Issue #62, December 2002
Lijiang is China's most popular destination. This year, domestic and foreign tourists alike are flocking to the old city where they find two distinct districts. The new city is expanding rapidly around the circumference of the Old Town due mostly to the influx of money from tourism. But the Old Town is what people have come to see. It is eight hundred years old, small and intimate, with waterways cutting through its entirety. There is an abundance of footbridges and twisting stone roads with trees that hang casually overhead. The houses and shops are constructed entirely of wood (previously by tradition and in the last year, by county ordinance) and small streams run beneath some of them. Most of their inhabitants are of the Naxi ethnic minority. Every night at 8:00 you can hear traditional Naxi music at one of the two music halls; three nights a week there is a bonfire choreographed for tourists and locals to participate in traditional Naxi dance. Naxi Dongba script, the only remaining pictographic script in use, decorates the doorways of some shops and restaurants and can be found on scrolls and other tourist trinkets. Most shop owners dress in traditional Naxi garb; it is "encouraged" by the local authorities (there are whispers that fines are levied for Naxi people out of uniform in the Old Town). While there is an undeniable charm to the place and the Naxi culture is fascinating, both are unabashedly on display.
A few days after arriving here I am uncomfortable. Almost every doorway opens to a shop peddling wares to tourists. Far too many restaurants are advertising pizza and chocolate cake. Even though the town is beautiful and quaint, the overwhelming sense is one of unnerving plasticity accompanied by a suspicion that no one could actually live behind the carefully manicured facades. Today, I have been searching for evidence of such existence in alleys without shops, around doors without fresh paint.
Not having much success, I am sitting in the Old Town square and watching tourists take pictures with a monkey who is held on a leash by an old man. The monkey is dressed in a yellow and red suit and has a red hat on his head. He is cranky and on several occasions has tried to swipe at or bite the tourists. When he does, the old man yanks the chain and the monkey flies backward screeching. The frightened tourists hastily pay the man for the picture and flee.
"Welcome to Lijiang. Are you an American?" The question comes from an old man dressed all in blue, complete with a "Chairman Mao" cap pulled snugly over his brow. His brown, leathery skin shines brightly in the midday sun and the wrinkles within it are deep and numerous.
"I am," I reply, glad to have been singled out. He is nearly indistinguishable to my eye from the other eight or nine old men gathered in quiet clusters around the square. They are all dressed similarly, most wearing the same blue jacket and hat as the man who has just spoken to me in English.
"My English teacher was an American," he says, his voice leading me to ask:
"Who was your English teacher?"
"Joseph Rock," he says proudly. Rock is possibly the most famous American ever to have been in Lijiang. He studied Naxi culture and their Dongba script for twenty-seven years, quite literally putting Lijiang on the world's map in his articles for National Geographic. Even today, Rock is the subject of legend, myth and debate.
"Joseph Rock taught you English?" I ask, hoping to see where he would fall in the discussion.
Knowing Rock began his work in the 1920, the lessons would have taken place prior to the Revolution and would have been a rarity in a place as inaccessible as Lijiang was at that time.
"You must have been a young man." I say. He nods.
A few of Rock's characteristics are not debated: his violent temper and general impatience with the local people. With this in mind, I ask the man if Rock was easily angered.
"Oh yes, always angry. But very much respect paid to Dr. Rock. He lived here 27 years. Maybe when he thought of home, he became angry," he says as a way of apologizing for his teacher.
"Any stories about him?" I ask. As I do a wave falls over the old man. He seems to not understand my English.
But he's only confused for a second. He refocuses and volunteers,
"I'm a poet. I write in three languages — Naxi Dongba, Hanzi and English. I've written over one hundred poems in three languages. I'm the poet of Lijiang."
I'm impressed though curious about the self-proclamation. "A hundred poems is quite a bit. Do you think I could see some?"
"Oh yes. I love foreigners come to my house. Come tomorrow afternoon," he says and adds, "I need to go now." I tell him I'll see him tomorrow and we depart. 'That's a stroke of luck,' I think, walking away, 'to meet this old guy so easily. I'm finally digging beneath the flesh of this place.'
Later that night, my three-day bout with constipation has reached a breaking point. As I walk up a narrow hill to the public restroom, preparing myself for the offensive stench produced by the rows of squat toilets, my focus is broken by a question from a darkened doorway.
"Welcome to Lijiang. Are you American?"
It takes me a second to refocus and find the wrinkled face.
"Yang Ming Yi, good to see you again. Is tomorrow still okay?"
"I speak English," he blurts out, "My English teacher was Joseph Rock."
Everybody knows that all white people look alike. With this in mind, I allow for another try.
"Oh yeah, you told me that earlier this afternoon. I'm looking forward to reading your poetry tomorrow."
He catches the poetry part. "I'm a poet. I write in three languages, Naxi Dongba, Hanzi, and English."
I realize that his eighty three years might be the culprit.
"Could I come see your poetry?" I ask for the second time today.
"Oh yes. I love foreigners come to my house. Come by tomorrow."
I oblige again but am bothered both by the fact that he forgot meeting me and by his detached, robotic responses. I continue up the path toward the bathroom but, with my concentration broken, squat unsuccessfully over one of the holes. "I'll get them tomorrow," I mutter to myself.
The next day I decide that I can probably safely show up at anytime and feign having made an appointment. It's about 4:30 when I arrive. The wooden door is open, viewing a dark room cluttered by a bed, a few chairs and a dresser. Sitting motionless in the darkest corner of the room is an ancient looking Naxi woman, dressed in traditional garb. The excessively smooth beads on her headdress contrast sharply with her excessively wrinkled face. She looks fossil-like but eases to life upon noticing me peeking through from the sunlight. She says nothing-knowing the drill and moving slowly toward the back door and out into a courtyard. In a minute Yang Ming Yi appears. He moves toward me, the recognition on his face a force of habit, I'm sure.
"Is now an okay time to see some poetry?" I ask. It seems to be the password as he motions for me to follow him. I trip into the darkness over the raised door jam. All the houses here have one; they serve to trip ghosts, or so the legend goes. I recompose myself and make my way to the courtyard.
A different Naxi woman, equally ancient, is puttering by a stove on the side of the courtyard. I am told by Ming Yi to sit. As she moves between the stove and the table to place cloudy, empty glasses in front of me, she either misses or ignores my greeting. I begin to rock in my seat and watch Yang Ming Yi who is extracting tea leaves from a large clay pot. He moves as if performing the most delicate of operations. Aside from his order to sit, he hasn't spoken to me.
The courtyard is cluttered with potted plants, half of them dead or dying, with weeds growing around the pots and covering most of the small yard. The porch where I'm sitting is supported by large wooden beams. Their red paint is peeling, as is that on most of the house. I notice various sheets of white paper are tacked to the outer walls. Torn, water damaged and wrinkled, they look like 'WANTED' posters long out of date. But, in fact, they contain poetry in Dongba, Chinese and English. The first poem I read strikes me as oddly upbeat given the decaying paper and flaking wall it sits upon:
the way for all the
people to help with life's
The cockadoodledoo in the
Silent Night gladdens
with the beginning of
the new day
When I am done reading, Yang Ming Yi has scraped the tea leaves into the two cups and is filling them carefully with water. I startle him by asking when he began writing poetry, and he spills some of the water.
"Confucius and poetry. My uncle. I was seventeen," he mumbles.
'Speaking of poetry,' I think, 'where are the poems?' I assume that he is about to bring out a book or take me to some secret viewing room. I sip my tea, awaiting his lead. But I empty my glass and he has said nothing yet. He appears as uneasy as I do. When I catch his eyes he looks away.
I stand up to look more closely at a few of the other poems on the wall. He sits still. One is "for Mao on his 100th birthday." It mentions his "boldness of vision" and that he""ruled with holiness." I scoff. Another tells that "Deng Xia Ping's favours are engraved on people's bones and hearts forever." 'Quite the patriot,' I think. The patriot is still in a daze at the table.
"Do you know other people in Lijiang who write poetry?" I ask, wondering if there might be another "poet of Lijiang," wondering if Yang Ming Yi has left any sort of legacy.
"Lijiang is my home," he says, his eyes wandering for a second and then returning to the table in front of him. "We used to meet. Sometimes we write a poem together." He seems exhausted, as if speaking to me is pulling life from him. "They are dead now. Only ghosts. I am eighty-three. My brain is very full. If I died tonight it would be okay."
The silence that follows is unnerving. I stand up, thinking to leave, but instead ask him to show me his favorite poem. He perks to the request, as if it is exactly what he hoped I'd say. Slowly easing out of his stooped position and up from his stool, he shuffles around a corner. I follow to where he stands in front of another piece of tattered paper.
"This is my favorite," he says.
I feel the
Yangze River is
Flowing with misery
The Yangze River
and many fertile
lands growing from
Ancient times until
now myriad people have
enjoyed its peaceful
And warm favour
But now it is just
Beginning to flower with
the sour waves
we loathe the evil and
the Demons which destroy.
When I finish with the poem, Yang Ming Yi has returned to his stool and sits wearily. I am baffled by the difference between the formulaically charismatic man I met in public, outside of the house and the uninterested, pathetic and almost sinister figure before me. The resentment in the poem is real and, after reading it, I feel as if I've personally affronted him and owe some recompense. I have seeped into his sanctuary, a sanctuary decaying and barely defensible, save by the poetry hanging from its walls. Stinging from the thought of myself as a Demon and unable to think of any way to redeem myself I thank him most sincerely for his hospitality.
"Goodbye," he says, expressionless, and as an afterthought he adds, "I love foreigners come to my house."
Without knowing whether he's being ironic or is delirious, I slip into the dark bedroom and past the old woman who sits quietly in the corner. I am careful to step over the door jam as I return to Lijiang's sunny, bustling streets, where I can hide among the other ghosts.
Mark Lundy is completing his studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson.