I walked in right as squadrons of boys trotted to the practice field. They all wore matching red shirts with “Shaolin” on them. Some carried staffs as they marched, some carried mats for tumbling exercises, some giant water jugs for the others. One squadron by one, they filled the practice area, a red sea of teenage boys, who when they saw me yelled “Beautiful!” before bawling with laughter.
I can’t express the sheer volume of the boys studying Shaolin kung fu. They stand in rows, doing squats and jumps, kicks, quick punches. A little boy chases another with his sword before being chastised by his squad leader. Another dashes onto the field, late. They fall into line and move in synchronized movements, chanting “three two one” as they train. It’s like a machine. Almost dizzying to see.
Later, I see a student walking along the practice field. He greets me: “Where are you?” I switch to Chinese.
“Yup. How long have you been here?”
“Wow, that’s a long time. Do you do this kind of practice every day?”
“Yes of course!”
“…Do you actually like it?”
He looks over at the field.
“It’s not bad!”
And then he enters the red sea once again, his friends making jokes about his foreign girlfriend before they put on serious faces and train, train, train.
Even machines are made of parts. Luckily, these parts are still goofy.
I saw the monk in Shaolin Temple as I walked around the altars. He was using a pair of tweezers to pick out the incense stubs left behind from previous visitors. When I asked why, he said it was because otherwise the next ones wouldn’t be able to stick into the ash. He’d been in the temple for 30 years.
“Hey, you speak Chinese,” he said. “Where are you from? Russia?”
“Yes, I’m getting my master’s degree.”
“But will you stay in China when it’s done?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Too soon to tell.”
He picked out a couple more stubs and then paused. “You should stay in China. It’s safe. We don’t have guns. I heard about what happened last week. One man killed 50 people. 50 people, dead.” He shook his head. “Stay in China.”
I’m in a unique position as an American abroad when a mass shooting happens. Under normal circumstances, I’m still frequently asked about guns, but it’s magnified when a tragedy like Orlando happens. I always try to be fair, really I do. I try to present both sides logically, though I definitely lean toward one. After all, both sides of the debate have intelligent people who have solid reasons for their opinions. Still. It’s getting harder and harder to be fair. I was in China when Sandy Hook happened. And I’m here now, in the wake of Orlando. And every time, people look to me to ask “But why?”
Sometimes living abroad is like this:
I see things happening at a distance. On ‘earth’ so to speak, the debates follow a certain rhythm and from here, I watch it flow along like water down glass. Tragedy, debate, frustration, repeat. And I’m put in the hot seat once again in China, with people asking “But, why?” as I peer at that distant earth known as my country.
It’s hard representing a country that is still struggling with its identity. I have nothing new to add, really, since the debate has been hashed and rehashed a thousand times. I guess my small hope for the coming debates and elections is that both sides will be willing to look beyond party affiliation and have a human discussion. (Maybe that’s a big hope, I don’t know.)
I will hope for the best, though, because though the view of the earth from outside is alarming and saddening at times, it can be beautiful when it orbits just right.
I had to majorly divert my path to the train station to meet her. In fact, though China Daily offered to get a ticket for me back to Hangzhou, I got an overnight train to another city myself, just so I could stop by her place in the afternoon.
We had met in Beihai, Guangxi, while she and her parents were doing a roadtrip to the sea city, Sanya. In what is the most memorable moment of that trip, they took out their own bottle of true Shanxi vinegar and poured me a little cup of it. The whole time I’d been on the road to “discover” Shanxi with China Daily, I thought of that little cup of vinegar in Beihai.
This time, I met her in her coffee shop, 等你 (Waiting for You) and as soon as I came in, she greeted me with a slice of cake and a cold latte.
“Sorry I couldn’t take you somewhere to sightsee today,” she said. “It’s just me here, so I have to stay.”
It had taken me a while to find her coffee shop, since it was in a residential area. I had expected something a little scrappy. Instead, her work station had coffee gadgets I hadn’t even seen before, and rather than dashing together a cup of joe, she carefully sifted ground beans into filters, pouring an even stream of warm water over it in small circles.
“I went to school to learn how to make coffee,” she said. “I found that I loved it, and so continued to study how to make it, and now here I am.”
Her plaque for the Qingdao coffee school was on her shelf, along with other collectible coffee gadgets, and several medals from marathons. Soft music played, and on her corkboard, several pictures of friends met on the road were pinned (including the one of us in Guangxi!) The other wall displayed a chart for coffee tastes and nuances. Suffice it to say I had underestimated her.
“You like coffee?” she said. I nodded and said I drank Starbucks ground beans. She grimaced. “Never again! You must taste the good coffee!”
She pulled out three different bags of coffee and ground the beans, then one by one, pulling out her gadgets to add water and have it come out in a smooth stream of coffee. I had three cups of espresso in front of me.
“Will this prevent you from sleeping tonight?” she said. I shook my head, mostly because there was no way she was going to dangle good coffee in front of me and then take it away.As extra finesse, she took out an ice cream cake, while two of her regulars came in, and we chatted about the rest of our journeys after parting ways in Guangxi. She had a soft smile and a penchant for dashing over to the kitchen to show me something else. Though there was no vinegar, the kindness was still there.
If you were to look at my itinerary, you’d think it an unnecessary detour. But in all the days with China Daily on the road, and all of the important artifacts I saw, I think that single afternoon in a coffee shop felt more like the heart of Shanxi than anything else. It’s good to wander. It’s even better to wander into a coffee shop.
Chen Guang Yu (陈光裕) is an unassuming man in a white tank top outside of his family’s home. He smiles as visitors walk through his courtyard and willingly answers questions about Xiwan Village, where he and his family have lived for 16 generations, spanning back to a time when Shanxi was the height of trade and commerce along the Yellow River.
He leads a simple life, not out of choice, but out of habit, with a single room containing a k’ang bed, a stove, a couple of chairs, and a table. In this setting, he is not only in his home, but also an active part of ancient history.
“I am the 16th generation of the Chen’s,” he said. “We have lived here for a long time.”
The first Chen, Chen Shi Fan (陈师范) moved from Fangshan, a town over 100 km away from Xiwan Village, at the end of the 17th Century. He began as a street vendor, selling daily commodities, and as the generations prospered, expanded their business. According to Chen Guang Yu, there are about 480 people in the village, all surnamed Chen. Before, the Chens were business people. Now, his immediate family, which consists of one son and three grandsons, work outside of Xiwan Village.
“They live in the city now,” he said. “Will they come back here? It’s hard to say. Times change. There are more opportunities elsewhere nowadays.”
His family compound still rings with the ancient world. The entire place is built in accordance with Feng Shui thought: against a mountain, facing the Yellow River. Stone towers and steps wind up toward the sky, and the rooms are built into the earth, much like the old cave dwelling style found in Shanxi. Located not far from Qikou Village along the Yellow River, it’s a short stop away for visitors.
And according to Chen Guang Yu, visitors are what he will be expecting soon.
“This place is being preserved as a cultural heritage site, and will be opened up to tourism,” he said. “My doors should be open.”
His ‘open doors’, while generous, may prove to be cumbersome in the years to come, especially given that he is expected to remain on the premises to offer water and information for those stopping by. But regardless of what the future holds, Chen Guang Yu will remain in Xiwan Village.
“This is my home,” he said. “It has been for generations, and it always will be.”
Some of my best experiences have been while gazing up at the stars from below. There’s just something about being caught in the immensity of the big night sky, seeing connections form out of the chaos, and imagining creatures light-years away doing the same.
Zhangbi is made to correspond to the stars. How does that work? Our guide explained while leading us through the fortress toward the star charts. The southern star that correlates with a phoenix is called ‘Zhang’ (张) whereas the star to the north, which corresponds with a snake-turtle (yes you read that right) is called ‘Bi’ (壁). Much of the fortresses layout is fixed with the constellations and celestial movement, hence its name: Zhangbi.
The villagers in this “you should add this to your Shanxi itinerary” place were well-attuned with the stars, which we could see from insignias and other artifacts.
But that’s not what makes Zhangbi stand out. Later in the tour, we entered the elaborate network of tunnels, making this place a unique underground fortress. Needless to say, the stars all-but disappeared. We learned about how soldiers would divert water to flood intruders trying to search the tunnels, about fake wells in which villagers could hide, and about the massive wooden spikes that used to shoot out from the stone. We delved into the thin passageways (and if you go, watch your head if you, like me, are about 1.8 meters tall!) for a 1 km walk. The cool walls pressed around us. Our tour guide would tell us to stop, and we would. She would tell us to look right, and we would. The passageways got darker and darker. We couldn’t have been further from the night sky. But, right as we thought the tunnels were a fascinating place of clever defense mechanisms, the tour guide told us to stop and look up.
My breath caught. Wouldn’t you know it? The villagers had carved a place from which to see the stars from deep within the dirt.
Amid the labyrinthine corridors of the Wang Family Courtyard, I saw a woman, Ms. Shi, sitting behind a small wooden table. In front of her, a pile of small bamboo shavings, and long bamboo tablets with Chinese characters on them. She bent over a blank tablet with a small knife, whittling away the patches of skin into the shapes of the characters.
“What are you carving?” I asked her. “A poem? An essay?”
“A classic novel,” she said.
I looked at the old characters, etched out one by one on the bamboo. “Wow,” was all I could think to say.
She gestured to the shop behind her. “I did all of those,” she said with a slight shrug.
I looked inside, only to see walls and walls of what were all Chinese classics, whittled on bamboo. They were made up of separate tablets strung together, so that they would unfold like a scroll — an art common in ancient China. Her work went beyond carving characters, though. She’d even carved in bridges, willows, natural scenery, and clouds in the sky for the side panels.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked her.
“30 years,” she said.
In the time that she’d been doing this, I thought, she’d have recreated thousands of classic novels in the ancient Chinese art form. She may have sold many, or perhaps very few. But either way, she made people pause and admire her handicraft.
Before walking back into the corridors, I couldn’t help but wonder: is there a worthier way to spend three decades than this: perfecting the shapes of words, until they’re good enough to get people to pause?
Originally, I was going to compare Shanxi’s Qiao Family Courtyard that we saw yesterday, with the Wang Family Courtyard that we saw today. But as I quickly found out, there is simply no comparison.
Both courtyards were made for merchant’s families, and were reported to have had humble beginnings. The Wang family started as tofu vendors, just as the Qiao family were farmers. Over time, they expanded their businesses, got support from the government once family members reached higher positions, and became the dominant merchant families during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
But when it comes to their homes, the similarities stop.
The Wang Family Courtyard is made up of two major complexes: Gao Jia Yang, and Hong Men Bao. Our guide said that they were both about 200-300 years old — roughly the age of my country, America. (My god, we seem like infants!) The layout is shaped like the character for Wang (王) with the three horizontal corridors and the one major vertical one. At its peak, it had 8,000 rooms.
According to our guide, there is a saying about the Wang Family Courtyard: “If there is a figure, it must have meaning. If it has a meaning, it must be good luck.” As catchy as the phrase is not, it rings very true. As soon as we walked through the main entrance, our guide pointed out a variety of symbols, all of which seemed to mean ‘good luck.’ Turtle-shell wall patterns for longevity, cranes also for longevity, drains shaped like coins for prosperity, and my personal favorite, the pumpkin, which symbolized fertility (Why? Because pumpkins have a lot of seeds inside). The Qiao Family Courtyard had symbolism, too, such as the fact that the whole courtyard is sort of shaped like the 喜喜 double-happiness symbol from a bird’s eye view. But, Wang’s Family Courtyard is far more extensive.
(Pictured above: Lucky pumpkins. Next Halloween is going to be GREAT.)
It’s also not super fake. What I mean by that is that sometimes when things are restored in China, they’re made to look as if they’re fresh out of the box with the wrapping still on it, and definitely not looking hundreds of years old. I’ve seen people actively building ancient towns (which begs the question: are they actually old??) and it’s gotten to the point where I basically expect it wherever I go. Luckily, with the Wang Family Courtyard it didn’t feel like the same old story. Yes, there is a part that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and, in the ultimate twist of fate, bought by rich coal miners to build a luxury hotel. But it’s nothing to dampen the spirit of adventure when walking along the crenelations and the stone set against tall mountains.
I think we were all very pleasantly surprised with the Wang Family Courtyard, given that sometimes in China you feel like “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Wang Family Courtyard managed to have its own sense of history, and also its own flair for drama. If you’re in Shanxi (one ‘a’), you should definitely put this one on the list.
And I’m not just saying that because I wore a China Daily badge while seeing it!