You walk in on the Terracotta Army, and it’s hard not to feel like you’re discovering something.
Despite the tourists shuffling in with you. Despite the air hanger base it’s contained in. Despite already seeing this thousands of times, in Nat Geo, in NYTs, History Channel—the world’s biggest pottery celebrity.
Because there’s a presence to them. Every statue is unique, modeled after a different soldier in Emperor Qin’s army, and as you stare at them they stare back—they’ve all got their secrets, their intimacies. These low level soldiers who end up more famous than the grandest Zhou-era emperors. In person your senses understand something your brain can’t. Etchings emerge, in the armor and weapons, of old China’s military grandeur. Its brutal effectiveness.
And the story of its discovery being almost as amazing as the site itself. Here’s a farmer in the late Mao-era, digging a local well with a rusted shovel chipped at the tip, finding a collection of fragments like he’s struck oil. The diggers come in, the reporters come later, and the further they push into the layers, the more we realize this is like Tutankhamen meets the Rosetta Stone: priceless treasures that become a translation of a lost age.
Something that was lost becomes found again. These Terracota figures don’t even figure into Qin records of the time—suddenly they’re our greatest link not just to the era but to all of Ancient China. Can the same be said for contemporary China? Can the things that were lost in the past hundred years be found again?
If I hadn’t gone to Sichuan, I probably would’ve said no. Bullet trains and glass towers would be all I’d remember. Dior streets and McDonald’s warehouses. A temple here and there with a hefty entrance fee and its peace drowned out by the yelling of the tour guides. But Sichuan showed me a very different side, one that makes you want to believe that maybe it’s not all lost.
Sichuan is one of the old cultural centers of China, credited with the invention of tea culture and the spiciest food in China. It’s the land of always-spring, misty mountains wreathing through temples; lakehouses and tealeaves. But it’s remote, and that probably saved I from some of the most brutal moments of both Japanese occupation and the numerous revolutions that followed it. And so there’s something left here, still, of what came before all that.
It’s not all that at first sight. Like Kyoto, the office towers and wide, faceless streets will hit you first, while the culture living under it will take a little longer to sink in. Chengdu, its capital and home to those goddamn pandas, is in most ways a modern city, with a great metro and a downtown you’d be hard-pressed to tell apart from other mid-size Chinese downtowns. And sweet, pretty things weren’t exactly on my mind after surviving the 16 hour train ride on a hard seat. I passed out, got up and jumped to a number of bars (all getting in for free by flashing that not-so-invisible foreigner card), danced till dawn.
I woke up not knowing which city I was in. Just another hostel bunkroom with towers seen from the window. ZP came into my room when the afternoon was already pretty advanced and I was just pushing myself out of bed. With his baseball cap, hiking shorts and giant smile, I took one look at him and knew I wasn’t in the mood for that level of energy. Today was for hangover nursing and pretending to catch up on my completely depleted sleep bank. But he kept asking me questions, real ones (“What do you think of China”—“no, really think of it”), and I realized this guy wasn’t your ordinary bunk-mate.
ZP styles himself a writer, animator, director, producer. After working for a number of years behind-camera in Beijing’s television industry, he’s getting ready to launch his own animation show that blends Chinese history and just the right amount of present technology—he calls it “Tao-steampunk.” He’s got an infinite capacity for optimism, this never-fail attitude that I’m sure is just about the only way you can survive the Beijing film industry. He speaks with an American accent even though he’s never left China, and it only took us twenty minutes into our discussion, after hopping across the movie-lover’s spectrum of genre and ideas across a lunch of fish and spicy cabbage, to get onto talking about That Big CPC. The government.
And I—finally—get a perspective that wasn’t strung together from slogans. That didn’t come down to “well the economy’s good, and so people are happy right?” ZP saw things a little differently. He saw the greed and senselessness of the wealth, how ‘progress’ equates to Americanization, how much has been unanswered by the modern state. How beautiful the old culture is: as we went through a number of temples, he explained its workings, such as why every temple has a dragon and the phoenix, who each porcelain figure is, and why everything, in the end, links to yin and yang.
“Why do you love Taoism best?”
“Because the Tao is China. Everything we are comes back to this.”
The longer I spend with him, going to central Sichuan’s major temples, the more I get it. The perfectly articulated gardens, the stories carved into the walls, the great porcelain scholars staring down at you from the semi-darkness. The golden dragons on the roof. High pillars, temples perched overlooking misty mountains. And balance, logic taken to the cosmic scale; heaven is order, order is heaven. The way this all connects, with such grace and beauty… yes, this is probably why I fell in love with China.
But he looked away for a second, shook his head, and corrected himself,
“Sorry. The Tao was China.”
And he told me the history from his angle; from his grandparents, sent to the country side after the cultural revolution, from his uncle the governor, who was in Beijing May 1989, where the bullets came so large and so sudden, “he thought it was fireworks going off. Like a festival.” He pointed to all the buildings that shouldn’t be there, these concrete-glass 10 stories standing on top of temples and graveyards. Going into this sprawling, gorgeous complex of canals, temples, and pagodas, and finding a ‘state of the art’ escalator drilled into the mountain. All the times, as a journalist, he was censored by the government.
“We have a saying here, though it’s not one you’ll hear on the official lines,” as we walk between the old homes turned into souvenir shops. “In 66, the spirit of China was lost.”
In our hostel there was a former Chinese opera singer who had to quit early and become a banker, in light of the grim job prospects for the declining art form. But she was an opera singer allright: the way she walks in the room, long red curls and sparkling stage-eyes, catching everyone’s attention. Introducing her 19-er son and soaking in the waves of “what? No, he can’t be that old,” while the son keeps his head in his phone quietly shaking his head. We ask her to sing a song, and after the necessary “what? No, I couldn’t possibly,” she rises and opens her hands. This hostel, beer bottles and chipped tables, graffiti on the walls and a loud game of back-corner king’s cup, has become her stage.
And, well, it’s Chinese opera. It’s an acquired taste. The wilting registers, spiraling higher and higher till the din of screeching. I was stunned. The game of 7’s and the girl’s laughing around their phones stopped abruptly. Everyone was looking at her as she curled her hands in the tight, measured control of rising measures, face tense with the emotions wrapped in the song’s story. And as she hits those highest notes, her face breaks into a radiant smile. She collapses into her chair, the room breaks out into applause.
I’ve never wanted to know Chinese so desperately as when ZP asked her about her art, her feelings about the state of the opera and culture in general in 2016 China. But their laughing dragged me along; I couldn’t help it, she was so expressive and vivid that sometimes the joy went beyond barriers. There was just a minute when one of ZP’s questions made her face darken, and her answer was almost a whisper as she looked into her drink.
He said, “It’s just like what I said. When 66 happened China’s spirit was lost.”
And it was like we were having a eulogy, in this hostel, when she sang her song. A final hurrah.
But the thing I take away from those three days is that, if I meet so many people telling me it’s a tragedy it’s been lost, then it’s not been completely lost, has it? There are still people here holding on, trying to salvage some beauty from this. ZP hopes his show can inspire a whole new generation to reconnect with the Tao and its practices. This lady’s on her way up to Beijing so she can sit front row on the best troupe in the world.
That night our hostel celebrated Mid-Autumn festival by getting us all to make floats we place candles in to set off down the river (mine of course being a complete, beautiful disaster), and then making mooncakes together. And despite most Chinese people only speaking Chinese and westerners English, we were all laughing as the formers showed us latters how to not screw them up. They showed us how they made the cakes with their families year after year. These traditions. It’s not big temples and is rarely the kind of cultural experience a foreigner gets to participate in; something intangible.
In Europe and key places in china you tend to go ‘age crazy’: the older the better, the whole “Oh what, that Cathedral’s only five hundred years old? Pfff, go tell someone who cares.” Japan’s focus is quite different. Its holiest site, Ise Jingu, gets torn down every 20 years, according to ancient Shinto demands. When you’re there you realize it’s not about the age of the place, but about the feeling and importance attached to it. It’s the tradition, leading back thousands of years—that’s what makes Japan so powerful.
So much has been lost in the last fifty years here. Still, if the belief’s there, if there’s a conscious need to recapture some of that beauty, then maybe the most important piece of Chinese culture hasn’t, ultimately, been lost. What’s lost, found again. It’s always been, in the Confucian way, about looking back to the past to help answer the questions of the present. And what can the past answer in the face of Shanghai, in the face of the bund and homelessness and crumbling international relations?
In Chengdu, you remember it’s never been about monuments or post-card perfect streets. It’s the young students in their white martial arts robes. The nuns singing and sprinkling incense. The lady in her green-blue silk gown explaining to ZP how each tea in their restaurant corresponds to a different stage in Confucius’s ladder of scholastic self-cultivation. Bookstores, parks, art galleries. Things that don’t have some weighty dollar sign attached.
The city’s Renmin Park sits in the center of the city and lies overgrown with sycamores that lace around riverpaths, pavilions, and tea houses. And as I sat there writing with my giant literal urn of tea, I’m reminded why I came to China in the first place. The courtyard with its hexagon doors, herons bobbing along the stream.
Looking for the Chengdu zoo (gotta see dem pandas, right?), I took the wrong entrance and walked into the largest Buddhist temple in Western China. There’s a small hall that’s been in use for a thousand years, yes, but most of the complex has been built in the last thirty years, with money raised by people in Sichuan who see the value of it here and now. People stood in lines waiting to cast incense below the golden Boddhistava, while monks sung in some distant courtyard (they never sang in Japan, they’re always singing here).
And here I realize that China, real China, is impossibly dense. How it would take a number of lifetimes to understand its contradictions and power. Its uncertain beauty.
In Sichuan, I start wondering if I’m doing this trip all wrong. Stringing myself along the cities of central China, I’m following the line of state-ordained industry and progress. Taking trains, going clubbing, maybe squeezing in some time for pictures. Never staying long enough in a single place to get its flavor. It’s China after all, it’s gonna take longer than a few days. And I’ve never wanted to explore, to understand, a place here like this province. At best I have fragments, hints of all the things I’m missing.
ZP ended up going to Jiujaigo, a national park in the province’s remote western region with a lake that changes colors. A China at some level of peace. Not rushing to stations, fighting for space, checking one hostel to the next, the rinse-repeat cycle of meeting amazing people and only ever dancing on the surface of our histories. And I knew I should be going with him, getting to really know a place like you know a person, a person like you know a place—the roadmaps, the way stops. And maybe get to breath again. God, when did I last breath?
But the Shanghai plane was only 11 days away but an entire half-continent away. Jiujaigo would take up 5 days I never really had. So I spent one last morning in Chengdu, sipping tea, and getting ready for my next stop.
Getting ready for the nightmare of Chongqing.