Travel Journals - China - 1985

excerpt from China Pennywalk

A Stranger in Xian

3:15 A. M.

Things are happening fast. I barely have time to write, so when I awakened now, I decided to get up. The hotel is spooky at this hour, empty, lights out in the lobby. I'm sitting on a red-carpeted staircase, the only lighted area. The air-conditioning is off outside the rooms. It's hot.

We keep meeting people, through contacts or on the streets, artists, musicians, students, and I'm left to contemplate what a society like this does and does not offer the creative person. China is both traditional and Communist, neither encourages individuality. One artist, I'll call him A, hesitated to show us his work until he was convinced that we too were serious artists. Our conversation with him marked the first time I felt we should keep our voices low.

A was caught between the traditional Chinese concept of art, which demands specific techniques, subjects, and styles, and the Western concept of art, which expresses an individual's personal view of the world. He says he can't find a style that's not derivative, yet also in keeping with the tradition which has formed his idea of what art should be. And the state does not, according to him, approve art with no propaganda value. There's no way for a non-traditional artist to show his work in China.

Do you know what happens to our artists once they graduate from art school? he asked with bitterness. Either they teach or they go to the factories or to businesses to do commercial work.

Posters thumbnail

That's what we've been noticing since we got here, that the best contemporary artwork in China seems to be the hand-painted billboards all over the cities. The paint is loose and expressive; serious paintings masquerade as advertisements on the sides of buildings and fences.

People often approach us on the street, wondering where we're from and how we feel about China. That's how we met M, a well-known singer. He was proud of his accomplishments as an outstanding student and successful musician, proud of his father who began his own factory a few months ago and already has ten employees. Working with his father, M says he earns in one month what he earns in a year singing in an opera company. I wanted to visit the factory, and M is taking us there in about four hours.

M's eyes twinkled like those of any man in love when he told us about his girlfriend. So I was shocked when he mentioned that they were about to have their first date, a walk around the square. They've never spoken to each other, only nodded as they passed. An introducer arranged the date. Introducers are crucial, M said. They're the go-betweens to get parental permission for marriage.

Sarah and I rented bikes yesterday. It's not as easy as you'd think, pedaling around in a city of bikes, cyclists cutting in front of one another, pedestrians stepping into the street without looking, expecting us to tinkle our bells to warn them of our presence. But my bell was broken, in fact my bike was lousy. The seat was hard and springless and wiggled all over the place. I had to keep stopping to rest my butt. I'm accustomed to coaster brakes, and though I had no trouble remembering the hand brakes under normal circumstances, for my two emergency stops I used my feet and nearly clobbered some cyclists who'd assumed I knew what I was doing.


M's father said we need government permission to visit the factory and that would take three days. Instead M brought us to the quarter where musicians, actors, and dancers live and rehearse. We watched a rehearsal in a concrete room large enough to comfortably fit about 25 musicians. The composer was there to criticize; we were there mesmerized. The sounds were lyrical and sweet, though overpowering in such a small space, the lilting voice of the soprano haunting. It couldn't have been more magical had we gone to the actual performance.

M introduced us to several people, always making sure we knew this was a famous dancer, a famous composer, other famous musicians, listing their honors, everyone friendly, anxious to talk though we couldn't always discover what to say. Then he led us past workers picnicking on the grass to a housing project where we visited a flutist. He and M had been forced to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

Did you learn anything from the experience? I asked.

No, nothing. There was nothing positive they could say about the Cultural Revolution.

So this is how musicians live, a concrete room in a housing project, no heat though winters are cold, sporadic running water on the first floor, none on the upper floors, a problem all over China. At least the rents are negligible.

How can a country provide housing for a billion people? There's construction everywhere, a building boom. There's also a population balloon.

This is a country of receipts, receipts for almost every cent spent, in taxis, in restaurants, even on the bus, five people, five little slips of paper, my pockets are always full of these thin bits. When I glance into the waste baskets in the public rest rooms, I think I know how they're used.

This is a country of tea, especially here in Xian, where thousands of peddlers sit on sidewalks or at curbs, glasses of tea on their low tables. Sometimes they also have bowls of hard-boiled eggs. Hotels and trains provide giant thermoses of hot water. The water here isn't drinkable unless boiled. Perhaps that's the reason for all the tea in China.

This is a country of art, with its 6000 year tradition, enough to overwhelm any aspiring artist, and of cheap art supplies, Chinese brushes, rice paper, intense watercolors, irresistible for a family of painters. And this is a country of tiny eating spots. Though we try to be careful, we've eaten in some dubious places, feeling uneasy but hungry, always resolving never to do it again. Like yesterday. We ate with M in a hole-in-the-wall eatery. At one table a group of peasants played a drinking game, counting loudly, laughing, then slurping their beer out of bowls, one of the few times I've seen drunkenness in China. M kept apologizing for them, telling us they're low-class people, which surprised us in this classless society. At our own table we stared at our food. The string beans and green peppers looked, then tasted, uncooked, dangerous fare in a land that uses night soil as fertilizer. M assured us they'd been submerged a few minutes in boiling water. Did that suffice?

At the dumpling house the night before last, dumplings stuffed with scallions and pork, we paid less than $2 for a meal for seven people, 28 cents each. What is the relationship between price and safety?

The day before that, wandering around at the wrong time of day, the only open restaurant we could find was crowded and dirty. The tables, dishes, floor, stools, and chopsticks were all greasy, the prices incredibly low. The string beans were mixed with shredded pig stomach, and the beer was ladled from a tub under the counter into green plastic mugs. A woman sat at the door with a wheel-barrow full of rice which she scooped into bowls.

This is a country with a famine diet, everything that's edible is eaten, including chicken heads. If we don't order a whole chicken, and we're usually not sure exactly what we've ordered, the chicken comes cut up in half-inch pieces, including bone. The pieces all look the same, yet we know the head is there with its eyeballs, beak, and brain.

Sometimes it's hard to know what to think. Perhaps I should retrace our relationship with M. When he first approached Sarah and me, he showed us letters he was about to mail to several friends in the United States. Clearly he had had experience dealing with Americans. When he canceled our visit to his father's factory, I was amazed he hadn't realized ahead of time that we needed government permission. We invited him to our room to show him photos of our artwork, and he didn't hesitate to say yes. But when the doorman told him he had to sign in if he wanted to go up, he refused, and we brought everything down and sat on the steps.

Suddenly he got up to leave, claiming that the doorman was staring at him. The doorman came over and told him to sign in although he hadn't gone to our room. He was visibly upset. Afterwards I asked him what it was all about.

"They keep track of everyone who goes into the building in case something happens."

"They do that in many American buildings."

"I just don't like to have to sign."

"Will you have any problems because of it?"

"No, no, it's nothing."

When I mentioned to M that we wanted to go to a village in the countryside, he said he'd bring us to one the following day, that we could spend the night with his friends. But when we met him to make the final arrangements, he said there was a missile base there and foreigners weren't allowed.

He said we'd visit his parents' apartment instead. When we met him to go there, he said he'd bought us concert tickets, the show was about to begin, he'd bike there and we should take a taxi and meet him. He shoved five tickets into my hand.

The taxi-driver grabbed the tickets, saw that the performance began in three minutes, whisked all five of us into his cab, and took off, plowing through streets filled with cyclists. We tried to slow him down, fearing some poor bike-rider would be sacrificed for our concert. He even ushered us to our seats.

After the concert, M got us a cab, told the driver where to leave us, and said he'd meet us there to visit some friends of his. We waited, and waited. Eventually he arrived.

"I've been forced to change our plans," he said. The police had fined him 80 yuan for accompanying us to a concert for foreigners without the necessary permit .

"Did you know you needed a permit?" I asked. He didn't answer. He said he had lied to the police, told them we had been in China before, that he had met us when he was a music student.

"Hundreds of people talk to us on the streets and no one seems afraid, why didn't you just tell them the truth?" I asked.

"Because I had made an appointment to see you again." I still didn't understand. People haven't been afraid to make appointments with us.

We walked back slowly, everyone upset. 80 yuan is a typical month's salary. Adolph offered to pay the fine for him. M refused. He said he had friends in the government, he'd call them tomorrow morning. We stopped a few blocks from the hotel, sat on a ledge in the dark, trying to understand, wondering what it meant in his life. M said, "I just now realized that the most important thing is freedom."

I suspect there's something more that we don't know. I could put it like this: We met a stranger in the street who went out of his way to spend time with us and to take us places we would not otherwise have seen. Several times he made plans, then suddenly canceled them, and we had only his word about the reasons why. He may or may not be in trouble because of us. I hope no poor biker was sacrificed for our concert.

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