mausoleum.   In 711, the 2d year of the reign of Jing Yuen, he was confirmed as crown prince. His tomb was opened and then he was reburied in the company of his concubine, Lady Fang, a reunion that can hardly have been of great joy to either one of them.   All this intrigue and misery is conspicuously absent from the hunting fresco in his tomb.

What is there is a gorgeous vitality and a great deal of information about how life was lived among the highly privileged.   Like most great art this hunting fresco beggars description.   So, too, does the man who showed it to us, Mr. Wong Li, 58, an artist and archaeologist who has devoted thirty years of his life to the revealing, restoration and preservation of the Tang Dynasty frescoes.   His attention was as concentrated and steady as the beam of the light with which he showed us details we might well never have seen. There was devotion and passion in the way that he did what he did. Even after three decades in their company he did not take the frescoes for granted. His regard for what he showed us was contagious.

This hunting party features not only horses but Bactrian camels, loaded with burdens, but keeping up with the horses.   Behind the saddle of one horseman perches a leopard, tame and trained, being carried along to the hunt. Its spots declare its identity. Its position declares an enormous amount of energy and art devoted to its capture and training. Behind another rider, sits a smaller cat, perhaps a lynx. Its ears are pointed and it is all attention.   Outriders carry banners.   The terrain is open, but with scattered trees. The hurtle of the hunt comes right off the fresco, so that one can almost feel the gallop under his seat more than one thousand years later.

We drove to Baoji and visited Famen Temple, built in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25AD to 220AD). The Temple has a history of almost two millennia and is famed for storing the “veritable Finger Bone” of Buddha. A grandiose new approach is being built to the venerable old temple, as bombastic as the ancient part is restrained.   A wide avenue is flanked on both sides by huge golden Buddhas sitting on what I took to be concrete pedestals. The Buddhas were all identical, drolly uninteresting, as if they were knick knacks that had been exploded to become their overblown selves. The dialogue between past and present was especially pointed at Famen.

We were told the following story, which if not literally true, has a good claim on being figuratively so. During the cultural revolution a red guard mob approached Famen Temple bent on destruction simply for the sake of the Maoist ecstasy of destruction.   The Abbot of Famen Temple went out to meet them and immolated himself, intimidating them by this means so that they withdrew in disarray. So much was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, but so many precious artifacts remain, through innumerable acts of individual courage and also through blind chance.   The cultural wealth of China has to be gauged by augmenting what can be seen by what has disappeared.

Attached to Famen Temple is a lovely museum with many treasures. Two small things caught my eye. The first was a coin made two millennia ago from the shell of a hawksbill turtle. This spoke to me because I know hawksbill turtles from the Caribbean where they are unfortunately becoming rare.   The second was what was described as a “lost secret dish” from the Tang dynasty. This was celadon of a delicate not green but greenish hue. This struck me as among the most beautiful artifacts I have ever seen. “Lost secret” is a correct designation because we have lost the secret of this lovely celadon gaze.   Many have made efforts to recover it, but none has succeeded.

I know that I am not doing justice to Famen and its museum. I am a thimble. When I go to a great museum, I can take in only a small amount before I am full.   Also what impresses me so that it sticks is apt to be idiosyncratic.   But even this little bit can make a big difference to me in me. I can still see that celadon dish in my mind. When I look at it I am soothed.   It is subtle in a rare and moving way.   It joins easily with the eye without any jarring at the boundary. Who knows what the secret was? It would take a Joseph Needham and a few good clues to ferret it out.

Buddhism came to China from India in the first century. The high tide of Buddhist enthusiasm was reached during the Tang dynasty.   This time, too, saw the birth of “chan” Buddhism which, landing on Japanese shores, became “zen” Buddhism.   We visited three collections of cliff grottoes filled with statues of the Buddha in his different phases and of his retinue that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These were Yungang, Longmen and Mogao. These grottoes span many dynasties, pre-Tang, Tang and post-Tang.   Many of them are decorated with elaborate paintings as well.   At these three sites, as well as at other places, we saw a tremendous number of Buddhas. We spent an afternoon clambering around the cliffside of Maijishan Grottoes, said to be likely soon to become yet another Unesco World Heritage Site.

We tried to visit Bingling Si Grottoes, Thousand Buddha Caves, after we left Lanzhou, but we had to cross the Yellow River at a very wide point.   We could not see the far bank. On this particular morning the river was too rough for our small motorboats. They were driven to turn back because of the danger.   Probably we should have turned back earlier.

We got back from where we had left near noon to see a young woman in a pencil skirt and white stiletto heels light from a taxi and cross the muddy road.  After a few more minutes another taxi brought another young woman with similar white stiletto heels.   It was a cloudy day and the melancholy was everywhere. This was something else of ancient origins continuing into the present.

What to make of the profusion of Buddhas watching down through so many centuries in their grottoes?   Marco Polo had no hesitation in characterizing the Chinese as idolaters.   But perhaps the status of “idols”, of “icons”, is a bit more perplexing.   Certainly there are folk beliefs that appeals to Guanjin will produce immediate aid and succor.   These may even be fairly widespread, the kind of hopefulness that testifies to underlying states of hopelessness and helplessness.   However, in this our time, when so many of us live in intimacy with the “icons” on our computer desktops or other electronic devices, we should stop and consider a bit further.

Click or doubleclick on an “icon” and a doorway opens to another realm, whether of words, music, graphics or even video.   Our clicking takes us somewhere else.   Perhaps in the Tang dynasty many used these Buddha statues as portals to other realms of consideration or contemplation.   These material images may have represented gateways to the consideration of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, to hopes of compassion and kindness.

Whether a Buddha statue is an idol or a guide, even a subtle one, depends upon how concretely or abstractly one takes the image.   If one takes a Buddha statue very concretely, it may be just stuff, no more capable than those Abraham overthrew. But, if one takes a Buddha more abstractly, it may be the beginning of a long road of contemplation and reflection, a long meditation on what it means to be and become in the human world. “Idolatry” may reside in the “I” of the beholder.

The caves at Mogao held and hold so much, including the library cave where the oldest known printed book, a copy of the Diamond Sutra from 868 was found. These caves were looted at the turn of the twentieth century by, among others, Pelliot and Stein. Our guide pointed out to us a decapitated figure whose head now resides in Harvard’s Sackler Museum.   When I asked if the Chinese had asked for it back, she replied that she thought that I should ask Harvard. I felt this response reflected a quiet sense of aggrieved futility.

Mogao holds so many treasures, one of the principal of which is the massive reclining Buddha.   Big means important. This huge reclining Buddha quietly and massively imposes itself. It is approximately 125 feet long. Buddha has passed on to nirvana and his remaining body lies on its right side with a serene expression on its face.   Mourning proceeds around him. Only Boddhisatvas understand truly what has transpired.   This huge Buddha lying on his side with disciples peering over him looks fancifully as if he is dreaming them and the world into existence when actually he has found the trapdoor that leads out of this existence as we know it.   There is a huge calm in this huge Buddha. This is what Buddha has left behind as he darted for nirvana.

Also, the caves the Mogao hold vivid and realistic scenes of life on the Silk Road, merchants of all descriptions and ethnicities in caravan, robbery, hunting, rest and recuperation.   The caves are an ancient form of documentary, letting us find our way into ways of life that otherwise would have been lost.   In the museum at Mogao, I was surprised to discover a framed document from more than a millennium ago written in Hebrew that is easily legible today.

In Dunhuang, near the Mogao caves, we take a short ride on Bactrian camels, positioning ourselves between the humps. Having before ridden only Dromedary camels, I am happily stunned by how comfortable it is.   The dunes are immense and a very blue sky is beyond. We are told that the Bactrian camel is in its glory in the winter when an amazingly dense and protective coat fills out. I can picture it.

In Xiahe on the north Tibetan plateau in northwestern Gansu province, in the Tibetan quarter, at the home of very popular Ando singers just a stone’s throw from the almost medieval great Labrang Monastery, we were served the best yoghurt I have ever eaten, rich, smooth, very satisfying.  When I inquired into the mystery of how it was made, I discovered that it was made from yak milk.   We saw yaks on green slopes in the mist high above the town.   I have discovered that there are about five thousand breeding female yaks in the United States, but none near my home in Maryland. As it is, the yoghurt is just a happy memory.

The rest of the feast deserves description, too. A fresh slaughtered lamb donated ribs for roasting. We had tsampa, roasted barley mixed with salty Tibetan tea. We had piping hot momos, Tibetan dumplings. We had thenth, “pull noodle soup.” We had something whose name I don’t know that approximated the beignet. We had fruit and probably other things I don’t remember.   And, of course, we had the mystical yogurt. We experienced real Tibetan hospitality. Any compensation our hosts received was well deserved.

Then came the singing, which is hard to describe, a singing that makes complete sense at high altitudes where sound carries a long way, singing such as people herding flocks up high might invent.   A man probably in his thirties with real presence and passion, a young woman in her twenties, with beauty different than any kind I was familiar with.   And then the lady of the house, sixty-eight years old and dressed more for kitchen than concert, decided to sing a bit herself. A smile crossed her face as she gave herself to the music. It was not hard to see how she might be a celebrated teacher of this kind of singing.

We had to walk a certain distance up a muddy and rocky alley to get to the surprisingly roomy house of these Amdo singers.   We had no idea that what lay in store for us was a set of experiences that introduced us in a fresh and immediate way to important parts of Tibetan culture.   A sample of the kind of music that we heard can be found on YouTube as Tibetan song 2013 –Alla yei by Lumo Tso. Lumo Tso has a number of videos and many fans, including us.

Many Chinas in one China, one China held together with considerable strain at some of the seams, history too deep and variegated for any comprehensive grasping, present too dynamic in too many dimensions with too many discontinuities for any confidence in describing, so modesty is required in reaching to form any impressions whatsoever…




These informal impressions reflect experiences during Wilderness Travel’s “Journey to the Heart of China, September 2-23, 2013”. The trip was conceived, planned and led by Roger Williams.



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