Book excerpt: The Great Walk of China

In advance of Graham Earnshaw’s talk at the Beijing Bookworm on Saturday, here’s a chapter from his new book, The Great Walk of China. After crossing flat country for most of the distance from Shanghai, Graham finds himself in the Dabie Mountains of rural Anhui Province.

Chapter 2: Drinking Games

The day’s walk was over and I returned to Chashui for dinner. I called Teacher Xu, who asked me to come to the school gates at 5.30pm. Arriving promptly, Teacher Xu led me inside to a conference room where I found a delegation of five men waiting for me, three of them in suits. Leading the delegation was Mr. Cheng Zhihua, secretary of the Qianshan County Communist Youth League, who looked about thirty-five years old. Accompanying him were his assistant, Mr. Huang, Teacher Xu and two vice-headmasters. Headmaster Chen, I was informed, was not available.

Mr. Cheng formally welcomed me to the mountains by saying, “This region is poor.”

“I think it is very beautiful,” I replied.

“We welcome people from all over the world,” he responded, so I asked how many other foreigners had passed this way. “There was an African man from Cameroon a few years ago, but apart from that, you’re the first foreigner to visit the region.” I said it was my honour.

“We are looking for investment – investors – and maybe you would be interested?” he asked.

“I am just walking through,” I replied. “I am not here looking for investments. But I do think the mountains are beautiful and there should be big potential for tourism in the long term.”

“We think so too,” he said. “There are several local hotel projects under construction, but not high class. There is no foreign investment in them.”

I suggested they should be cautious about developing lower level hotel projects to avoid the kind of damage to the scenery and environment inflicted on other places such as the once beautiful town of Guilin.

“Mr. Yan referred to a six-star hotel idea?” prompted Teacher Xu.

“I think such an idea would be great in theory, though in practice it would require a lot of patience and money and support from the local government. Outside investors are convinced about the future of China tourism, but the Dabie Mountains are very remote, and there would be a reluctance to invest.”

“Thank you for your frankness,” Mr. Cheng said. “Now it is time for dinner.”

“My treat,” I said. “Let us go to a local restaurant and have a simple meal.”

“I have arranged dinner at the best restaurant in town, a banquet for two hundred and fifty RMB,” Teacher Xu announced.

“Wow, two hundred and fifty RMB!” I said. “You have a Grand Hyatt here? I had dinner the other night for just forty RMB including beer.”

“Only forty RMB? Impossible,” Teacher Xu said.

“Our treat,” Mr. Cheng pushed.

“No no,” I said.

“Yes yes,” they said.

It was the old Chinese banquet-hosting ploy of push and pull. I decided to cave in, even though it meant no dinner for Xu Bing. I sensed they had expected me to insist but I wasn’t interested in playing their game – there were more people than planned, and two hundred and fifty RMB for a meal in Chashui was outrageous.

We drove off from the school and thirty seconds later we arrived at the local inn at which I had previously eaten for forty RMB and taken a room. We went upstairs and the toasting began. Everyone drank ‘baijiu’ (the Chinese spirit that’s from eighty to one hundred and twenty proof and is usually made from sorghum grain), except for one of the vice-headmasters who gained my respect by bucking convention and drinking beer out of the baijiu shot glasses.

The drinking culture in China is fascinating. All the strengths and genius of Chinese culture are revealed within it, as well as a few of the shortcomings. But it’s the strengths that predominate.

It is social manipulation on a scale and sophistication far beyond anything Western culture has developed. In the West everyone basically drinks alone. When a group of people gathers together and drink alcohol in Europe or the United States, they may clink glasses and say cheers once at the beginning, but after that each person drinks alone, sipping alcohol when they choose with no regard to what is happening around them. In China, no one drinks alone. Every time the glass is raised it is used to manipulate a relationship in some way. The aim is to toast each person around the table in turn, including a special look and a few words, which provides the chance for manipulation. Of course, as in the West, the aim is also to get drunk, but there’s an added layer of social interaction that comes from thousands of years of perfecting the drinking culture. The West has a lot to learn from China in the twenty-first century.

My new friends were toasting each other like mad, and with each salutation a glass was drained. I chose to sip my drink, which drew disapproving glances. Teacher Xu was the worst, making a big point of wanting me to drain the glass each time. On principle I declined, telling him my drinking capacity was clearly no match for his. I can drink large quantities of baijiu when necessary – if it is an important dinner in an outlying province and it is necessary to gain the respect of my dinner companions, but I don’t enjoy it, because a baijiu hangover is about the worst I have ever experienced. Actually, the only good thing that can be said about baijiu is that every glass tastes better than the last.

There was no way I wanted to become baijiu-drunk and have to sweat the stuff out the next day on the road.

“Mr. Yan is a cautious drinker, like myself,” Mr. Cheng said, to head off Teacher Xu. He toasted me and we continued to sip the alcohol.

Still strictly business, Mr. Cheng said investors would be able to enjoy special tax breaks for several years, and tasked his assistant Mr. Huang to visit me in Shanghai to give me materials on investment policy and opportunities in the region but as soon as he realised that I was not going to invest in any of his proposals, he stood up suddenly and said that while it had been an honour to meet me and all that, he had to leave to get back to the county seat about fifty kilometres from Chashui.

“Stay with him for a while,” he said to Teacher Xu as he left.

Teacher Xu, who I now noticed was pudgy and unfit at only twenty-nine years of age, continued to toast me, although he said at one point that he had drunk so much that if he drank much more he would explode. “That would be unfortunate,” I said, but he kept up the toast rate, and began pushing the investment line in a self-serving way. “Your plan of a six-star hotel is excellent, but you will need assistance here, and a lot of help from the local government.”

“I am sure that is true,” I said. “But, remember, I am just walking through.”

He said that being a teacher is very important and that while he’d had opportunities to develop his career outside the mountains, he had decided to work in the Chashui High School in order to help the local people.

“We play an important role, developing the patriotism of the students. Connections with the outside world are important, although I don’t like Japanese people,” he said.

This is a comment that always annoys me. “Why don’t you like Japanese people?” I asked.

“Because of the way they treated China in the war.”

“But it wasn’t the Japanese of today, it was their grandfathers,” I pointed out.

“Nanjing massacre… Yasukuni Shrine…”

“This is all history and government policy,” I said. “The British fought the Opium Wars with China. Do you think I should apologize to you for that?”

“Um, well, the Japanese government won’t admit the errors of the past.”

“That is the government. What has that got to do with the ordinary people? You think I support every policy of the British government because I hold a British passport? Should I blame you personally for the Chinese government’s activities in Sudan?” I was warming to the theme. Bloody baijiu. “Your students deserve a balanced education. To condemn Japanese people in this way is to return to the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution. In those days, as you know Teacher Xu, people were imprisoned and their lives ruined because they had a ’family background problem’, meaning their grandfather had travelled abroad, or something equally irrelevant.”

We eventually ended the impasse by agreeing that everyone in the world is equal.

Xu insisted on opening yet another bottle of beer, even though it was clear I didn’t want it and he couldn’t handle it. We drank half and then he said: “You should now go upstairs to rest.” I insisted on going down to the door with him to see him off. “Really not necessary, you go and rest,” he ordered me. “I am waiting for someone,” I replied.

“Who is it?”

“Someone I met.”

“I had better stay here and see him to make sure it is all right,” he said, playing the role of the nosy official.

“Teacher Xu, I am grateful for your concern and good wishes, but I am an adult and I wish you a good night.” I presented him with my hand to shake.

Xu Bing, damn him, chose that moment to arrive on his motorcycle and Teacher Xu went over and said a few words to him, then turned to me and said: “It’s all right, I know him.”

Teacher Xu disappeared into the night, and I smiled at Xu Bing and apologized. He brushed it aside. “Let’s have a drink and a talk somewhere,” I suggested. It was only 8pm but all was dark on the main street. Things close down early in a small Chinese mountain town. “Let’s go upstairs.”

The serving girl was unhappy because she wanted to leave. “One bottle of beer, two glasses, you go home, and I promise to turn out the light,” I said. She seemed content with this deal.

Xu Bing and I talked for a couple of hours. He was a peasant boy, but the contrast between his simple open honesty and the selfishness of Teacher Xu was refreshing.

He was twenty-two years old and, following graduation from Chashui High School at the age of seventeen, he went to Shenzhen to work in a factory for two years. Then three years before our meeting, his mother died unexpectedly and Xu Bing’s father had to undergo a heart operation. His younger sister was devastated, and he had to hurry back to look after everything. He nursed his father back to health, worked the fields and arranged for his sister to get a job in Shenzhen. His father, now better, was the man I saw working under the trellises in the fields that afternoon. “I have a girlfriend now,” Xu Bing told me, “I expect to marry her one day, but I don’t know when I will have enough money to manage it.”

Xu Bing’s excuse for talking to me was the medicinal melon seed idea he had brought up when we first met, but what he really wanted to talk about was life and responsibility and his father and his puzzlement about things in general. He expressed amazement at what he knew or guessed of my life and I gave him a pep talk, telling him how lucky he was in so many ways and how the secret to success is persistence . It was a pleasure to talk to him, to get to know him. He made me ashamed with some of his statements such as: “If I have some money and I spend it to buy some clothes for myself, I don’t feel as good as when I am buying something for my father or my girlfriend,” he said.

The next day, he would be back in the fields digging dirt, while I would be on the road and Teacher Xu would be in school. But in terms of being a human being, he was doing better than at least one of us.

It was raining when I set out in the morning, which was a big contrast from the sunny skies of the day before. I ran across the road from the inn to a little shop selling shoes and bought a pair of plastic Wellington boots for seventeen RMB (about two US dollars).

It was mostly light rain as I walked through the mist-coiled mountains that evoked classic Chinese scenes: layered ranks of mountain ranges, each one paler than the one in front, fading into a pearly glow.

Every corner I turned showed me something new and beautiful in its own way: an overhang of brilliant red flowers, or an Anhui farmhouse with chickens outside and an old woman sitting silently in the doorway, watching. Or maybe a view out over terraced paddy fields, or a three-wheeler scooter truck, with a couple of pigs in the back, churning black smoke into the sweet wet atmosphere.

chapter 9 IMG_3224I was pretty high up, about seven hundred metres above sea level according to my GPS unit, compared to three hundred metres for Chashui. At one point at about 11am, the rain turned into a storm and lightning flashed and the thunder clapped right above my head, then off to the left, then over to the right. As the rain cascaded down, I sloshed past a peasant house up on a rise, and a man called out: “Come up and have some water.” I accepted his invitation with great relief.

His name was Feng Tianbei and he said he had seen me several days before on the road about thirty kilometres to the east. A rice farmer, he had two children aged twenty and eighteen, both studying in Beijing.

“But having two children was against the law then, right?” I asked.

“They didn’t enforce the policy too strictly up here in the mountains,” Mr. Feng said. “But nowadays people only want to have one. The girls won’t agree to have more.”

His children’s studies were being financed by loans from the Industrial and Commercial Bank, which the children will be responsible for paying back once they graduate and start work. He invited me to sit on a special heated stool, which I found in all the peasant houses in this little corner of Anhui, and which I have never seen anywhere else. The circular, wooden stool has a semi-circular seat punctuated with two slit holes, while below is a metal brazier for coals – absolutely brilliant in its design.

Mr. Feng’s wife was serving lunch, and I was invited to join them in their repast. I had some white rice, which Mr. Feng himself had grown, while they ate a full meal of meat and vegetables. “And how is your life?” I asked him. “We are poor,” he responded, but then Anhui farmers always say that. I pointed to the richness of his life – the beauty of the scenery, the fresh air, fresh food. “The scenery is not beautiful,” his wife said, adding: “this house is awful.” She was right – the house was pretty awful. There were holes in the walls and holes in the roof. It was nowhere near as nice as Xu Yan’s house.

I asked about electricity, which had arrived in the region in about 1991 (the phone service was installed in 2001). They said had a black-and-white television, but no refrigerator. “We grow our own food.” Mr. Feng said. “And if I had the money, I would build a new house, which he said would cost him around seventy thousand RMB (US$8,000).” My impression was that most of the ordinary farmers in this region of Anhui Province have an income of somewhere between one hundred and three hundred RMB a month, which seemed to be enough to live a basic life.

The rain stopped and I walked on to the little town of Nishui. Xu Bing had said he would come out to see me on the road before Nishui, but he hadn’t showed up, which, given the heavy rain was understandable.

There is not much to say about Nishui. It is just another one-pig town, but it does have a little ‘supermarket’ which had its lights off to save electricity. I bought some batteries and chatted with the owner, asking him which products sell the best. “Milk powder for babies,” he said. “But mother’s milk is better, right?” I said with a smile. He didn’t respond. I directed the question again to a lady in her early thirties sitting by the door. She shook her head strongly in disagreement. The shadow of sore nipples hung in the air for a second, and I thought that with luck the milk powder on sale in Nishui was actually real, as opposed to the stuff that killed forty babies in Henan Province the year before.

On the outskirts of town, I saw a faded slogan painted on the wall over a small shop that said: ‘No matter how tough it gets, don’t make it tough for the children’. Got to agree with that! The standard of rural slogans has changed dramatically, and for the better, since I first came into contact with them in the 1970s when the walls of villages used to be plastered with phrases like ‘Long Live the Great, Glorious and Correct Communist Party’; and ‘Long live Mao Zedong Thought’. Now the predominant slogans fare or birth control or promotional lines for motorcycles and mosquito coils (‘One Spot Red’ is the main mosquito coil brand in this part of Anhui, with the character for Spot written on a red spot. It looked cool on the brown mud-brick walls).

I went up to the counter of the little shop, which measured about two metres by one metre, where was a man with a big smile sitting behind a counter stocked with fruit, nuts and seeds. Behind him were shelves loaded with alcohol, cigarettes, instant noodles, soft drinks and various simple and cheap household goods. His name was Mr. Jiang, and he was slightly drunk and chain-smoking, but gentle and courteous with the few customers who came up and bought things as we talked. He invited me to sit on a stool behind the counter and for a while I looked out at the world from his perspective.

When Mr. Jiang was ten years old, his left foot caught an infection which then spread up his leg. His mother thought he would die, and she introduced him to smoking cigarettes to ease the pain. He didn’t die, but his leg was ruined. “I have been smoking ever since… it’s been twenty-six years,” he said as he looked out at the muddy street. He had a wooden crutch even more basic than Long John Silver’s, but told me walking is painful for him and that he didn’t go very far very often. “But I hobble two kilometres to my parents’ house twice a month.” His father was seventy years old and his mother was in her late sixties.

“I have a problem with my leg too,” I said. Mr. Jiang pulled up his trouser leg and showed me the withered useless appendage, covered in purple blotches, with a handkerchief wrapped around the top of his painfully skinny thigh. “I still have puss coming out of it,” he said. “It hurts a lot.” Painkillers? “I have tried them, but they have no effect.” I showed him my right leg, which by comparison was in great shape.

Chatting about his business, he said he did about six hundred RMB in revenue a month or twenty RMB a day, and turned a profit of about one hundred RMB. Jiang slept on a bed space behind the shelf next to a small black-and-white television that was his only source of entertainment. He said there was no hope of any improvement in his life, no hope of marriage or of children.

I looked around for something to buy. “Which is better, the apples or the pears?” I asked.

“It depends what you like. The pears are pretty juicy.”

“I’ll have a pear,” I said. “How much?”

“A gift to you,” he said.

“I won’t take if it is free,” I said.

“I won’t give it to you if you pay.”

We looked at each other and smiled. Of course, I let him win. He pulled out a penknife, peeled the pear and handed it to me. It was delicious.

I bade farewell to Mr. Jiang and walked on through the afternoon. The rain had stopped, but the road ascended back into the mountains and everything was soon covered with a thick mist. By 5pm, it was time to end the walk because I could see nothing in the mist and there was no one to talk to.

The next morning was dry, but cloudy. I started out from the last place I had stopped, enjoying the sounds and smells and sights and looking for a place to sit where I could write out my notes on the past couple of days. The birds were calling, the air was sweet after all the recent rain, and the mountain views down into valleys filled with terraced fields and toy farmhouses were spectacular. The bamboo and pine mix of vegetation that enraptured generations of classical Chinese poets and artists captured my heart as well. I sat down on a road marker in the midst of this Nature wonderland and started to write.

Along the road came a man who, when he saw me, mooed in the way I had learned many mutes do. He was dirty, his eyes were askew, his brain was damaged, but he recognized me as someone different, an outsider, and he was amazed and excited. It seemed there were quite a few mentally impaired people walking the mountain roads as I was coming upon at least four or five per day. Following a couple of little incidents, I had learned to tell the difference between the dangerous and the harmless. This man was harmless, but he could say nothing, and there was nothing I could say to him in any language that he could understand. I smiled at him and tried to find a way to wordlessly express something positive. He mooed again, did a sort of a jig in excitement and then tore himself away from the engagement and walked on.

I resumed my writing, but a few minutes later I had a couple of salt-of-the-earth farm labourers inspecting my camera and asking where I came from. A few more people appeared, including a father and his son. The mute came back. It was becoming a town hall meeting, so I stood up and we all walked off along the road, the people gradually peeling off into the fields. Finally, the only people left were myself and the mute.

We passed a farmhouse with noisy chickens presumably in the process of laying the free-est of free-range eggs. Then the mute started mooing urgently and pointing to a path off the road. I shook my head to indicate I was staying on the road, and he headed off down the path by himself.

I stood and thought about it for a minute. The road was winding and twisting but perhaps he was trying to tell me it was a shortcut down to the road at a lower level. I decided to trust him and left the main road to head down the little path.

It was the right call. I found myself at the top of a peaceful valley, bordered by lush forest cover, every inch in between organized into neat paddy fields. They were ploughed and waiting, this being only mid-April. There was a babbling brook and a small path beside it leading downwards. The mute was now far below, but he turned and saw me in the distance and mooed, presumably acknowledging the fact that I was not as stupid as I had appeared when I at first rejected his guidance.

A kilometre or so down the valley, I came back to the road, which led me across a bridge where I took photographs, including some of a boy riding on the back of his bike, his hands stretched out around the seat to the handlebars. A little further along, as I stood entranced by a perfect wooded and terraced hill amidst the paddy fields, a boy came up to me accompanied by a couple of his friends. They were all surnamed Chu, and all lived in a collection of houses about two hundred metres up the gentle slope, looking out across the fields towards my favourite hill. The people working in the fields were their parents and relatives.

The boys said “Good morning.”

“What else can you say in English?” I asked and they parroted the phrases “how do you do?” and “thank you”. The boy on the bike answered all questions with the word “yes”. One of the men in the fields shouted to the boys, asking who I was. “He’s English!” they shouted back. I turned and shouted as well. “Your sons are very smart! Congratulations!”

One of the men laughed and shouted back: “Okay!”

I said goodbye and walked on, but another ten minutes later they all came tearing after me again. They wanted me to take a photo with them and for us to exchange names. They invited me to one of their homes for a meal. I said I was honoured, but I would continue to walk (I could easily have had three or four meals a day for free from these hospitable people in one of China’s poorest regions).

They had a quick discussion, then said: “Well, can we walk with you?” I said, “Sure!” and as we walked, we talked about all kinds of things. I asked them about their little village.

“Everyone is surnamed Chu,” said Chu Jun (Army Chu), aged fourteen. “People have sons, and the sons marry and the families divide up, but we all stay together.”

“What about the daughters?”

“They usually get married and move away, but they sometimes come back and visit their parents.”

“How many people altogether?”

“About twenty to twenty-five families.”

“You go to school?”

“Yes. Junior high school. The school is terrible.”

“What will you do when you graduate?”

“Go to university!” said Chu Bingbing (Soldier Soldier Chu), aged fifteen.

“And then?”

“Find work outside.”

“You won’t come back to live here?”

“No,” he said

“Then who will work the fields?” I asked.

“Our parents.”

“Well, not forever. Right?”

“Er, right.” He thought about it for a second. “Well, maybe we could hire people to work the fields.”

“Or we could sell the fields,” added Chu Jun.

What was interesting is that the only possibility not considered by the boys was working the land themselves. This was the shift in China’s population from the country to the cities in action, at its most basic level.

Two other boys joined us from the fields: Chu Kui, aged fourteen but looking more like eight, and Liu Da, aged maybe six and who was too shy to talk to me but bounced around me the whole time listening to the conversation while playing Tetris on a small hand-held machine. “He’s introverted,” Chu Jun explained.

They asked me lots of questions too. “Are there fields in England? What do English people do with the bodies of dead people? What religion are you?” I told the boys I had no religion.

“But what religion do other people in England have?”

“Many people in England are Christian,” I said. “How about you?”

“I guess we are Buddhists,” said Chu Jun.

“I like Buddhism,” I said. “It is peaceful.”

Chu Jun pointed to diminutive Chu Kui. “His father is a Taoist priest.”

“Taoism! I like that as well,” I said.

I recited the first three words of the Taoist canon, the Daodejing: “Dao ke dao (The way that can be followed…)”

Chen Jun completed the phrase. “Feichang dao (…is not the true way).”

“Ming ke ming,” I continued (the name that can be named…).

“Feichang ming (…is not the true name),” Chen Jun completed the couplet.

“What’s the next line?” I said. “I can’t remember it.”

“I can’t remember either,” he said, and we both smiled.

We were walking down a hill, and on the slope ahead of us on the right, placed by the heavens with perfect timing, was a shrine. It was small and simple, with walls painted white and a peaked tiled roof. Over the door were four characters: ‘Whatever you ask for, there will be a response (you qiu bi ying)’.

“There used to be a vicious dog guarding it, so you couldn’t go in, but the dog has gone,” Chu Jun said.

We walked up the steep steps and went inside. There were two circular straw mats on the floor in front of a shelf on which were placed three statues of the Buddha in different incarnations, with an incense burner in front of them.

“Do you want to pay your respects to Buddha?” Chu Jun asked me.

I said yes. He pulled a couple of sticks of incense from a box by the burner, lit them, and handed one to me. We knelt down together. “Now make a request,” he said to me as Liu Da continued battling the Tetris blocks beside us. I made one and Chu Jun took my incense stick and placed both sticks into the incense ash in the burner. We went back outside into the sunlight, with the wide valley laid out below. I felt good.

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