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Shanghai—14 June 2009: Xing
Xing Xing comes by today. She wants help with her visa paperwork for Paris. She is a first-year university student, and like a lot of university students, wants to visit that great city in the Summer when she is out of school. Also, Paris and Shanghai are officially sister cities; they have a connection. This does not interest her so much as it does me. I am always looking for connections, anything that links one thing to another and makes more sense of them. And did I mention that both Shanghai and Paris are officially sister cities of San Francisco? That turns me on because these are some of my favorite places on earth. But back to Xing Xing and her trip.
She lamented that Paris is so expensive. I've got the same gripe these days because I'm living in Shanghai on the Yuan, and it doesn't buy much in Paris, or anywhere in Europe or the United States, for that matter.
"It's the exchange rate," I said. "Your money buys three eggs here, but when you go across the border and exchange your money for the Euro or the dollar, it only buys one."
I said that on the surface that did not make sense. If so many Yuan buys so many eggs here in Shanghai, then when you go across the border and exchange your money, the Euro or the dollar ought to buy the same number of eggs, bottles of beer, or whatever. That would be a fair exchange rate.
A few week, prior to Xing Xing's visit, I had done some research on exchange rates, but none of the explanations made sense to me. Not on a human level, anyway. The explanations were complex, lengthy, and in the end only told you what you already knew: that you were being gypped. Well, now I've been gypped before, so that was nothing new. In fact, I've been gypped many times. I'm an American, or Meiguoren, and in particular, a Jiujinshanren, or San Francisco. A proud Jiujinshanren, by the way. But currently San Francisco is tai gui le,
or too expensive. So I'm learning another language and saving money.
Xing Xing usually drops by around noon, when I'm just getting up, and stays till 8:00 PM when the last bus goes back down to Nan Hui. The discussion begins about as soon as she walks through the door. She is always pondering something. This time, of course, it was why her money was so worthless "over there." Then the conversation moves onto something else. This time it was Confucius and Lao Zi.
Xing Xing says she does not find Confucius—or Kong Zi—that interesting.
"I read in Confucius," she said, "that if I have a nice juicy apple and my little brother asks for it I should give it to him. I don't agree with that."
I said I understood. Confucius seems to be all about rules on social conduct.
"Social conduct was the problem of his day," I said. "The kings and those in power were always doing something stupid. The people in power still are, of course, but I'll admit it does not make very interesting reading."
I suggested that the mystic philosopher Lao Zi, with his"take-no-action philosophy," was more interesting. He had seen enough of the behavior of those in power that he figured that it was better that they do nothing at all. But Xing Xing is not into mysticism at this point in her life. She is of the scientific mind and is grappling with the fact that everything in the universe is so much the same. In particular, she does not think that people have souls that live on when they die.
"When I die," she tells me, "I'm just gone."
I look at her sadly.
"Well, there are other thinkers who feel the opposite on that issue," I say. "But no one really knows because you don't get to come back and talk about it."
She ignores my comment.
"I'm just like a pig," she says.
"I have seen a pig cut open, and the human body too. They are the same. They have the same parts."
I try to humor her.
"You are much better looking than a pig," I say, "and a lot smarter."
She smiles weakly.
I sense that she is stuck on this issue of soul or no soul. Her scientific brain and education tell her that she is just like everything else in the universe and is going to die. She insists this is so. But then why does she bring it up? If she is so sure, why not just move onto some other topic?
I ignore the topic for now and say that I and two of my Chinese friends—we do a language exchange—have been translating a poem by Juan Ramon Jiménez into Chinese. We are working from the original in Spanish, or Xibanaren, and a translation into English, or Yingguoren, by Robert Bly. I read the first stanza, both the Spanish and the English, to Xing Xing.
We have only done a rough job of the Chinese translation, but here it is:
Is "guang" or "sanba" a better choice of words for "andas"? And "guangzhe" for "desnuda"? There are so many choices in Chinese.
Then I read the whole poem to Xing Xing in English, hoping that it would move her; but she does not seem to quite get it. She hangs a bit on the word "naked." I explain the poem to her a little. But explaining a poem never really works, of course; you have to experience it. I say that it is about the effect of a full moon on a person living out in the country—it's about the passion of life, the hugeness of the universe, and the mystery of being alive, right down to the ant that is busy, trabaja, and the basil that does not sleep, no duerme. But she looks only baffled.
How wonderful to have an educational system that teaches kids that they don't exist, or are no better than a pig! I guess it is much easier to teach students to cut open bodies and observe the depressing sameness than to let them stand back and marvel at the uniqueness of the world.
But Xing Xing is coming along. It is a matter of time. We all get stuck along the way.
Myself, I keep wondering about the Big Picture and the details that go along with it. The Big Picture—call it philosophy if you want—is the attempt to know what it is all about.
This much I have figured out: You go down a path in life with both pleasure and pain along the way. If you have no fun along the way, you have probably wasted your life; if you have no pain along the way, you have probably done nothing. I would guess that the latter is the way of most people—the path of no pain or least resistance. The pressure to conform is too great and people cave in, accepting minimal pleasures for being left alone by government, their employers, and financial institutions that would have them do their will. A glass of wine at day's end and they are grateful that they survived. Take a chance and chances are, at least in the United States, that you will fail. Nevertheless, people are encouraged to take chances. Why? So that when they fail banks can eat them alive, employers can point fingers, and government can impose penalties. Do I need to give examples? Fail at buying a house and the bank gets your interest payments and the house back. Fail at starting a business, pretty much the same scenario. Succeed at starting a business, and the prevailing business model suddenly shifts and work is offshored in the "new global economy" which is nothing but the same old sham. Then the government moves in to impose penalties for this and that. There are few ways to be a winner for long and many ways to be a loser. Having winners means having losers, and the losers are quick to move in on the winners. Give it a try; you'll see. The only long-term winners are the bank, the boss, and "Uncle Sam," who is everybody's uncle but yours.
Even if you rise above the mundane desires such as to own a house or have a successful business, there is much confusion. Read Ecclesiastes for a detailed description of the ways to go wrong and the vanity of all attempts to go right, then weep bitter tears into your glass of Chardonnay with its "subtle notes of melon and citrus." No one knows what is going to happen when life ends, and as to lasting "accomplishments," are there any?
I have been reading the poetry of Juan Ramon Jimenez recently. While not being purely philosophical, some of it is, while some of it, such as "Luna Grande" ("Full Moon"), expresses a passion for life. Other poems, like "Returono Fugaz" ("Return For An Instant"), describes brief, passing states of mind that would normally be dismissed like a dream, as having no importance, but that in fact reveal one's deeper nature. They are anything but trivial.
Talking of things that quickly come and go—flag, smile, milk weed pod, swift spring in June—Jimenez writes:
Or in English (Robert Bly translation):
In another poem on the philosophical side, he is asking "Intelijencia" for the exact names of things so that he can describe them to people who do not know them or who have forgotten them or who love them:
("Intelijencia, Dame" or "Intelligence, Give Me")
In still another later poem he talks about "El Nombre Conseguido de Los Nombres" ("The Name Drawn From The Names"). All the names that he has used in his poetry he draws up into the one name, which he designates as "dios" (god). The underlying philosophical framework for this poem is similar to the underlying framework for poem #1 of Lao Zi. One big difference, however, is that Jimenez refers to "el dios creado," a created god.
Says Lao Zi:
Thus Jimenez gives the source a name, El Dios, while Lao Zi has the source be nameless. But each allows names for created "stuff." Jimenez' focus is on the drawing up of names to their source, while Lao Zi's focus is on the flow of names and created "stuff" from their source.
This bares some similarity to the I AM god of Moses. In Exodus, god relents before Moses and gives himself a name, since men are going to ask Moses what it is, but it is a vague name that god gives himself, one that simply implies consciousness. Here the source has a name, although a vague one, whereas created stuff has definite names.
My interest here, however, is not in little differences of expression. My interest is in the similarity of interests; namely, names and the naming of things and the expression of unity implied by a common source. Obviously people who labor over these matters arrive at similar notions. But I'm a little like Xing Xing. I'm not rushing to conclusions.
Another interesting concept is that of the void. In Genesis we have, "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." In Lao Zi we have:
Take a look at how ee commings expresses this:
("i think you god for most this amazing day")
And consider Kerouac, writing in a sober moment on Desolation Peek:
The writing is engaging, as almost all Kerouac's writing is, but it contains a curious omission that no one seems to have noted: "conduct my life" how? It appears that something got left out here, while every intriguing allusion (burble blear purple lear, Lankavatara Scripture hairnet of fools, ...) made it in. The work was published just two years before Kerouac's death, so maybe the mistakes never got rounded up and turned in. I don't know. Maybe in the course of infinite time and unlimited fertility, mistakes don't really matter. Does the Big Void care about little typos, the lost word, or Mary's Little Lamb? I have no answer, which probably is the answer. Flow is everything, right man? Just blow and say no to knowing. Time has a way of forgetting to remember. At the worst the Void on an off day misses the beat and gets replaced by another drummer. Now back to the Void we were talking about.
A word. One of many. But let's take a look at it. What is the Void? When I say the word, what do I mean? What am I thinking? Yes? No? Hmmm?. What does Lao Zi mean? But wait. The first thing to understand about "the void" is that it is an abstraction—yi ge chouxiang de. It is a word like love that you can attribute all kinds of other characteristics to. For instance, if you are a certain kind of Christian, say a fundamentalist, you might in fact mean blind obedience, superiority, or even , hate when you say the word love. Same with the word void. However, all thinkers seem to attribute fertility to it, and none seems to see it simply as emptiness, as the word implies. Lao Zi sees it as an abyss or pit out of which all things come; cummings calls it the "no of all nothing." For Kerouac it is the imperturbable Hozomeen opposite his fire lookout station in the mountains in Washington State. For Gestalt therapists, the "fertile void" is seen as a place where the creative self works in a "ceaseless motion of formless form" to solve its problems. (Ruth Walfert, "The Spiritual Dimensions of Gestalt Therapy") And of course there is Genesis, which has the earth beginning as formless nothingness. Considering all the stuff that comes out of this hole in the ground, why call it the Void? Why not call it the Source? Is it just a name like Bob, Sue, Alphonso, or Lao Luyisi, and it doesn't matter what you call it?
Opposites are always interesting. Think about death and you find life. Stare into a hole and you spot something moving. Look at the clouds drifting across the sky and some shape appears. Be sad and you end of laughing. Or laugh yourself sick. Try to remember a name you have forgotten. It recedes deeper into memory. Give up the search and it appears before you like some frumpled fool ready to entertain you.
Xing means star. Xing Xing is two stars but is really just a nickname. If I want to say two stars I would say liange xing.
The sky is full of stars at night, some feint, other burning like diamonds. You can talk to the night and the stars. They won't be alarmed. You can feel moonlight on your skin as you wonder naked in the fields. They won't notice. But don't eat oranges when the moon is full. "Es preciso comer fruto verde y helado," dice Lorca. ("The right things are fruits green and chilled," says Lorca.) But be careful of the ant. All things big and small. Under the sun. In the beginning. Futility, fertility, nameless, numberless. Then a star, yi ke xing. Wow!
I had a friend back in San Francisco who suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. She had no idea why. I worked with her on it. I understood the problem. I'm prone to anxiety myself and have worked with it over the years.
"I have no idea what sets this off," she told me one day. "I get a phone call and I jump. I think, 'Someone has died.'"
"Are you expecting someone to die?" I asked her.
"You're sure?" I asked.
"Well, maybe my mother. She is pretty old."
"Ok, let's think about that," I said, turning the lights low in my apartment and playing the role of the analyst. We talked about the possibility of her mother dying.
"But this is so stupid," she said, looking embarrassed. "Why do I jump? Why does my heart start pounding."
"Because you are afraid of something," I said. "You are trying to run away. Let's find out what it is."
We kept on it.
She realized that she really was afraid of her mother dying but that there really wasn't much she could do about it. With the latter realization she seemed to calm down. Yes, it was going to happen sometime—she would get a call—but probably not today or tomorrow. So she'd just have to wait. Her attitude changed.
We also developed some calming words for her: relaxed and calm. I told her to eat those words, let them become part of her. "I am the most relaxed person on earth. I am the calmest mind in the universe."
"But I'm not," she said with a chuckle.
"Don't worry about it. You will be."
Word power. It helped her. And exploring the reason for her anxiety.
Some other good words:
One language is good enough, three languages all the better.
I told her one other thing. If something frightens you, concretely visuale what it is, with as much detail as possible. It will start to lose its power over you.
The bear in the woods will start to become afraid of you. That is good. Anxiety is limiting. It will hold you back, rob you of your life. Banks, bosses, and Bushmen all count on anxiety to control your life.
It turned out I was right in the heart of the "Old Chinese City." The maps show the "Old Chinese City" circled by two roads that still exist: Zhonghau on the southern part and Remnin on the north. The book also talked about a fortified wall that went around the city. I wondered if it was still there. I decided to take a walk. But it's a pretty big circle. I had to do my walk in three sessions.
I live on Fuxing Dong lu (road). The old maps showed that as Tai Ping lu. It runs east and west, almost in the middle of the old chinese city. On a Sunday afternoon I walked from Fuxing Dong lu over to Zhonghua lu, which the maps showed as Chung Hwa, and I headed south. As expected, Zhonghua soon began curving toward the west. All along it I saw parts of an old wall, partly fallen down, but it was not a very high wall. Looking up streets into the old city as I walked, I saw about the same thing I see around my place at Fuxing Dong lu and Sipailou: narrow alley ways and an old city of third-world houses with an occasional newer apartment building.
At the bottom of the circle, before Zhonghua begins to curve up towards the north, were some upscale shops and one large Internet cafe that I peered into. It was dark inside like a bar or a movie theatre. I thought of the Internet cafes I've worked in in other places. In Paris they are generally small, cramped, but well lit, a place to do business, not to be entertained. In San Franciso there is food, wine, beer, and coffee in a social atmosphere. In San Francisco an Internet cafe really is an Internet cafe: a cafe with the addition of the Internet. Given a choice, almost any person not suffering from a major personality disorder would chose a San Francisco Internet cafe like Golden Gate Perk (Diamonds, Reality & Spare Change) over a Shanghai or Paris Internet cafe. But back to the Old Chinese City and its fortified wall.
I completed the bottom of the loop, arriving at the western end of Fuxing Dong lu, continuing to see the same sections of wall along the route.
At the corner of Fuxing Dong lu and Zhonghua, I passed a store that I've seen before from the other side of the street. The building is fancy and curved to fit the corner. You do not see that in San Francisco anymore. Curves cost money; in San Francisco you only see right angles.
The building is quite attractive, like so many new Shanghai buildings. Public buildings are apparently regarded like an investment in the future, worth the cost, worth the trouble. If a curve looks better than a right angle, gold better than gray, a gold curve it is. I decided to have a look inside.
The first floor is electronics—cameras, phones, etc. There are about four times the number of sales people that you would find in a store in Europe or the United States. Such is the case in almost every store I go into in Shanghai. I don't make eye contact with sales people because I just want to see what they have and don't want to get involved with a discussion on price. I have been looking at cameras in my back alley—they have almost everything there—but realize this would be a better place to buy a camera. My Nikon quit working in San Francisco and I'm scouting around for a replacement for when I have the money. The Nikon was an expensive, top-of-the-line model that was nevertheless moody; when magic happened and you were ready, it wasn't. I do not miss the Nikon; she only made me unhappy. Now I only want a camera that works; bottom of the line's fine. But not having a camera is a frustrating, given that Shanghai is photogenic; every day I'm have to pass on fine scenes that could enhance a story. On the other hand, it has forced me into calligraphy art or shufa.
I really should leave but I take an elevator to the next floor and find myself in a sea of appliances—washing machines, refrigerators, microwaves ovens ... I lose control and make eye contact with one of about eight sales people and she asks me something that I don't understand. I say haode (yes, okay) and quickly move onto a clothing department where at first I see only women's clothing. Then I spot some shirts and jackets—chenshan he waitao—for men. Now I really lose it. Suddenly desiring human contact—what is wrong with the great seeker of the ancient wall that he should desire human contact?—I go look at shirts where an attractive young female employee is standing.
But I think I am safe.
"Ni you sichou ma?" ("Do you have silk?") I ask. I have her.
"Meiyou sichou," ("I don't have silk") she says.
Then she has me. She says the woman across the way has sichou. And older women comes over and guides me to her section of the store. She has me by the arm and is soon taking my shoulder bag away from me and putting it on the floor so that she can hold up shirts against my body to check for size.
"Hen hao?" she asks, keeping her Chinese simple for me.
"Hen hao," I agree.
I think quickly. I have no good excuse not to buy and she is one of these dominating older Chinese women who is hard to refuse.
"Wode tai tai," ("My wife") I say. "Wo he wode tai tai jiang yao huilai," ("My wife and I will come back") I say.
I look in the
direction of the appliances. There is a lovely young Chinese woman over
there looking at refrigerators. The sales woman understands. A new shirt
for the husband is a small price to pay for a new refrigerator. She knew
how to handle young Chinese wives. But such an old husband! Stupid American
men—Meigguoren—do nothing without the assistance
and approval of their wives. She lets go of my arm. I am free to go get
my wife. As I walk toward the woman looking at refrigerators, I do not
stop but head straight for the elevator. I am soon back on Zhoughua staring
across the street at what I think might be part of the wall of the Old
When I got back home I began to think again about my friend in San Francisco with the anxiety problem. She is a good artist but makes little money and so is always worried about money.
"Wouldn't you be too," she once glared at me, her eyes frightened looking.
I used to make a lot of money back then. I kept $20,000 in my checking account! Money was not my top concern. I was more concerned with writing and having free time to think.
"What's the worst that could happen?" I asked her.
"Bug could take my shadow away," she said.
"No, I mean in our system." She was into Indian folklore.
"You mean your system," she said.
"For now think of it as our system," I countered.
"Well, I could be out on the street, I could be ..."
"So?" I said.
"That's fine for you to say," she said. "You're a guy."
I didn't quite follow her logic but I didn't argue the point. I was trying to be helpful.
"You'd get by somehow," I said.
She didn't quite buy this.
"I'd like to get by better than 'somehow,'" she said and began to cry.
Now I'll have to admit that in recent times I've had some of the same fears. The last time I was in San Francisco I nearly did find myself out on the street because of bank problems (On Just About Everything). The bank was simply holding onto my money as long as they could. This was back in January of 2009, an edgy time for banks. I guess they were afraid of being out on the street..
The economic collapse that occurred at the end of the Bush Administration, and that spread hardship all over the world, has put me on edge. At times it has taken a full-time effort to avoid complete ruin and to save what could be saved, which is not much. For a period of time that left me with very little free time to think and even less time for for personal psychological exploration. When you can't find work or anyone who will do business with you, that is a problem that takes over your life. Economic problems eclipse the personal ones; your life becomes devoted to survival. "Personal development" goes by the wayside. And that I think is what the Bushman had in mind. America had too many free thinkers, so he started two foreign wars, robbed the United States Treasury through war contracts to his buddies, then tried to slip out of office before the inevitable effects occurred. But others differ on this and say that there is more than Bush to blame. Deadpan Greenspan. Others. Whatever.
To keep myself calm I ask myself, "What is the worst that can happen?"
"The street," comes the answer.
I picture living out on the street and realize I could get by. I've lived a lot of places, once out in the woods in an old trailer without electricity or water. Maybe it was my time to try it on the street. "That would give you something to write about," I hear a voice say. "No more writing about ancient city walls and jazz joints and strippers. Street'll snap you to, bro, bring you back to basics."
Still, I wasn't anxious to give it a try—or should I say I was anxious about giving it a try?—and I still had some money. I calmed myself with these words:
and even added the Spanish and the German:
and went back to work.
Fuck the Bushman. Ruff up the Greenspan. Greenie should have known, man!
I packaged up my anxiety and blew it all away. I pictured it heading over the Pacific ocean towards Crawford, Texas, where it would hover over the town like poisonous gas. On most days I successfully put it out of my mind. On those other days when anxiety set in I would stop work, rethink the situation, package up the anxiety, and again send it on its way. There was a little of the nerve-rattling Jim Jong II in me.
If only I had thought of this "package-up-your-anxiety" scheme earlier I would have given it to my San Francisco artist friend.
I headed again east on Fuxing Dong lu, but this time, when I got to Zhonghua, I headed north. Soon I picked up Renmin, which curved to the west, and I followed Renmin till I got to Sichuan. There I departed from the circle and went up to the bookstore, then retraced my way back. The bookstore did not have a larger dictionary with as much pinyin as my smaller one. It looked like I was going to have learn characters at this point. I knew how to draw them—I had been practicing—but I knew only a few.
Back on Renmin I curved with it again west until I ran into a construction project that confused me. I asked a traffic control guy about Renmin and he pointed me in the wrong direction to Henan. Since all the signs were missing in the construction area, I discovered too late that I had headed south on Henan and not on Zhonghua, which Renmin would have soon met up with. Was the Bushman at fault here? Did Greenspan know but was not saying? Probably not but I like to think so. Was that bastard Dick Cheney involved? Would have been if he could have been. And proud of it. Rice? Sure, why not? The smile said it all: thank you for admiring me! I headed down Henan to Fuxing Dong lu, then home on Fixing Dong lu. I would need to make another trip to complete the circle.
About a week later I had the time. I decided I would walk up Zhonghua from the west side at Fuxing Dong lu, pick up Remnin where it blends in, then walk Renmin all the way over to Sichuan, where I had departed before for the book store. But this time I would take Sichaun over to Hongkou and see my friends at a "coffee bar" there (Coffee & Donuts).
All went smoothly. I saw more of the wall that I had been looking at before. There were more small parks along this part of Zhonghua and Renmin; the street was tree-lined on both sides. It was nice to see some green parts of Shanghai. I had seen a lot of dust and construction but not much greenery in my neighborhood. As Lorca says so forcefully in a poem called "La Aurora" written during his unhappy visit to New York City in 1930:
(English translation by Robert Bly.)
He hated New York. Someone who had mixed feelings about New York but did not hate it wrote this:
What could be homier than canyons of steel that gullies of garbage? (Vernon Duke, 1934, in "Autumn In New York." Would he have liked a little more grass? I think so.)
Just before the point that Renmin really starts to curve east, I spotted a curious historical-looking structure. There was a plaque but it was in Chinese characters only and I could not read it. It looked like an ancient house or temple built on top of a lot of bricks. There was some kind of courtyard but I did not enter it. I noticed public toilets on the far side. Like leaves and grass, they are good too.
I continued on over to Sichuan, passing the traffic control guy who had given me bad directions. I considered boxing his ears but decided it was best not to. He didn't look at me. I think he was ashamed. Or was it my mind? Was I losing it? Was sanity also impossible without leaves?
I head north at Sichuan to the coffee-bar. Now my coffee-bar is a curious place. It is a bar and a restaurant out front. In the back are the "girls." I go there to do a language exchange—your Chinese for my English—with several of the waiters. It started out small-scale. Now about everyone who works there has come by to improve his or her English. I am of course stealing Chinese from them but it looks more like an English lesson than a Chinese lesson. The beer is free when I do this and I find it very agreeable as well as educational. I always learn something useful. For instance, this time I mentioned huangshan—swamp eels—to Xiao Yu. I tell him that a friend brought some over for lunch the day before. He knows all about huangshan. I say something about Shanghai seafood, and Xiao Yu says that it should really be called "river food."
"It all comes from the river," he says with a smile.
This is new to me but I am not totally surprised.
"Even the fish?" I ask.
He nods yes.
I wondered why there was such an abundance. Now I knew. They are farming it, and the Chinese are expert farmers. I had eaten the big red shrimp in the alleys. There were boxes of them live. I had eaten delicious fish, steamed and in a sauce, slightly sweet, with big chunks of white meat that comes off the bones easily. I had been eying the buckets of eels, not putting a name to them till my friend cooked them for lunch. And I had been eyeing the snails of all sizes, big and small, but was not quite ready for that experience yet.
"Yes, all from the river," said Xiao Yu again.
At this point I noticed a young woman in a pale flowing gown hanging around the table. She wore gold, high-heeled shoes. I assumed she had come out of the back.
At first she fluttered near by, walking between the bar and our table and looking over her shoulder at us as we talked. Then she came closer and Xiao Yu introduced her.
"This is Lulu," he said. I think he was a little uncertain about introducing her.
She didn't sit down. She just listened and asked an occasional question.
I began to test her:
"Zenme shuo 'Ni hao?'" I asked.
"Hello," she said.
"Zenme shuo 'Ni hao ma?'" I asked.
"How are you?" she said.
"Zenme shuo 'Hen gaoxing renshi ni?'" I asked.
"Glad to meetcha," she said.
She didn't know anything else.
I motioned to her to sit down.
She asked, via Xiao Yu, if I came every day.
I said about once a week.
Xiao Yu said she wanted to learn English. I told him to tell her to buy a dictionary—cidian—and a notebook—bijiben. She looked nervous—jinzhangde—
but happy—danshi gaoxingde—
Then she told Xiao Yu I would be tired if I taught her English.
"Why?" I asked.
"She doesn't know the alphabet," he said.
No problem. I like a variety of students, and I like people who are eager to learn something new.
Now back to the wall. It was beginning to make me nervous. Were the pieces of old wall that wrapped abound the circle I had been walking part of "the" old wall, or were they something else? I didn't know.
In desperation I did a Google search on "Old Chinese City wall Shanghai" and, after sorting through travel blogs that said nothing, got the information. The old wall had been almost completely removed in 1912. Only one small chunk of it remained and that had a temple of a war god, Guan Yu, built on the top of it. It was not a typical chunk of the wall. It's location was at Dajing lu on Renmin. I looked it up on the map. No surprise. It was about where I had spotted the courtyard and building on my last trip just before where Renmin curves east. On Friday I walked back over.
Now I could see the short section of the wall with the temple on top. I paused for a moment before entering the courtyard. On the broad sidewalk outside of the wall I noticed a small girl, still in school uniform, riding her bicycle around two trees in the middle of the sidewalk. Though alone, she looked happy. I am always amazed how kids, if they have anything to do and feel safe, look content. But then I was curious. Was a young girl, unattended, safe on the street in Shanghai? In almost all parts of the United States the answer would be no. In the United States there were too many guns and too many mental health problems. Child abductions, molestations, and murders were a constantly in the news. No caring parent would let a child play on the street unattended. But in China there were more eyes watching. And there were more policemen, mostly without guns, walking the streets.
Then I walked into the courtyard and a voice from a booth hear the entrance cried out, "Hello." I halted.
"Ni hao," I replied.
"Five yuan," said the voice.
"Wuge," I said, handing over shige and getting back wuge. Not a bad deal, really.
There were steps leading up to the top of the wall but I decided to first go into what looked like a gallery down below.
There was a lot of information, all of it in Chinese, along the hallway that lead to a big room in the back. There were also old photographs. I stared hard at several photographs, not black and white but heavily tinted, allowing them to transport be back to another era. Then I went to the back room, which contained a statue of a heavy-set god and a curious model of the old city with the wall. It reminded me of a toy railroad set without tracks and trains. It did not look much like the city that I was seeing today.
The model shows lots of grassy areas, parks, I guess, and it shows one- or two-story houses with a lot of space between them. It has a leisurely look, almost like the stereotypical white-picket-fence small towns of an earlier era in the United States. It looked safe. So when had the old city become cramped with alleys and one little ramshackle house on top of or up against another?
And what was the wall all about? In some additional research I found out that Shanghai had been attacked by Japanese pirates, wokou, a number of times. It was vulnerable to attack, partly because it was close to the sea. I guess the wall was about peace of mind or a response to anxiety. I climbed the steps of the wall and had a look form the top.
Looking over the side, I now noticed that the little girl had been joined by a friend, also still in school uniform. They had rackets and were hitting a ball back and forth. They appeared carefree, content. Was the wall protecting them? Were temple gods guarding them from evil spirits? Or was I losing my mind, tounao, standing on an old pile of bricks that no one but I cared about? Get a grip on yourself, man. Steet'll snap you to!
The wall is massive, with bricks that look like they are cut from stone, not molded. What a lot of trouble, what a lot of care. What a massive response to the threat of attack and loss and death. But such is the human psyche in all ages. It does not like to be threatened on any level. The wall created a barrier that reduced that threat, and I suppose the people inside the wall slept better.
Then by 1912 the wall became a burden. It was no longer required for defense and merchants wanted it remove; they wanted free traffic in and out of the old city. The wall was removed. The same thing was true in Beijing. The old fortified city wall was removed because merchants didn't like it. But in Beijing there was a battle over doing so. Some saw history in the wall and wanted some or all of it to remain. The merchants won the battle and the wall came down.
It's nice standing on the wall in Shanghai above Renmin, which was named Boulevard des Deux Republiques when the French and the British and other foreigners had control of the city in what some call Shanghai's "glory days." Then Mao gave 'em the boot. There was a breeze and I noticed a little garden on the wall. I was the only visitor. In back of me was the temple with an enormous red-faced god inside. The red-faced god was Guan Yu, I believe. I believe in real life he was a famous general. To his right is a furious-looking black god with weapon in hand ready to strike; to Guan Yu's right is a pale old sage. Both Guan Yu and the sage are reading a scrolled text. Emotion is balanced with intelligence.
Was Guan Yu afraid? Did he have anxiety? Not while he was hot with temper. Not while he was busy helping to defend Shanghai against would-be attackers. But what about when the battle was over? Did the old fears come back? What did he do then? Did he drink much wine, putaojiu, or just blow it away? Did he ask himself, "What is the worst that can happen?" then laugh heartily? Was he secretly studying Japanese in case he got a new boss? Language was powerful. It could be both weapon and shield.
Did he create
a wall of words in his mind?
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