Lost for words in the cradle of Chinese civilization
Illustration by Erin Perfect.
Every day I follow the Plough to look to the capital city.
In China all I have are my own words knocking around inside my head. In China everything is too loud and garbled. I get up each morning and look out my twelfth floor windows east and south over the city, brew tea and stand with my toes curled on the laminate floor, waiting for the sun to bob up a noxious orange over the stacked block buildings. On days when smog conceals the sun I watch the chimneys exhale, curtains of vapor drifting along the wide clogged avenues. Then I take the elevator twelve flights down, leaning over the sleeping attendant in his faded blue jumpsuit to press the down button, the close door button. In China I’m impatient; I never wait for the elevator doors to close on their own. From my front door it’s thirty paces across the compound to the newspaper offices. Once inside I walk past the fountain in the lobby where carp swim in slow circles, past men in shirtsleeves smoking in the hallway, ashing into the planters, past the offices of the Party Secretaries and over the cracked linoleum to my desk. My work visa says I am a foreign expert. In China my job is to make the most of my foreign expertise. As a columnist I write fluff pieces in basic English, defining the West to Chinese readers in 200-word dispatches. As an editor I mark up broadsheets in red ink. I’ll do this five days a week for thirteen months. My family calls to ask what my life is like in China and I say I can’t describe it, but I can. It’s like this.
Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side…
I must make merry before the Spring is spent.
In May I decide to go to Anyang. My Chinese colleagues say, Why Anyang? Some claim they’ve never heard of it. Have you been to Hong Kong, they ask. Perhaps you should go there. It is quite exciting, unlike Anyang. They say: We think you will find Anyang boring and unpleasant.
But Anyang is the option that avails itself after eleven months in Beijing. A six-hour train ride southwest, hotel rooms already booked, tour guides and tour buses secured, two days of meals. My boyfriend’s Chinese language immersion school has organized the trip for its students and the secretary tells him he can bring a guest. This appeals. All I have to do is show up. In my eleventh month in China, showing up is the only thing I can manage with consistency and success.
Moments, scenery—all wasted
Were they to rouse a thousand subtle feelings
On the packed train from Beijing to Anyang I claim the window seat. American Pete sits next to me and, next to him, Scottish Pete. From the window I watch the featureless landscape fall away scabbed and brown. A field, a canal, a small anonymous city of low buildings, hard angles. People small as specks dot the far horizon: one stretching laundry out across a line, another bent over in a field.
I flip idly through an out-of-date New Yorker. It is creased and dog-eared, greasy with fingerprints. Someone brought it back from the States and for a month we’ve been passing it around like contraband. Beside me, American Pete reads a book in Chinese about opium smuggling in Fujian province in the 1860s. Scottish Pete has forgotten to bring anything to read so American Pete lends him another Chinese book.
Scottish Pete has only the faintest hint of a brogue. He has a Chinese wife and together they mostly speak Chinese. Once he was learning Chinese for a PhD in political science but since he’s dropped out, he’s learning it so that he can have more interesting conversations with his wife. American Pete is learning Chinese for a PhD in history. He has an American girlfriend who can’t speak Chinese to save her life—or maybe only to save her life. That’s me. I scan the pages of their open books to see if there are any words I know, such as chicken or mountain or woman or east. There aren’t. I return to the window; I crinkle the pages of my New Yorker.
The Petes have copies of a tourist pamphlet they got from their school. I ask to look at it. It’s almost entirely in Chinese, but when I flip to the back I find a few pages of automated English translation. “This city borders on towering and dangerously steep Taihang Mountain in the west,” I read of Anyang. “Taihang is very much mysteriously and beautifully.”
China already feels safe to us as we are neither dissidents nor Uighur Muslims, the least glorious of the 55 Glorious Minorities since the uprising in Xinjiang in 2009.
Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.
The director of the Chinese immersion school in Beijing, a sprightly American octogenarian named John Thompson (Chinese alias: Teacher Tang) says we are going to Anyang because it will be safe.
China already feels safe to us as we are neither dissidents nor Uighur Muslims, the least glorious of the 55 Glorious Minorities since the uprising in Xinjiang in July 2009. During a factory brawl, two Uighurs were killed by their Han majority coworkers in retribution for the alleged rape of two Han women. The killings led to protests, the protests to riots. Then it was Uighur brutalizing Han and vice versa, shops looted, streets awash in blood and broken glass, skulls cracked with cleavers, PLA officers disappearing teenage Uighur boys in the middle of the night.
As a white girl in Beijing I walk down long empty alleys in deep shadow and hardly ever feel afraid. Men don’t catcall; they don’t even look. There are pickpockets in China as there are in every other place on earth. There are reckless drivers and abundant traffic accidents, hit and runs, suicides. But violent crime rarely enters the world of the laowai, we outsiders who live within the walled cities.
Fluttering from place to place I resemble
A gull between heaven and earth
In China my biggest fear is of getting lost. I know how to say, I can’t find. I can use this to say I can’t find such-and-such place. I don’t know what to say when I don’t know what I’m looking for. I don’t know how to say, I’m lost. Possibly I could say I can’t find myself and someone would know what to do with me.
Oh, I cannot say it is not enchanting!
Only, when the west wind stirs the curtain,
I am frailer than the chrysanthemums.
We disembark onto the half-empty platform in Anyang and board tour buses outside the station. American Pete and I sit near the front of the bus, directly in the path of the hired tour guide’s squawking bullhorn.
Welcome to Anyang, Cradle of Chinese civilization! Believe it or not this land was the capital of the Shang Dynasty 3,000 years ago! Today Anyang is a modern city. To your left, you will see our brand new Walmart.
Wò ěr mǎ means Walmart, that much I know. American Pete is a reluctant translator. Everyone on the bus nods and chuckles politely in response to the commentary coming through the screeching and static of the bullhorn. I piece together fragments—a word here, a phrase there. American Pete fills in some of the gaps, then shrugs. I’m not really listening, he says.
The hotel has a grand lobby with plush red carpets and an enormous cut glass chandelier. Upstairs the rooms are dark, shabby, and reek of old smoke. American Pete and I push open a window and street sounds fill the room: engines, horns, bicycle bells, the tinny music of an arcade.
We draw the blinds. In the sepia dim we fold and unfold on the torn brown bedspread.
The oracle bones are not astonishing merely because they are very old. The faint handwriting is still—though barely—visible.
Circumstance governs destiny.
Cause and effect are an infinite cycle.
The Anyang tourist pamphlet says: “One river that foot of a mountain rise flow through urban area, this is Heng water that record in the old inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells.”
Nearly four thousand years ago Anyang was the capital city of the Shang dynasty. Three thousand years ago late Shang kings scratched questions phrased as wishes onto the scapula of oxen or backs of tortoise shells and then seared them with fire. In the heat the bones scorched and cracked. Prophets then interpreted the cracks in relation to the kings’ writing and pronounced certain divinations. The harvest would be plentiful, or scarce. The war could not be won, or the war would bring glorious expansion to the kingdom. “In the next ten days there will be no disaster” one king inscribed, but the fire cracked bone against his desire and the prophet read, “There will be calamities, someone will arrive bearing alarming news.” Thus warned, empires were made and lost.
Much later, when thousands of years had buried the Shang dynasty along with the original intent of the oracle bones, they were called dragon bones and sought for Chinese traditional medicine: ground to powder and ingested as a curative for malaria; applied topically to salve knife wounds. “No one can know how many oracle bones, prior to 1899, were ground up by traditional Chinese pharmacies and disappeared into peoples’ stomachs,” wrote one scholar a century later.
According to legend, in 1899 the government official Wang suffered an ailment and sought the dragon bone cure. Prepared to grind his bone for swallowing, he paused when he found a faint strange script upon it. He showed it to his fellow officials and they began to excavate for more, ultimately locating a cache of bones ten kilometers outside of Anyang in the village of Xiaotun.
The oracle bones are not astonishing merely because they are very old. The faint handwriting is still—though barely—visible. More significantly, it is readable. Three thousand years ago the pages of the world were populated by Sumerian swirls, hieroglyphs, markings that resembled swizzle sticks. Now those languages are extinct. Meanwhile Chinese evolved slowly and subtly. Three thousand years later, it bears all the signs of its inheritance. At the museum in Xiaotun a sign asserts Chinese as the oldest continuous language system in human history.
Where, before me, are the ages that have gone?
And where, behind me, are the coming generations?
Of the Shang, there is nothing left above ground in Anyang. Contemporary Anyang is a coal-mining town, and within the city proper there is little to do and nowhere to go. There is no coffee. There isn’t even Coca Cola. They only have the local knockoff brand: Feichang kele!
In the shopping district vendors hawk lace blouses and Mao-era slip-on shoes with rubber soles. Downtown there is a discotheque with no patrons and a vacant bar with a sign reading BAR in neon English. The city is constructed of faded Soviet block apartments: no building erected more than sixty or less than forty years ago. Ancient history has been exiled to Xiaotun, but modernity seems to have rushed over Anyang without ever touching down. Here there is a disarming emptiness despite all the people on foot and rusted bicycles, the particular city sadness of intersections with no cars in them.
I have knocked at your door, and no one answered…
I take into my being all that I see and hear,
Soothing my senses, quieting my heart.
The tour buses take us to a restaurant known for local specialties. Scottish Pete asks, What are the local specialties? and I say, Didn’t you read the pamphlet?—though already, I understand that I am the only one reading it.
Before we left the hotel I tore out a page and folded it into my bag, thinking it might be useful at the restaurant. The section on food begins: “A pork is thick, whippy, sour and sweet and delicious and nutritious. Chinese date ripe season in mid-September, come Anyang can taste fresh loud yellow date inside at this moment.”
We are not served any dates at the restaurant, possibly because they are not in season. I’m intrigued by the prospect of whippy pork, but we don’t get any of that, either. We receive, instead, a bounty of blood in variable forms. Sausages of clotted blood and sticky rice. Tofu soaked in blood. A gelatinous mass of blood in a saucer of oil, one of the three famous “non-stickies” of Anyang cuisine. The other two non-stickies are cloudy and amorphous, yellowish. American Pete thinks he may vomit and hurries the dishes along. Scottish Pete takes extra helpings of the blood sausage. He says it reminds him of home. He misses haggis, fog hanging low over the highlands, heady scotches.
The local specialties not made of blood are coated in a thick layer of rainbow sprinkles. For instance: sweet and sour chicken and sprinkles; soba noodles and sprinkles; sprinkles and bok choy. Teacher Tang wiggles his bushy octogenarian eyebrows. Teacher Hua, the Renaissance man of the Chinese language immersion school who practices calligraphy between classes with hand-ground ink, suspects that the sprinkles have been procured for us distinguished foreign guests. Do they make you feel more comfortable here in China, he asks with feigned concern, and everyone laughs. I laugh too, right on cue. And I laugh again, or say, Ooh, or shake my head solemnly, as Teacher Tang relates a long story about being in Beijing during the 2003 SARS epidemic and Teacher Hua tells a Confucian joke.
I grow weary of reminding American Pete that I can understand very little of anything being said around me. He, in turn, has grown weary of simultaneous translation. So I’ve picked up other tactics, such as: Guessing the meaning of an entire sentence based on a single recognizable word. Guessing the meaning of entire conversations based on several recognizable words, hand gestures, and facial expressions. Knowing when to laugh. Knowing when to nod. Knowing when to widen my eyes and make a small astonished gasp.
But later when I ask them again what the tour guides are saying, hoping to translate my translation into a language more familiar, they say they haven’t been listening. It’s all just the same old propaganda, they say.
He went his way through the cloven mist,…
in the greenness of mountain and river…
I turn and see the waves moving as from heaven,
And clouds above the cliffs coming idly, one by one.
In the morning we board the buses and depart for a canyon an hour outside the city where the Heng river cuts through the Taihang mountains. The Anyang tourist pamphlet says the mountain range has “entrenched the vast earth of three provinces like a blue and green huge dragon.” The sun is out, the sky bright blue, our cameras slung over our shoulders: We’re ready.
But first we must stop at a museum. The museum commemorates the Party officials who designated the canyon a national landmark. Our tour guides shepherd us through galleries displaying wall-sized photos of suited and bespectacled Party officials shaking hands and cutting ribbons and posing for group shots in the canyon, dioramas of the gorges and waterfalls, clay figures of men in hardhats rappelling down the canyon walls to lay the foundation for a ticket booth.
By the time we arrive at the canyon, fog has rolled in to blanket the landscape and we can hardly see our own feet below us. “Stand in the height overlooking, it is a scene to resume, it is a scene to bow, it is a scene to watch on the left, it is a scene to see in the right,” says the Anyang tourist pamphlet, but we wander half-blind inside the dropped clouds.
We walk across rickety rope bridges strung out over the gorge and into a damp gaping cave along the riverbank. Water drips from overhead; the slick walls are rippled silver. Once my eyes adjust to the dark I can discern sculpted icons tucked into high recesses near the roof of the cave. They undulate, fleet and inconstant in the watery, shifting light. Echoes amplify each stray sound, so we whisper and tiptoe along the rocks. The reverberations of our breath and feet return to us in a low and continuous shushing.
At the mouth of the cave vendors sell rattles and whistles, ribbons and beads, chewing gum and soda. We climb back out and rest under a pagoda. The tour guides gossip, giggling in the shade. One reaches out her hand as if to touch the other’s face. I sit back on a bench with American Pete.
Tell me what they’re saying.
He inclines his ear toward the guides and listens for a moment. They’re talking about her skin, he says, and offers me translations to splice to the few words I know. Subject, verb, question mark.
Where did you get such soft and flawless skin, one guide asks and the other answers, Everyone in my village has skin like this.
She presses the heel of her hand to her cheek. Briefly, a red spot appears and then fades.
“Three nine-day periods after the winter solstice,” I read in the Anyang tourist pamphlet, “ice and snow peach blossom valley that peach blossom turn on and heat hole invert the wonder frozen a summer of winter dog days then, make the visitors of people mysterious and praising the mouth without cease especially.”
We are too late for the peach blossoms but I wish I could see them turning on, ambushing the canyon and the valley with their profusion of petals. I wish for just one moment they might make me mysterious. What does that mean, the Petes ask as I read it aloud, and they laugh; we laugh together. But later when I ask them again what the tour guides are saying, hoping to translate my translation into a language more familiar, they say they haven’t been listening. It’s all just the same old propaganda, they say.
Han Gan, your follower, has grown proficient
At representing horses in all their attitudes;
But picturing the flesh, he fails to draw the bone,
So that even the finest are deprived of their spirit.
“The discovery of the oracle bone inscriptions of Yinxu in 1899 has opened a new era in the history of the Chinese modern times,” I read in the Anyang tourist pamphlet. “Like a bright and lofty cultural palace hall, the oracle bone pit No. YH127 has attracted scholars and the broad masses of the people to research and probe its profound mystery.”
Oracle bone pit No. YH127 is inside a dim shed at the museum in Xiaotun. It is possible that the pit itself, this hole in the ground, is real. The tortoise shells clustered at the bottom of the pit are not. The tour guides explain that the fake shells have been dropped into the pit so we can see what the archaeologists would have seen when they first uncovered them.
In a deeper chamber of the museum we stand close to shadowboxes bearing the original oracle bones, bleached tortoise shells nested in black velvet and illuminated with soft gelled bulbs, broad as my two spread hands. We squint at their cracks to find the tiny etchings of characters. American Pete interprets a few of them. Teacher Hua leans in to read several more. Also on display are a human skull pierced by an arrow and the largest bronze vessel in the world.
A burial ground, the Royal Tomb of queen and military general Lady Fu Hao, is situated in a field outside the museum. The field outside the museum looks as though it suffers from boils; it has blistered into convex glass domes rising out of the grass every few feet. After the darkness of the inner galleries, I wander sunblind and dazed among them. Beneath each glass dome is an open grave. In each open grave a perfect skeleton sits, spine erect, half-buried in red soil. Soil crumbling along the vertebrae, soil streaming from eye sockets. Each skeleton holds a spear upright with gripping bare phalanges. There are hundreds of graves stretched out across the sloping field, the grass flattened where tourists have trod. We walk hunched over peering into the rounded glass blisters: body, body, body unearthed.
Later in another shed we gather to look at a section of preserved Shang dynasty-era road, the bones of fallen horses still hitched to their petrified chariots. But the horses are fake, they never were, the bones come without horses to flesh them. The bones of the horses are plastic or something, someone translates for me, and the chariots are fake, and even the road—a long raised slab behind ropes under the protection of a shed—even the road is a reproduction.
The tour guides confess that the graveyard with its hundreds of armed human skeletons is also a construction. The weapons are a construction. The red soil crumbling between the bones has been artfully positioned. The glass domes arc over skeletons forged of polyurethane that date back to 1994, the year they were lowered into their shallow open graves.
But understand, says a tour guide, it is possible that there are real skeletons underneath the fake ones. Of course they could not be brought into the light; they would be ruined by the elements. This is much better.
What we gain in translation: Basic comprehension, a way to position ourselves in relation to the original…. What we lose: The way the words sing.
Along the outer walls of the museum a character gallery unfurls—rows and rows of parchment bearing brushstrokes of the ancient characters to show how they morphed into modern versions or branched off into variable words with a single root.
From memory, American Pete recites the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching: Dào ke dào, fei cháng dào. Míng ke míng, fei cháng míng. The way that can be called the way is not the constant and unchanging way. The name that can be named is not the constant and unchanging name.
This translation is only one way of reading of Laozi’s classical text, one ideology transposed. There are many other interpretations; it’s impossible to say if one is better than another. You try to give sense to a word but it shifts out from under you to become something else. When you say, This is what it means, you lose the part of the meaning that cannot be spoken.
What we gain in translation: Basic comprehension, a way to position ourselves in relation to the original. We may miss the mark, but without interpretation it’s just lines and noise.
What we lose: The way the words sing.
Climbing, we seem to have left the world behind us,
With the steps we look down on hung from space.
On our last day in Anyang, we go to the single major landmark in the city proper, Wenfeng Tower. “Wooden eaves of brick body,” I read in the Anyang tourist pamphlet. “Octagonal body of the tower place oneself in round lotus flower from head to foot.”
From the top of the tower I stare down at Anyang. The city sprawls out dully over the open, unbroken plains: a haze of low concrete buildings, smokestacks and carparks. The oldest place I’ve ever been, and nothing to see. I try to imagine what this landscape looked like three or four thousand years ago. I conjure earthen city walls, a drum tower where guards kept watch to sound the alarm in advance of invading armies, a palace of echoing chambers beneath swallowtail roofs. But the images keep drifting away; it’s so hard to fix them in the face of this grim mid-century city.
The Anyang tourist pamphlet describes the top of Wenfeng Tower: “There are copper tongued bells in the head department of octagonal eaves, the breeze blows, jingle and bang, give somebody the farsighted and solemn and quiet sense.”
A crowd has gathered at the tower’s lookout. They chatter around me but I’ve given up on trying to eavesdrop. I have been so long sifting through languages for coherence, hoping for the single spare word I might latch onto, coming up dry. And I am tired. So I hold still and listen for the bells with the copper tongues. I wait for a breeze to blow and shake them, make them jingle and bang.
Ariel Lewiton is the Director of Marketing and Publicity for Sarabande Books. Her essays and stories have appeared in Vice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She lives in New York.
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