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China Boy

ISSUE:  Spring 2001

That first trip to China I was into Eastern religions. I held all life sacred, not just vertebrates like me. Bugs were God’s creatures, and who could say what form they took in a previous incarnation. Picking them up on a 3 × 5 card, I dropped them out the window. “Shoo, little bug,” I said.

In the world outside the window the bad guys, as usual, were making life hard on everybody else. But coping with them was the business of politics, no concern of mine. The world I lived in was only a halfway house on the way to something better. Striving to achieve it, I practiced non-aggression and turned the other cheek. Then came Tianenmen Square.

I still see the solitary student in the photo, standing up to the tanks as they get ready to crush him. If he isn’t dead long since, he is dying piecemeal in one of their Gulags. What his heroism added up to is a question I ponder at night. Did all that youthful ardor make any difference, or was it only whistling in the dark? Looking for the answer has brought me back to the scene of the crime.

“We couldn’t do without China,” says a voice at my elbow. “Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, you need a place like this to look down on.”

The voice is Mr. Ciccarelli’s. A mutt of a man with gray hair that sticks up like a toothbrush, he is special correspondent for the London Daily Express. “Maybe you’ve seen my byline,” he says, giving me one hand and waving a traveler’s check in the other. “My excuse is, I’m in Beijing because my newspaper sent me. What’s your excuse?”

“How can I help you, sir?” the cashier wants to know.

Mr. Chee, as I learn to call him, is fresh out of money. “I’ll take it in yuan,” he says, handing over the check.

The cashier smiles sadly. Today they don’t have any money.

“Why is it I’m not surprised?” says Mr. Chee. An old China hand, he remembers when this city was still called Peking, not that it made any difference. “Your basic China boy sleeps standing up, always has, always will. Something to do with the opium habit.”

Bass chords boom and an old Elvis standby bounces off the walls of the lobby. Stationed beside the hotel’s revolving doors, the rock-guitarist is a one-man welcoming committee. “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” he tells us, turning up the dials on his amplifier. Chinese like noise. When you fly their national air line, the little TVs that drop from the ceiling come at you like the Hallelujah Chorus. You can’t shut them up either, though this capitalist roader has tried.

Rock and roll to Mr. Chee is “the corruption of the best by the worst.” New Orleans jazz was the best, and rock and roll the worm in the apple. Growing up in Golders Green, northwest London, he spent his Saturday afternoons at the Palladium, listening to Dixieland. The trumpeter Humphrey Littleton, high priest in this temple, liked to light a fire under old Tin Pan Alley tunes. Illustrating, Mr. Chee breaks into song. “China Boy go sleep,” he sings, his voice a gravelly monotone. “Close your eyes don’t peep.”

The clerk behind the counter looks up in alarm.

“Don’t worry, son,” says Mr. Chee. “Buddha looks down on you. Moon man loves you too.”

The series of articles he is doing for the Daily Express will give travelers the lowdown on China’s ruling clique and the network of prisons its power depends on. I wouldn’t want to end up in Lop Nor. But what intrigues him most is the mystery food they put on the table. “If you want to make it home again, stick to rice and boiled greens.”

I think of last night’s dinner, regretting the times I turned up my nose at the Colonel. You don’t order dinner in China, they do this for you. A waitress sets the platters down on a big Lazy Susan, her aim unsure, her face expressionless, halfway to sullen. The entrees are bone and gristle, collops of fat, smelly fish, raw vegetables. Better not ask what they use for manure.

Spinning the wheel, I send the vegetables on to my neighbor. He is slurping his soup, making great sucking sounds like jobs and money going down the drain after NAFTA. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a small rat scamper across the floor toward the kitchen. When I am at home my discontent knows no bounds, and I tell all the sundry how the tide of dreck, seeping east from California, is going to bury us. Away from home, I count the days.

But home will have to wait on the trip to Chongching. “If you could bring back something that put him before us, anything at all,” said Myra, my cousin Ned’s widow. “Sign the guest book for me at Stilwell House. See for yourself if the landing strip is as tiny as it looks in his pictures.” What she really wanted was to learn that the sacrifice he made was worth making. Some lose an arm or a leg. He brought back a dose of survivor guilt, and it scarred him for the rest of his life.

Ned was only 19 when he flew the Hump into Chongching, setting down his C-47 on a spit of land in the Yangtse. Unlike many, he lived to tell about it, even fathering a pair of twins when he was into his 60’s. No one could have predicted this, and for most of his life he lived in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Near the end, however, he found a girl worth the wait. When she saw me off at the airport in San Francisco, I felt like a knight in those stories about the Round Table.

“Their beer isn’t bad, I’ll give them that,” says Mr. Chee. “If you have an empty stomach, it’s filling.”

“Man can’t live by bread alone,” I say, pointing to the vase of carnations on the counter. In this Socialist country, someone has an eye for gratuitous things. The Japanese garden in the courtyard of the Holiday Inn is one of them, like cooling rain in the heat of the day. Mr. Chee doesn’t stop to sniff the flowers. Italian on his father’s side, English on his mother’s, he goes off like a string of firecrackers. “I have seen the future,” he says, detonating each word, “and it doesn’t work.” If he could choose he would live in the past, Vienna, he thinks, in the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Beijing is where the action is, and action is the name of his game. After doing the nation’s capital, he is heading south for the Yangtse. I will have heard about their new dam, “bigger than any before it.”

I remind him of the Hoover Dam, not born for nothing in the land where bigger is better. Once, driving across it from sea to shining sea, I stopped for gas in Flux, Utah. “The World’s Biggest Gas Station,” said the banner above the pumps. I think of Flux, Utah when they give me my room key in the World’s Biggest Holiday Inn. Its Olympic-size swimming pool is only bigger than other pools, but the tennis courts and bowling alley rachet things up to a different level. When I need an aspirin, Watson’s Drug Store is there.

This “venture-capital” hotel, partly their money, partly someone else’s, owes its existence to the spirit of progress. Slow in getting to China, it has made up for lost time. As we begin our descent to Beijing, I look for the mud-brown houses that hugged their mother earth in fields outside the city. High rises have engorged them. Rectilinear like filing cabinets, they sit on what used to be farm land. In man-made ponds like the water holes on golf courses, the winter wheat has begun to turn green, an old story. But traffic, something new, begins to build as the city comes into focus, crowding out the bicycles that swarmed like mayflies in trout season. Rising above the big gas and oil containers, the sooty fingers are chimney stacks, squeezing off rounds of white smoke. “Bang, bang, you’re dead!” they say, loaded with pollutants.

In the airport, an immense mural of the Great Wall makes me square my shoulders. The Wall bestrides the mountains, hurdling them in seven-league boots. Its job is subduing nature, all in a day’s work. Old landscape scrolls, like the one that hangs in my living room at home, carry a different subtext. An ancient with a walking stick and his young acolyte are crossing a bridge flung over a river. Across the darkening sky flies a long-legged crane, symbol of the longevity they hope for. Their road leads upward and they take it a step at a time, dwarfed by the mountains above them.

A day trip from Beijing brought me out to the Wall, not long after President Nixon had been there. “It’s a great wall,” he said, when they asked his opinion. The mountains it straddles, stippled with evergreens, look as if an old watercolorist had been dotting i’s with his brush. Chinese painting gives the world a finished look, different from a patina. You feel that the world isn’t itself, until the painter completes it.

Standing atop the Wall, I am a solitary lookout, serving the Ming emperor as his eyes and ears. Through crenels in the parapet I stare at the desert. Out there, the barbarians are probing the Wall for a weak spot. When they find it, they will pour into our heartland. That happened centuries ago but the barbarians are still at the gates, and keeping them at bay is a struggle that goes on and on. It isn’t always an us vs. them kind of struggle, like the Allies against the Axis in the Second World War. Sometimes the enemy, infiltrating the lines, is within.

The road into the city, like the one that runs with the Wall, is wide enough for a troop of horsemen to gallop abreast. Leading the troop is Basil Rathbone in The Tale of Two Cities, familiar from my ill-spent youth at the movies. His reason for being is riding roughshod over the hoi polloi, not on horseback anymore but in a highpowered limo. If he is among China’s makers and shakers, he drives a Red Flag, like the one that zips by me on the road from their Capital Airport. People scatter to get out of the way, but sneering like Ozymandias he tramples them under his wheels.

At the hotel’s check-in counter, I am given a packet of glossy brochures. “In Beijing alone,” I read, “over two hundred sights are worth seeing.” But the city of spectacular vistas freezes my buns on a blustery day in March, and wind from the Gobi Desert drives me along like the autumn leaves in Shelley. Skyscrapers that weren’t there yesterday look like New York out by the airports. For $3 and postage, they will send you the blueprints. Corinthian doodads spruce them up, not an improvement. “A mule in horse’s harness” is Mr. Chee’s opinion.

But the mean-looking tenements that run like a baseboard under the concrete towers reverse the Disney model, where the grandiose thing is facade, backed by nothing. This Magic Kingdom is real, possibly predicting the future. A gloomy thought for a gloomy day, and I think of the USSR under Brezhnev. The monolith he sat on seemed in place for all time. Then wind shrieked and it tottered and fell.

Blocks of flats for their huddled masses hark back to the fortress architecture of America in the 60’s. “We’re gonna tear this mother down,” student protesters shouted, marching on the Admin Building. But they couldn’t break through the portcullis. In Beijing, though the fortress is still standing, time has given its grim features a facelift. Striped awnings like candy canes hang over the windows, and the day’s wash, strung on clotheslines between them, says that people are living inside. Colored lights outline doorways, winking on and off like Christmas tree lights. Chilly day or not, crowds are out on the streets, the women in slacks, most of the men wearing sneakers and jeans. I see a few Mao suits, only a few, though. No more lock-step for Beijingers.

Trees are sprouting wherever I look, in pots at curbside and in median strips running down the street between lanes of traffic. I am happy for my environmentalist friends. The trees are all the same size, though, “regimented” trees planted at 2 pm on a Tuesday. Let there be trees, someone said, and there they are in their thousands and tens of thousands.


“Wangfujing Street,” I tell the driver at the cab rank. He grins inscrutably, just like the movies. “Goldfish Lane,” he says, giving me my word back in English. “What are you looking for, Mister? I show you best places to go.”

The cab lets me off in front of Sun Dong An Plaza, 11 storys of shops and offices, packaged in a glittering container. A glass window at ground level reflects a pint-sized man I’ve seen before. Holding up an imperious hand, Mr. Chee is crossing the street against traffic. The paper his parcel is wrapped in says it comes from Louis Vuitton’s. “50 percent off on leather goods,” he tells me.

“Actually,” I tell him, “I want something for two little girls.”

“You’re in luck,” he says, steering me into Critterz-R-Us. A nest of cobras, guarding the door, hisses when I step on a button. “Everything from aardvarks to zed,” says Mr. Chee. Ten minutes later I have a stuffed panda and a long-tailed monkey with eyes that open and close. My nieces in San Francisco will be pleased.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” says Mr. Chee. “Before the Revolution, Wangfujing Street catered to rich Westerners. Now it caters to China’s richest Chinese. Makes you wonder what all the fuss was about.”

The coolie on the street corner might be waiting for customers. Pulling a rickshaw, he stands between the shafts like a draft horse. Sunlight, glinting on the bronze surfaces, creates the illusion of movement. The coolie is as thin as a shoot of bamboo, and Mr. Chee takes notice. “You don’t see any fat men in China.”

Young Chinese, casual but elegant like American Yuppies, have their cameras out, looking for just the right angle. One hoists an infant into the rickshaw, another fingers the bronze pigtail, new in his experience. This stoop-shouldered coolie is part of their past, only a dim memory to most, though. With any luck, their children won’t ever know what life was like in the old days.

At the contagious hospital down the street from China World, the doctors and nurses are converts to hi-tech. Visitors are welcome, and the first thing they show you is their brand-new Olivetti computers. You tell the clinician your symptoms, she taps the keys, and the whole range of possibilities appears on a printout, “Fifty years ago, we did this by guess and by God.” Impressed, I doff my cap to the gleaming computers.

Progress has its flip side, however. Chinese who make it the god of their idolatry act as if the past had never existed. No doubt it triggers bad memories, and you can see why some of them are eager to start out de novo. But it isn’t only the downtrodden who want to smash the celadon and the blanc-de-Chine vases, rewrite the history books, and say goodbye to Li Po and Confucius.

I think back to certain students I’d known in the 60’s, and one who’d gotten up in my class and harangued me. The string he harped on seems to vibrate at least once in an age. French Revolutionaries harped on this string, when they beheaded the statues in Notre Dame Cathedral and dug up the bones of their dead kings and queens. “You have to get rid of the past,” my student assured me. “If you don’t, it will poison the future.”

Beijing’s sky in early spring is the same as it was the first time I saw it, a “white radiance of eternity” kind of sky, cloudless and washed of color. Golfball-sized balls of pollen still drift along the air. Children and some adults wear face masks, nothing showing but their eyes. Women with besoms are still sweeping the streets, brooming off the dust of time.

Around the corner from Changan Avenue comes a quartet of Chinese workmen, plasterers by the look of their white-crusted aprons. Faces twisted, their gestures threatening, they are falling over each other like tumblers. One runs his wheelbarrow against the legs of another.

“A bit histrionic, wouldn’t you say?” says Mr. Chee. “But your average China boy is at heart a perennial child. These fellows aren’t really angry, they’re only letting off steam.”

I agree that Chinese are different from Mr. Chee’s English. A billion of them fight each other for a place in the sun. This doesn’t lend itself to good manners. Unlike the English, Chinese are no respecters of queues. Pushing up to the head of the line, they stomp on your feet and dig you with their elbows. Sexual discrimination is illegal in China, and the women are as bad as the men.

Like Scots, Jews, and Frenchmen, Chinese are cheapskates. Partly this is their provident nature, partly it comes from having done without for a long time. Standing knee deep in their alien corn, I keep my mitts up. Like the bully in the old Charles Atlas ad, they’ll kick sand in your face if you let them. Valuing trivial things hugely, they value life hardly at all. What a cold eye they cast on life and death, reproving one supersensitive plant who used to sweep the sidewalk outside his front door to be sure he didn’t tread on an insect. As we land in Beijing, nobody tells me to fasten my seatbelt. The DC-7 is full, but there are lots more Chinese where these came from.

How many there are blows my mind. Home to the emperor, Beijing’s Forbidden City housed 100,000 of his personal friends, members of the imperial court. They had room to spread out in, 9,000 rooms, says my guide, who claims he has counted. The pagodas they lived in are positioned along a north-south axis, its center the same as the world’s.(Chinese aren’t behindhand in patting themselves on the back.)

Tianenmen Square, gateway to the Forbidden City, is bigger than a postage stamp. Lay all the football fields in Texas end to end, and you get the idea. No trees break its paved surface, unrelievedly itself, like the sea. The modern age, dating back some hundreds of years now, has a thing for vacant space, not park space but emptiness, Red Square in Moscow, St. Peter’s in Rome, the Zocalo in Mexico City. Tianenmen Square is the mother of them all.

Its immensity doesn’t humble us, the way the mountains do in old landscape paintings. Like intergalactic space, it reduces us to nothing. When Chinese fall in for their big testimonials, they clump together like grains of cooked rice. The old canard has it right, and you can’t tell one from another. But in a similar setting Westerners lose their identity too, like Italians in Mussolini’s time, chanting DOO-chay in Rome’s Piazza Venezia. Coping with the problem, officials number the paving blocks in Tianenmen Square, and each standee has his own block to stand on. This is different from private property.

Red flags snap in the wind around the granite obelisk, a monument to the People’s Heroes. Youngsters of China’s democratic movement, heroes with a difference, made this their focal point in the spring of 1989. I want to hear about them, I say to my guide. He is Mr. Yu, as in “Hey, You!” he says, goodhumored and talkative like Charlie Chan’s No.1 Son. Thrown by my question, he recovered quickly. He is sorry for the students who died in the late disturbance, but they should have gone back to their universities “to learn things.”

What was broken has been fixed, and Tianenmen Square no longer sparks attention. Dublin’s Post Office is still scarred by Ireland’s long-ago Easter Rebellion, but no scars are visible here. The bullet holes in the obelisk are gone, and everything is back to normal, except for the surveillance cameras on poles and the pairs of red-tabbed soldiers. If you stop to tie a shoelace, they stroll up to you, just to be sure.

In the center of the square, Chairman Mao lies in a crystal sarcophagus, resting on a black granite slab. “Every evening,” says Mr. Chee, “they lower him into an underground fridge. In the morning when the sun comes up, he rises.”

The line of viewers, four abreast, splits in two as it comes to the Chairman. It moves slowly, like a spreading ink blot. People at the head of each column pause to look for the full 60 seconds allowed them. Silence is the rule, and these hushed Chinese obey it. Outside the tomb, however, the crowds in the souvenir shops twitter like birds. “School’s out!” and spirits are soaring.

From Tianenmen Square the roads radiate like filaments in a web, south to the Temple of Heaven, northeast to the Lama Temple, northwest to the Summer Palace outside the city. Dowager Empress Cixi, the original Dragon Lady, built the Summer Palace in the 19th century, with money earmarked for China’s defenses. Her Stone Boat, an immoveable object in the lake it can never sail on, has the charm of an absurdity created in defiance of logic. But pagodas above the shoreline, dotting the Hills of Longevity, rise from fragrant beds of peonies, wisteria, and lilac. Crossing the water in a dragon boat, I am aware of nothing but the splash of oars. Suddenly a pagoda, looming out of the mist, is upon me.

Too many Chinese cumber the park, and in a grouchy mood I wish they’d go back where they came from. Most, only a while ago, were down on the farm, or they lived in dank alleyways, “hutongs,” where the sun never shines. Bringing them into the light is the price of settling the score with anti-democratic Empress Cixi. It seems part of this tradeoff that they stand in my light, soaking up too much of it. Selfconsciousness, the mark of civilized behavior, is outside their ken and they stop and stare at me, mouths open. They aren’t xenophobic, only puzzled, as if a Martian had dropped down among them. Some spit on the paved walks or blow their noses with two fingers. There is a lot of preliminary clearing of the throat.

The Lama Temple is supposed to be hot stuff—China’s Kama Sutra, Mr. Hey You says coyly—but the truth of this is more than I can vouch for. Like that “Breeches Pope” who covered Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine Chapel with fig leaves, a Chinese bluenose has draped the statues in the Lama Temple with scarves. When sons of the emperor who needed sex education came to visit, the scarves were taken away. Not for my visit, however.

But I can tell you first hand about the Buddha of the Future. Carved from a single block of sandalwood, he stands in a pit, rising 55 feet to the ceiling. According to Mr. Hey You, this is a first in the Guinness Book of Records. “Brobdingnagian” is the word for the Buddha, remembering the giants in Swift, huge of limb, coarse of feature. His eyes, wide open, stare like Othello’s, the Laurence Olivier version.

Devotees in the Hall of Harmony shuffle across the floor toward a trio of Buddhas. Past, present, and future, they are cut from the same piece of cloth. All three look the same, i.e. like nothing in particular. In the Christian Trinity, though the Holy Ghost is unrealized, befitting a ghost, Father and Son are made in man’s image and likeness. Old painters, depicting it, cared about superficial things, “that color upon cheek or hair.” Christianity, often said to be absorbed in the World Over Yonder, seems tied to our delimiting earth.

The closed eyes of all three Buddhas look within, like the wide open but unseeing eyes of the Buddha of the Future. Their bellies are swollen, as if they are practicing chi gong, the part where you breathe in deeply, letting the belly expand. But why are they laughing? Is this how an Immortal responds to our human condition? Borne on the Wheel of Life, I don’t find it a laughing matter.

The devotees bring tribute, plastic flowers and fruit. Lighting joss sticks, they leave them to burn in a black copper boiler, shining with coins like the Fountain of Trevi. I look for connections to medieval Christian churches, or the great mosques of the Sultan’s architect, Sinan. Nothing. Restrained is a condition this temple never heard of. The torsos of its idols are lacquered with gold, and in the sancta sanctorum the reds are redder than fingernail polish. Why hide the light under a bushel?

But a bronze incense burner, shaped like the Buddhist holy mountain, Sumeru, smokes placidly in front of the entrance. Tiny bells, hanging from the eaves, begin to strike as the wind sets them going. This sound is upper register, and seems to come from far off. Bassed by the deeper sound of a gong, it composes the unquiet spirit.

Plumy cypresses usher my way as I walk down the path in the Temple of Heaven Park. Here, said ancient Chinese, Heaven and Earth have their meeting place. The trunks of the cypresses, some of them 500 years old, have the writhened look of tree trunks in Chinese paintings. The old commonplace tells us that art imitates nature, but in the Temple of Heaven Park, nature apparently imitates art. This must mean that the artist has taught us how to see things.

On either side of the path, men and women of all ages are standing on one leg, raising and flexing their arms, one hand up, one hand down, “channeling internal energies,” says Mr. Hey You. Off to my left, middle-aged women are doing the fox trot, most with women, some with men. Over the loudspeaker comes a dance tune, “Melancholy Baby.” The women are retired, I learn from my guide, and come here every morning to dance.

Under the blue-tiled dome, going up in tiers toward Heaven, the emperor prayed for good harvests. Chinese gargoyles, monstrous heads whose open mouths are rain spouts, ring the topmost tier, surmounted by a gold finial like a sheaf of corn. Blue and gold bands demarcate the umbrella-shaped tiers. I am ravished by the beauty of the great pagoda, like that “stately pleasure dome” Coleridge imagined. But a large placard in a fussy Victorian frame hangs on the exterior surface. Chinese characters, emblazoned on the placard, are like a neon sign above the restaurant door. “Hall for Prayer for Good Harvests,” they say. No ghost from the grave needs to tell us, but Chinese insist that we know.

Beyond the pagoda, the pile of rocks is thought by my guide to merit attention. “Found art,” Chinese call it, only rocks left as nature disposed them. Supposedly, though, they evoke an image, like a megalithic cairn or the Rape of Nanking. The choice of the image is up to the spectator. Cultural democrats in the university town I live in like this idea. Artistic intention seems to them a tyranny, also a delusion. The decor in their houses takes its cue from nature, and they prop a piece of driftwood on the mantel. Obliterating the distinction between nature and art, they ask the former to bear more than it can, while diminishing the latter to an impromptu performance. Chinese don’t see why not.

The temple steps are easier on the way down, but there is still another lunar surface to cross, leading to another pagoda. Nothing detains the eye between points A and B. Imperial China made no concession to the weakness of the flesh, nor did its architects take pains with minutiae. Perhaps that is true wherever people are thick on the ground.

But Chinese painting is more delicate than scrimshaw, and the artists who created it would have gone to the stake sooner than tolerate slapdash. Steering clear of grandiose subjects, they favored trees, flowers, and birds. Even when the painting goes in for sublimity—”sounding cataracts,” etc.—it makes room for men and women. Often they are tiny in proportion to the whole, and at first you don’t see them way down at the foot of the canvas. They have to be there, however. Otherwise, nature means nothing.

Tianenmen Square and the city center are almost close enough to walk. But I have had my fill of walking, and the bus picks me up outside the western gate of the Temple of Heaven Park. As we approach the square, I see the familiar gaggle of old men with their birdcages, like dogs on a leash. Craving the sun, the old men show up every day in the late afternoon. The first time I saw them, I thought they were sellers come to market. But no, the birds are pets, lovingly tended, and their owners, escapees from China’s pressure cooker, have no business but kibitzing with friends.


Chongching is like Pittsburgh, built where two rivers meet and gasping its lungs out in a haze of toxicity. But Pittsburgh has cleaned up its act. Buildings in Chongching melt into air and water, like Parliament on the Thames in the painting by Monet. Though the Jialing River is no wider than the Potomac where Washington threw his silver dollar across it, I can barely see the opposite shore.

Spring has come to this southern city, however, and under the smog, rice is greening. Though the People’s Hall, a huge pagoda up a staircase to infinity, will never look other than frigid, pale red China roses have burst into bloom below it, and the magnolia trees are ready to go. In the People’s Plaza they are taking constitutionals, “pierced to the root” by thirsty March. Grandparents walk infants, holding them by the hand or lifting them up in their arms. No children’s strollers in China.

Red bug-like cars the size of Cinquecentos whip up and down the roller-coaster streets, trailing gray puffs of exhaust. On Sun Yat Sen Street, the parties involved are sorting out a fender bender, only the first one I’ve seen. Chinese, though they hurl themselves at each other like pellets from a gun, rarely come to grief, having eyes in the back of their heads. Thirty million of them live in Chongching, the world’s largest metropolitan region. Except for World War II, I’d never have known it existed.

Crossing the bridge over the Yangtse, I do this on foot, wanting to memorize the scene for my reunion with Ned’s widow, Myra. The bridge is a newish one, built or rebuilt since the war on concrete arches. A double row of lamp standards, doing what it can, adds to the grainy light of the sun. Office buildings and apartment houses crowd the skyline, barges with derricks work the river. I see a gas-powered sampan and a boat under sail that looks like a fishing boat, but that can hardly be. Below me on the Penghu Sandbar are the remains of the airstrip.

Thinking of Ned and the others in their flying boxcars, I ask myself how they ever made it down to that sliver of earth, water to one side of them, water to the other. Mr. Laconic, Ned mostly stayed mum on the subject. If you pressed him, he was only “doing his job.” A few times, however, emotion showed, together with something like joy. That was when he spoke of the men in his squadron. “This band of brothers,” he called them.

The Stilwell Museum on Sixin Road occupies the same house the general lived in when he commanded the China-Burma-India theater. No soldier less theatrical, brainier, or tougher. History will give him a better press than MacArthur, who marched toward the whirring of the cameras. But Stilwell was “Vinegar Joe” and didn’t hide his contempt for China’s Chiang Kai-Shek. Papering over trouble, the president took away his command.

A posted notice outside the house in Chinese and English praises “our American friends.” Ferrying life-saving cargo over the “snow-clad” Himalayas, they helped turn the tide of war. “Unforgettable” are the old days. The friendship between the two peoples is “precious.”

Tobacco must have been Stilwell’s solace, and in his signature image a pipe is clamped between his teeth. His homely bespectacled face looks across the room at a blown-up photo of the Burma Road, snaking through jungle all the way to Kunming. The men who built the road and kept it open are remembered on the walls. High-fiving each other, a 1940’s equivalent, they salute a job well done. They have got rid of self, sinking it in the group, and you don’t see any “me” in their faces. Some, surprised by the camera, are unshaven, with tough-guy grins and sardonic eyes, a young man’s affectation. Were they always cheerful, even when the sky was falling?

I sign the visitor’s book, buy an accordian-roll of postcards, and a paperback life of the General. As I turn to leave the museum, I do a double take. Above the rack of “Flying Tiger” T-shirts, the photo shows a group of young American airmen. In the second row, third from the left, is my cousin.

Years and decades have passed since the photo was taken, and the man who looks back at me is little more than a boy. If he were around today, he wouldn’t recognize the world he fought for. The armies of the Rising Sun are gone from China, but the chairs they sat in were still warm when the Communists came in on their heels. As to the precious friendship between the Chinese and their American allies, I hope it lasts forever but wouldn’t bet the house.

Having done what I’d promised, I can leave Chongching when I want to. In the lobby of my hotel, another gleaming caravansery built with venture capital, the CAAC desk stays open 24 hours. “China Air Always Crashes,” jokesters used to say the acronym meant, but China Air, like Pittsburgh, has turned it around. Next to the ticket desk sits Speedy, our “technology butler.”

Tall for a Chinese, he has long splayed fingers and his hair is cropped close to his skull. The eyes are what you notice. Warming the room, they burn like lumps of coal. Speedy doesn’t have a desk, only a card table that folds up at night, but the printed notices in front of him suggest that he knows what he’s doing. “Mobile phone glitches?” “Internet access difficulties?” “Laptop misbehaving?” A large placard in bold face tells me what I must do: “Call Speedy the technology butler.”

I doubt that he can help me and say so. Though I want to get in the swim, like people in the TV ads who solve all their problems by going Online, I find the new technology User Unfriendly. Anyway, I do my writing in pencil and my shopping at the neighborhood ripoff.

Not a problem, says Speedy, speaking English with an American accent. “Computers and such are only a means to an end.” He doesn’t say what the end is, but sweeps his notices into a briefcase. “Time to close up the shop for today.”

Intrigued by his know-how and the easy way he wears it, I offer to buy him a drink. Young people in the bar move naturally from Chinese into English, the way uppercrust characters in Henry James novels break into French without warning. Leaning forward, they quiz each other, waggling their fingers and widening black inquisitive eyes. At the Yamaha in the corner, a young man in a tux is playing Scarlatti. Except for me, everyone in the room is on the sunny side of 30.

“It’s not surprising,” says Speedy. “Old people in China, like my grandfather, cling to the old ways. You wouldn’t see them in a bar, maybe playing chess in the park.”

Looking around, I don’t notice the 40-something crowd either. If I had business with the state, though, I’d be sitting in one of their offices. Doing a slow burn. The past they were born into doesn’t exist anymore, but they haven’t put down roots in the present. Footloose between worlds, with the short fuse that sometimes goes with this, they bear keeping an eye on. Then there are the young.

“Why Speedy?” I want to know.

“All my friends have English-language nicknames,” he says. “My girlfriend is Iris. Like the goddess of the rainbow? My nickname has the same sound as the first two characters in my Chinese name. Also it’s good for my business.”

He has more than business on his mind, however. Improving his English, he reads Theodore Dreiser. Friday nights and Sundays, he plays chamber music. He is the cellist in a local group called Dare to Be Dull. Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, he says. Do I know the A Minor Quartet?

Mr. Chee’s Tin Pan Alley tune is jigging in my head, and it drowns out Beethoven and the others. “How does it go?” I ask him. “China boy go sleep. Close your eyes don’t peep.”

I beg your pardon?” says Speedy.

“You don’t look sleepy to me,” I tell him.

“Sometimes,” he admits, “I get tired.”

Speedy has a problem, keeping the brutes who run this country from looking in his direction. They mistrust “information,” and take a dim view of people like him. He isn’t a troublemaker and doesn’t make waves. But I get the feeling that if they pushed him too far, he’d push back. Students in Tianenmen Square must have been like him.

How the future will play out is a closed book to both of us. I’m tempted to say that it belongs to him and China’s young people, but that is perhaps a sentimental piety. In any case, the present is what we have. How we live in it is the important thing, and makes all the difference. Not between winning or losing—in the end, everyone loses—between spending our talents or hiding them in the earth.


China Air will fly me direct from Chongching to Tokyo’s Narita, first stop on the long journey home. But the questions I came over with still need their answers. Putting off to tomorrow what I could do today, I go for a walk along the embankment. Shoe shine “boys,” mostly women, sit on their heels beside the river. Dawdling, I stop for a shine.

The woman buffing my shoes is young, no more than 30. But time and tough sledding have marked her, without giving her the privilege of age. Some women who want to shine your shoes in Chongching are in their late 60’s. Last year the factories they worked in began to heed a new imperative, the bottom line. “When the train of history goes around a curve,” said Lenin, still heroized in this country, “some must fall off.”

One yuan, she signals, holding up a finger. I give her a two-yuan note, about 25 cents. Loosening her string bag she hunts for change, but I wave it away. Surprised, her face opens in a heavenly smile.

“Overtipping is a bad idea,” says a familiar voice. “That’s how you spoil them.”

“I thought you were doing the Yangtse,” I tell Mr. Chee. “The new dam, wasn’t it?”

“I leave first thing in the morning,” he says. “By boat from the Chaotianmen Docks. Why don’t you come along?” Seeing me hesitate, he winks. “There are things I could show you. Seven am on the dot?”

To board the ban cheran, a king-sized riverboat, we must cross a suspension bridge over mud flats. Men and boys run beside us, wanting to carry our bags. Two of them, spying lawful prey, take hold of my arms. I shake them off indignantly, almost pitching into the water. On deck beside the rail, the crew are beating drums and chanting like Hare Krishnas. Some bang clappers and shake bells with their toes. Getting in my face, a man in a dragon suit, with goggle eyes and exaggerated teeth, lights a string of firecrackers. “Warding off demons,” Mr. Chee explains. “They do that when they pull up the anchor.”

In the lobby on the main deck, red with plastic anthuriums, Muzak oozes from speakers in the ceiling. Like the TVs in hospital waiting rooms at home, they are high up so Luddites can’t reach them. The Muzak is Mantovanni, and the TV in the hospital is tuned to Geraldo. Whatever happened to the East that was East and the West that was West, a twain that were never to meet?

As we motor down river, black shale cliffs reach skyward. Grain-storage huts, shaped like quonset huts and covered with plastic, squat in the fields, some yellow with rapeseed. At the base of the cliffs, black-suited Chinamen sit on the sand, staring at the water. “The Great River,” they call the Yangtse, flowing almost 4000 miles to the sea. For centuries, their life has been mortgaged to it, for the harvests that sustain them and the floods that leave them homeless. Scouring the land, they layer it with tons of black silt. In the spring the silt quickens, and the round of life begins again. China’s rulers, opposing power to power, mean to break this circle, binding the river god in an adamantine net.

Small black boats in the river have little red triangles mounted in the bow. The boats are channel markers, moored in place while the river, like time, flows around them. Women, up to their knees in the shallows, are doing the wash, birds swooping over their heads. In crude shouldering China, discriminations are subtle, and the cliffs do a fade-out, changing to arable hills. Plum trees blossom on the hillsides, and green shoots of rice poke up through the water, teal becoming pale green. In from the river are the Ba Mountains, one peak behind another, grayish blue like a gun butt and furred with mist as they recede.

Up there live the Ba people, says our riverboat guide, school-marmish Mrs. Hu. “Who is she?” she asks us playfully, stabbing herself with a finger, and answers, “She is Who.” Do we see that old fisherman, standing barefoot in squishy brown gravel? When the Yangtse dam is finished, he and his fellow tribesmen will lose their ancestral lands. Numbers painted on the hills register the different levels the waters will rise to, 130 meters in three years’ time, 175 meters in five. Meanwhile the village this fisherman comes from, though squarely in the gun sights, goes about its time-honored business.

“What is the government going to do with the people?” asks Mr. Chee, launching a harpoon in Mrs. Hu’s direction. In all, she tells him, a million and a quarter of them will have to “relocate.”

“Hard lines!” he says, grinning like a death’s head.

“Not to worry,” says Mrs. Hu. “There is plenty of land in Sinjiang Province.”

“China’s Wild West!” says Mr. Chee, cluing me in. “Trouble is, it’s all desert.”

“Plenty of land in Sinjiang,” says our guide.

By late afternoon we reach Fengdu, City of Ghosts, on the north bank. Two thousand years ago, a pair of hermits famous for their wonder-working settled this river port. “If you put their names together, they mean King of the Underworld,” Mrs. Hu informs us, as we follow her down the gangplank. Waiting at the far end are the beggars. Most are missing body parts, some are blind. Crouched on the stumps of legs, they rattle tin cups and show us their sores. An orange tree, bright with fruit, is growing out of the crud around them.

The ski lift charges 15 yuan a ticket and brings us up to the top of the mountain, where vendors hawk demon masks and the temples have the feel of a theme park. Coming down, we run into Mr. and Mrs. Sierra Club. He is stringy, with a white beard, Mrs. a head shorter, tubby but solid. Both wear shorts and carry back packs over their T-shirts, lettered with the words, I CLIMBED MT. ST. HELEN’S.

“It’s a 30 minute hike to the Otherworld,” he says.

“Fifteen yuan isn’t my idea of a bargain,” she says. “Besides, it’s healthier to walk.”

We meet them again the next day, transferring to the sampan for our trip up an arm of the Yangtse. “White water ahead!” shouts Mr. Sierra Club, standing where he shouldn’t be, on the raised upper deck in the bow. Two boatmen, springing forward, lift him out of the way. Each carries a bamboo pole tipped with an iron point like a spear point. Digging their poles into the foaming water, they work together like pistons, keeping us clear of the rocks.

“A bit dicey for a minute there,” says Mr. Chee. Laying their poles aside, the boatmen stand at parade rest. I see people swimming, though the toilet in our sampan empties through a hole in the floor. Down the cliff face cascades a flood of garbage, tin cans, broken bottles, and an old metal bathtub.

“No Green Party in China,” says Mr. Chee.

“Bio-degradable,” Mrs. Hu tells him.

At dawn the next day we have an epiphany, like the moment when the Wisemen enter the stable, only this one is profane. The ban cheran, cuffing the waters, has been lording it over the river all night long. Without warning, mountains thrust up around us, pinching in the current. We aren’t center stage anymore, but bit players. This happens with stunning swiftness, as if the tectonic plate has cracked open, forcing towers of limestone into the light. Pocked with caves, some are craggy, some rounded like dolmens. Canyons plunge through them, cratering the earth.

Frenzied, the river moves eastward to the Yellow Sea, at the same time throwing back on itself. Whirlpools, circling rocks below the surface, mimic this contrary movement. Navigating the Yangtse took nerve and a strong heart, “still does,” says Mr. Chee. He has seen dead bodies borne along by the current, like runners jogging in place.

Before steampower, the big junks needed manpower to make head against this current, and “trackers,” harnessed to long hauling ropes, supplied it. Far ahead of the boat, they pulled to the beat of a drum, singing chanteys as they went forward. “Oh, it’s hard to be a tracker,” wrote a T’ang dynasty poet. At midnight and in snow and rain, they had to get back in harness. Often they pulled until daybreak. Some fell to their deaths from the tow-path. If injured, they were left where they lay.

Long-tailed monkeys, real-life cousins of the one I bought in Beijing, pick their way across the walls of the gorge. High up in the walls, Ba people buried their dead. “Look!” says Mrs. Hu, indicating the rectangular holes in the cliff face. For the journey to the afterlife, she says they used coffins shaped like canoes. Safe harbor for eternity, Ba people must have thought, but didn’t reckon with the dam.


At Sandouping Village, upstream from Yichang, we moor for a closer look. Construction is going forward just inside the last of the three greater gorges. Everything behind the dam site will disappear under water, turning the river into a giant reservoir all the way back to Chongching. The authorities have arranged a conducted tour, and buses are waiting for us at dockside. Mr. Chee in the lead bus has his notebook at the ready. Mr. and Mrs. Sierra Club, hoping to save the river dolphin, are carrying pamphlets intended for the workers. I sit alone on the aft deck, riffling the pages of my Stilwell biography and committing the mountains to memory.

No one knows whether the dam will prove a boon or disaster, and you can make out a case either way. For men like the old trackers, it will cushion life’s hardships. In fear and trembling, trackers walked a narrow pathway chiseled out of the perpendicular face of the rock. Near Lijiang, just below Tiger Leaping Gorge, it isn’t wider than a narrow-gauge railroad. Endless patience will have gone to the making of this foothold, also craft, and strength of will beyond my sedentary man’s comprehending. A tracker’s wage kept body and soul together, nothing extra. But inching along the side of the mountain, he looked up into a purple immensity, as close as nature has ever come to the mysterious order of art.

Look again, and Tiger Leaping Gorge will be gone. China’s rulers, acting out of some deep personal compulsion, are going to force a snaffle through the teeth of the river god. Like that Daedalus who made wings for himself and his son, they aim to transcend nature, within an engineer’s compass. But the new social engineers are more ambitious than this. Anticipating an end to the age-old struggle with the river, they see the chance for replacing man’s intractable will and cunning with gentler virtues, better suiting the era to come. With luck they can annul the potential for tragedy, predictable of all of us who try and fail, necessarily as we are human.

Failure seemed of the essence of things, when General Stilwell commanded in China. But reading about him, I feel how elation was part of his story, even in the dark days, maybe then most of all. He had a plan to save “the Peanut” (Chiang Kai-Shek), and with him the Chinese Republic. Some believe it could have succeeded. At his death, however, defeat was just around the corner. He didn’t claim to see light at the end of the tunnel. He said, “I claim we took a hell of a beating.” An odd way to put it, as if the idea gave him pleasure.

One of my T’ang poets has an image that sets him before me. In the poem the weary traveler has still got a long way to go. Night closing fast, and his horse, stung with gadflies, can hardly take another step. Ahead, uphill, he hears the tiger roar. Times like these, says the poet, his heart is a flag a hundred feet high in the wind.


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