Archive for December, 2010


Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Nuremberg is a better choice than Kunming if you need to indulge your Christmas nostalgia.  But if you happen to be in Kunming, why not give it a try?

I often bicycle past the apparently generic Protestant church on Peoples’ Avenue West, and when I saw the Christmas decorations go up, I was drawn to stop in and check the calendar of Advent events for a service of Christmas music.  Indeed a flier promised just such a service on the Saturday before Christmas.

The major offering was Händel’s “Messiah”, the Christmas section.  The cognitive dissonance of a choir, perhaps forty strong, all dressed in Miao traditional costumes and intoning Händel was markedly greater for me than the musical dissonances:  they had rehearsed diligently and did a creditable job.  Choruses were rendered in Chinese; recitatives in English by professional voices.

The musical accompaniment, unfortunately, was by piano.  No strings, no oboes, no harpsichord.  What’s more, the enthusiastic pianist took his pianoforte instrument to heart.  Poor Händel, who never heard a piano; I think he would not have liked the reduction.

More unforgivable yet were the two lengthy interruptions for clerical declamation.  I couldn’t follow the drift of the contents, but the tone of voice brought to mind “harangue” rather than “homily”.  Not the sweet voices of angels heralding the lowly birth, but two strident ladies, obviously well trained in the preaching profession.  The Little Lord Jesus himself would surely have cried to hear it.

Added to my growing malaise was the peculiar architecture of the church building: from nowhere in the capacious balcony could one see the chancel;  the view was transmitted by not-so-great-resolution, closed circuit television screens.  Altogether more grating than sublime.

God forgive me that the following Friday, Christmas Eve, I was more open to the secular suggestion of a colleague to join in the larger congregation of merry-makers downtown.  I had class until eight-thirty that evening, and so, to make up for lost time, we hailed a cab.  First shots over the bow was the cabbie’s “No way I’m taking my cab downtown.  Take a bus.”  “Walk” would have been better advice.

It was nearly ten before we made it to the pedestrian zone in central Kunming.  It seemed that the entire younger set of Kunmingians must have been there.  It was not a shopping frenzy, as most of the shops were already closed; just an aimless frenzy.  The plot grew curiouser and curiouser as it appeared more and more street vendors were hawking masks which seemed to be a wholesale purchase of left-over Mardi Gras paraphernalia. Particularly intriguing were the tiaras of illuminated horns, distinctly Diabolical horns, not Rudolfian.

The major item for sale, however, were boxes upon boxes of aerosol cans which emitted faux-snow.  (Christmas Eve was somewhat white, but certainly not green.)  Armed with these, roving bands of youths attacked anyone in their path.  As a hoary-haired Caucasian I seemed to draw extraordinary fire.  Teetering on the edge of amusement and annoyance, I regretted my secular choice and wondered what would He do.  “Love thine enemy” echoed from somewhere.  And so — with a sexist discrimination, I confess — I to took to counter-attacking my assailants with a bear-hug, a few waltz-like turns, all the while chanting “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas” in my best American English.

I hadn’t really thought through the consequences of His noble precept, and didn’t have an exit-strategy in mind.  My bear-hug surges worked unexpectedly wonderfully in that mine enemy loved my loving response and doused me all the more with the gooey white stuff.

Extricating ourselves down an alley, we slumped our way back to campus.  Instead of an exposition on the Gospel to my heathen friends, I wound up narrating the pagan traditions behind the European street parties of Fasching and Mardi Gras.

I’m feeling a little peevish about the whole thing.  I don’t begrudge anyone a good Solstice Bash, but why do they have to preempt our symbols, our slogans, our date?  Ah, how easily our egocentricities bring on amnesia.  All the great, dispossessed gods of Europe have finally made league with the Chinese to avenge themselves.  Thor has taken back his Christmas tree; Saturn has reclaimed his Saturnalia.

Hope you all had a lovely Christmas.

Magical Valley

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

The gate to Bamei

There is something inherently voyeuristic in my desire for close encounters with rural Yunnan.  Chinese villages are a world apart from Chinese cities, and the old aphorism of being a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there applies.

In the lumpy-bumpy karst mountain region a few hundred kilometers east of Kunming lies a unique valley harboring a typical village, Bamei.  The village is populated by people of the Zhuang ethnic group, and sufficiently isolated from the outside world as to retain some primordial character.  A crystal clear stream runs along the valley floor, with fields spread on either side, and the structures comprising the village arrayed up on the mountain side so as to maximize tillable land.

It’s late November, and some of the fields are newly plowed, clayey soil turned by ox drawn plows. Others still bear the color of late-season vegetable crops, punctuated by human figures harvesting the greenery into baskets suspended on shoulder poles for self or animal consumption.  The weather is drizzly; mud prevails.

I sit on the dining deck of an otherwise deserted guest house and survey the enclosing karst ridges.  Remarkable is


that I see no break in the ring which might provide the river with ingress and egress.

[That last paragraph is for literary effect.  I know the course of the river very well, because I followed it to get here.]

Indeed, there is no break.  The river simply goes underground, flowing through perhaps two kilometers of cavern before it emerges on the far side of the mountain.  Thus to enter Bamei from the outside world you engage the services of a Zhuang boatman, who poles you upstream until, out of the dark bowels of the earth, you break forth into a hidden valley.  As you continue upstream, the river pulls this sleight-of-hand twice more.  After traversing the next cavern, you enter a narrower valley, with no settlements, just a few animal sheds, fish weirs, duck ponds and fields.  Finally another, longer disappearing act, and the boat re-emerges into the  outskirts of a larger village, firmly in the grip of civilization.

Truly, a magical, hidden valley.

Farmer's House

There are consequences to this isolation.  No roads penetrate the valley, hence no motorized traffic, none of the cars, trucks, buses, with their incessant honking, as everywhere else in China.  No roads at all.  My Chinese guide, brought up in the local Chinese dialect, is deaf to the Zhuang language, and strains to communicate in the natives’ Chinese-as-a-second-language.  (Forget English.)  The food served up by our hostess is local produce:  eggs from the chickens and ducks, veggies from her several garden plots, still green in November, various squashes and tubers, fried minnows from the river, bits of pork belly.  All helped down with rice wine, home-brewed out of the eye of revenuers.

Our rooms are of new construction, filling out two sides of a courtyard, the other two sides of which are of more

Bamei Village

traditional, sapling-log structures. The rooms are comfortable, not by the multi-starred standards of the hospitality industry, but by any reasonable standard of human need.  Being the off-season, we are the only guests, and our hostess walks us through the living menu of her vegetable garden: just point out what you would like for dinner.  We eat together with her in the kitchen on a low table, under a bare bulb, next to the wood-fired stove with its embedded woks.  The space is shared by a cat adapted to scrounging the inedible bits spit out on the floor, with the help of an occasional chicken, while the family pig serenades us from beyond the log wall, offering a comforting aid to digestion and oblivious to the likelihood that his belly will be next up in the wok.

Dinner Table

We spend a morning making out way up-river, by foot and by boat.  We spend an afternoon traipsing along the narrow dikes which typically separate Chinese fields and paddies.  My guide is a country girl, well versed in the names of crops and techniques,  somewhat more sure-footed, and consequently a little less muddied,  than I.  In the evening we watch, from a good distance (because my guide is also superstitious), a funeral “service”, replete with fire-crackers, ritual dances, chants, horns (suona), tambourines — the participants all cloaked in white.

Truly idyllic?

Bamei indeed seems free of most of the urban iniquities you and I thrive on.  With the exception of television.

Laundry Day

While the life-giving river enters the hidden valley through subterranean channels, life-polluting CCTV enters on supraterranean beams.  That television breaks the spell of pristine Zhuang culture is obvious and inevitable; that it breaks the drudgery of the villagers’ hard-scrabble existence is arguably commendable.

For Bamei’s fields are not Elysian. The work is hard, long, muddy, and manual, with only animal-power to alleviate the worst of it.  The question becomes not would I want to live there, but would I be able to survive there?  Probably not.  Better just pass by as city-slicking voyeur with a few city-made Yuan in my pocket.