Friday, May 28, 2010

"Lugan's Folk"

I had a funny exchange with one of my students a couple of days ago. We were working though an elementary dialogue in John Traupman's excellent book Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency, and I was asking my students questions based on the dialogue. I had just asked them:

David quas feras in vivario vidit?

What kinds of wild animals did David see at the zoo?

I was trying to elicit a response something like this:

David pantheras et leones et elephantos et tigres et zebras in vivario vidit.

David saw panthers, lions, elephants, tigers and zebras at the zoo.

But my students seemed to be having a little trouble understanding that the interrogative adjective quas was an element of the question, not the answer. So I backed up and explained that quas was a "question word." I also remarked -- offhand, without really thinking about it -- that it was an adjective, and that its gender was feminine.

I don't quite know why I told them this. They didn't really need to know it just then, and in our Latin lessons I don't usually give them information they can't use right away. This isn't true for the English part of our classes. On the contrary, during our English lessons I try to cram as much varied perspective into their heads as possible. But our Latin lessons are so brief -- only fifteen or twenty minutes a day -- that I have mostly tried to focus exclusively on whatever concepts or vocabulary seem most essential for their understanding of whatever text we are using at the time.

Anyway, whatever lay behind my remark, I certainly didn't expect it to make any particular impression on my students. But then William said suddenly, "Anglice!" (our standard formula for annoucing that a question or comment will be made in English rather than Latin) and asked, "How do you know it's feminine?" He was staring hard at the whiteboard, frowning slightly.

I switched to English myself and told him, "Well, there are rules."

William was still staring at the questions written on the whiteboard. "I think," he said, "I think we should learn the rules."

At least, that's what I think he said. I mean, that's what I know he said. But somehow, at that moment, I heard something quite different. What I heard was, "Why haven't we learned the rules before now?" In my head, the question didn't sound accusatory so much as reproachful: "Why didn't you teach us?"

I suppose I felt this way partly because I have so little time left with my students. I'll be leaving Beijing in less than a week. Within two weeks, another teacher will be standing in the classroom I have occupied for the last two years. Under the circumstances, it is surely natural to wonder a little about the things one has left undone.

And, as it turns out, one of those things happens to be the teaching of Latin morphology. This brings me to the principal reason why William's suggestion seemed to me so full of implicit censure. When I was preparing to teach Latin to these children, morphology lay at the very center of my plans. It was not only the mechanism though which I proposed to teach, but also my primary rationale for choosing to teach Latin in the first place.

As I remarked in a post I wrote at the beginning of my sojourn here in Beijing, I had expected the order and regularity that characterizes Latin grammar to present my students with a new and pleasing aspect of language itself. In planning to focus on morphology, I had thought to show them how language could look and feel when it is disentangled from communication -- when it is not merely a tool but an artifact, a self-contained subject of inquiry.

There was a practical element to this approach -- I did think it would be good for my students to see that language can be understood in different ways -- but, really, my plans sprang principally from nostalgia. I was hoping to reproduce some version of my own introduction to the study of Latin.

When I was a little older than my students are now, long before I had learned enough Latin to be of any use in reading literature, I fell in love with the structure of the language itself. The neat packaging of the verbs, with their person, voice, number, tense and mood all embedded together, the clarity of purpose that marked the inflected endings of the nouns -- these characteristics seemed to me to be an epitomization of elegant utility, like the tidy beauty of terraced fields on a hillside. The enchantment I felt on making these discoveries is one of my happiest memories, and I had been hoping to share it with my students.

But I had reckoned without their youth. I was twelve when I began learning Latin. My students were only seven. Now they are nine. If, as William's proposal suggests, they are now ready to work with abstract grammatical concepts, they have only just reached that point.

In addition, when I first was first introduced to Latin, I was intensely aware of the tradition to which my own learning belonged. The deliberate memorization of the forms -- amo, amas, amat -- was, for me, borne along on its own momentum. The activity itself seemed like the steps of a dance or ritual, at once joyous and stately. But my students see no particular romance in this process. They have no frame of reference for it apart from the endless, tedious memorization required of them at school. Though the idea of learning Latin holds a certain exotic allure for them, it is pleasing only in its general outlines. The details have no meaning. For inspiration, they have only a vague sense of special endeavor.

When I found that this was the case, I dropped any expectation of teaching them according to the system I had known myself. Instead we learned proverbs and quotations, first from my own memory and then from a beautifully arranged book and blog by Laura Gibbs.

For a while, this worked very well. My students loved being able to pepper their conversation with Latin aphorisms. But then their pleasure began to fade, and I switched gears again. This time I took a conversational approach. We began having our lessons in Latin, using PowerPoint demonstrations with simple texts and pictures, and, later, John Trauman's book of dialogues.

Though all this represented a 180 degree reversal of my plans -- I don't see how one could get more entangled with communication than in an immersion-based conversation class -- I have to admit that it has been pretty successful. The first day I conducted the class in Latin, my students broke into applause. Since then, the picture-book fables and simple dialogues that we have read have mostly engaged their attention. They have learned some of the stories by heart, along with few lines of Horace, and have had great fun reciting them for their friends and family. I suppose, for a pair of overworked fourth-graders whose day begins at six in the morning, never ends before ten at night and is packed to the minute with relentless endeavor, these returns are about as rich as one can expect.

But I am afraid that when I heard -- or rather, misheard -- William's suggestion, none of this was apparent to me. I didn't see the path we had followed, or how far we had come along it. I only saw missed opportunity, the evidence of my own neglect.

Which perhaps explains -- though it scarcely excuses -- what I did next. Answering the reproach I imagined rather than the proposal that William had actually put, I said to him, "I did try to teach you the rules. We tried that last year. But you couldn't learn them. It did not work." My words were much harsher than my tone. If William had been my own age, I am sure he would have recognized the desperation in my voice.

Fortunately, even at nine years old, William was one too many for me. He's a Chinese kid, after all. He's well accustomed to being criticized for failing to achieve the impossible. It doesn't make him uneasy in the least. Though he was evidently taken aback -- clearly, he didn't remember ever trying to learn the "rules" -- he soon recovered his footing. He nodded his concession, then said, "But, you know, just because something is not a good idea one time does not mean it is not good later."

Just at that moment, a surprising image caught my mind's eye. I think perhaps it had been there from the beginning of the conversation, but it was only now that I saw it clearly. It was a hawk, hanging high and still in a deep blue sky. At first I thought that this image simply reflected the idea that learning the structural "rules" according to which a language is regulated affords a bird's eye view of that language, widening one's ken. I guessed that I was probably picturing my students as hawks, poised on an updraft, scanning the "colored counties" from one horizon to another.

But a little bit later I realized that this image had another meaning. I had culled it from a book that has been much on my mind lately. The book is Susan Cooper's fantasy novel Seaward. My students are too young for it -- it's really designed for pre-teens -- but I keep finding myself thinking of it as we pack up at the end of our lessons.

The book is about two young people, a boy and a girl named West and Cally. They travel together towards the sea through a phantasmagorical landscape belonging to Taranis, the embodiment and deification of death. Again and again through the course of their journey, they find themselves identified as "Lugan's folk." Eventually they discover that Lugan is the twin brother of Taranis and the personification of life. Sometimes he takes the form of a hawk, watching their progress from the air. West and Cally also learn that they belong to Lugan -- that they are "Lugan's folk" -- because they are young, because their lives are still before them, quickening and beckoning. There is no other reason for their allegiance. They are full of life; that is enough.

As they journey, West and Cally fall in love. When they reach the sea, they find that they must make a choice. They may continue past the shores of the sea to Tir Na Nog, the Isles of the Blessed, where they can rest in one another's company without age or decay. Or they may return to the separate lives they left behind when they began their journey. Lugan tells them that if they choose to return to their own world, they will forget their journey and one another. But he also promises that one day they will meet, "and remember, and begin again."

As I said a minute ago, my students are too young for this story. But soon they will be old enough. They will be the age I was when I began to learn Latin. Who knows what sights will lie spread beneath them then?

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

After a moment, I recovered my footing, just as William had done. "You are perfectly right," I told him. "We'll begin tomorrow."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Another Year to Heaven

Last Friday I visited a small museum dedicated to the life and work of Xu Beihong 徐悲鸿 (1895-1953) , the first president of the PRC's Central Academy of Fine Arts and one of the most influential Chinese painters of the 20th century.

The museum is wonderful, but actually I found myself there more or less by accident. Last Friday was my birthday. I had planned to celebrate it by exploring the newly refurbished Capital Museum in downtown Beijing. There are a lot of museums in Beijing, but the Capital was a natural first choice. It's just off Tiananmen Square, right in the heart of the city center. The building is sleek and imposing -- ultra-modern, über-chic. From the outside, at any rate, it looks like a precise reflection of the kind of city into which Beijing has begun to shape itself, the kind of country China is hoping to become.

And, according to reports, the interior of the museum only adds to this effect. Special exhibits from all over the world are displayed in wide halls equipped with state-of-the-art, ecologically responsible systems for regulating temperature and humidity. There are cafes, lounges, conference rooms and restaurants. Admission is free. This is the new New China. She's not taking a backseat to anyone.

As I checked bus routes and closing times, it suddenly struck me that, actually, the Capital Museum hadn't attracted me because it is glossy and well-appointed. What I was really drawn to was the desire it seemed to embody -- the determination to inhabit a world characterized by a confluence of the graceful and the functional, the right-minded and the urbane. Or, more precisely, the desire not merely to inhabit such a world, but to belong there, to contribute to it. No doubt this desire is attractive partly because the world it projects is so appealing, but I think the allure stems still more from its seeming to define modernity itself in such welcome, beckoning terms -- sleek, civilized, inventive, knowing. It invites a sense of delighted arrival: So this is what the new century looks like!

But then, just before setting out, I discovered that the Capital Museum requires its patrons to make reservations at least a day in advance. So, I started thumbing through my guidebook to Beijing and eventually settled on the Xu Beihong Memorial Museum, which is tucked away on a narrow street in the western part of the city.

I knew the Xu Beihong Memorial would be a far cry from the Capital Museum, and so it was. The galleries were dingy, institutional and mostly ill-lit. If the building was heated at all, it wasn't so you'd notice. I paid a reluctant visit to the toilets and found -- with chagrin but small surprise -- that it certainly wasn't the new New China there.

But, in another sense, the Memorial turned out to offer a vision of modernity that was at least as compelling as the one suggested by the Capital.

Though Xu was perhaps best known for his traditional ink-and-brush paintings of galloping horses, he also had a profound capacity for innovation. As a young man, he travelled around Europe and studied art in Paris. On his return home in 1927 he helped introduce Western techniques into the Chinese art world, devoting the remainder of his life to the creation of a new national aesthetic based on a combination of Western and Chinese approaches.

The collection on display at the museum reflects this versatility. The first and second exhibition halls feature traditional brush paintings. There are clumps of bamboo, austere in black ink. There are stands of pine and cypress, pure, massive, and commanding. There are cranes and sparrows, cats and oxen; there are magpies and one magnificent eagle. And, of course, there are the famous horses, some running and some at rest, so beautiful they stop your breath.

On the second floor there are dozens of oil paintings, including some vast canvases depicting epic scenes drawn from myth and history. One such scene features a peasant woman in the dress and headscarf of early China. She is seated on the ground cradling a nursing infant. Something in her expression and attitude, in the scale of her body and her placement amongst the rest of the composition, suggests a curious kind of unfleshed Dutch realism, firm and precise but sparing of detail. Striking an entirely different note, there are several smaller studies of seated women whose veiled but glowing colors and quiet, almost remote intensity put me in mind of Edward Hopper. Different again but equally arresting, Xu's colleague Ren Bonian gazes shrewed-eyed out of an unassuming portrait. I don't know what creates this effect -- whether it is the way the subdued colors bring out the planes of his face, or the angle of his head against a certain degree of back lighting, or what -- but he looks for all the world like a Renaissance burgher, or perhaps a minor functionary in the court of Henry Tudor.

There is also a hall devoted to scenes of old Beijing. These paintings are executed with a fine brush on small canvases. I think the school or style is French, though I didn't recognize it. At any rate, I kept getting the same kind of shock each time I approached the pictures: what first looked like a standard Parisian cafe with windows open to the street would prove, on closer inspection, to be an old-fashioned tea house or a medicine stall. The Arc de Triomphe, seen from across the room, turned out to be the Drum Tower. And so on. (Of course, no one in their right mind could really confuse Beijing's old Drum Tower with the Arc de Triomphe, but I kept catching myself in the same kind of crazy mistake.)

There are also hybrids of different sort, whose fusion resides not in a combination of Chinese subjects and Western media, but in an integration of Chinese and Western techniques. In one particularly unusual painting, a human figure sits, hands clasped around his knees, beneath a giant tree. The tree is executed in a more or less traditional ink-and-brush style, but the human figure is in Western perspective. He is sketched rather than fully detailed; it is not his form but his place in the composition that is so suggestive of depth and foreshortening. It is almost as if he and the tree under which he meditates occupy different dimensions. I couldn't decide if the effect was pleasing or disturbing, but it was certainly hard to look away.

After I finished my tour of the various exhibition halls, I returned to the horses on the first floor. I looked at them more carefully this time, trying to work out what it was that made them so compelling. I couldn't identify anything in particular. In the end I decided that somehow they just reflected the essence of horse, the way a dirge on the bagpipes captures the essence of mourning, or a sonnet by Shakespeare the essence of desire.

These reflections reminded me of a famous passage in the eighth-century poet Du Fu’s 杜甫 ballad “Painting Song” (丹青引), addressed to the master-painter Cao Ba .


Your pupil Han Gan soon achieved the greatest mastery:
He too could paint horses, giving expression to every possible look.
But Han Gan only paints the flesh; he does not paint the bones,
Thus suffering royal, fiery chargers to fade into spiritlessness.

As I considered Xu Beihong's horses, and Du Fu's remarks on Han Gan, I thought about the idea that there is an essential, ineffable quality that differentiates the competent from the sublime. Of course this is hardly a new concept. In my family we've always called it the "dun-colored mare," after the Po Lo story cited in J.D. Salinger's "Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters." And, indeed, this idea is basic to Chinese critical theory. In Du Fu's poem it takes the form of "painting the bones," but generally speaking it consists of a premium placed on the expression or actualization of an interior essence, unseen but crucial. So, to take just one of many possible examples, the ninth-century poet Bai Juyi 白居易 complains


In the olden days, when people sang songs,
they were also singing feelings;
Nowadays when people sing,

they only sing the notes.

As I thought these things, and reflected on the painstakingly mastered foreign techniques that the paintings upstairs in the oil-gallery embodied, I found myself a little out of sorts. After a while I realized that my dissatisfaction sprang from a sense that something was missing, that there was a bias in the way I was understanding what I was seeing. Or perhaps not a bias so much as a vacuum. After all, the idea that artistic excellence relies on an unseen, ineffable mechanism insists on framing artistic creation as an interior process. It leaves no room for the community of skill that sustains culture of all kinds, artistic and otherwise.

At this point in my meditations, my eye was caught by a glass case standing in the middle of the room. I had been giving all my attention to the paintings on the walls and hadn't noticed it before. Inside the case was a handwritten letter, Xu Beihong's reply to a student's request for instruction. The letter was punctuated by illustrated details and explanatory captions: “raised hoof, angled backwards, the stroke commences here; hock, three-quarter view, lift the brush here; muzzle, quarter view, keep the lines short.”

I don't know if Xu's student profited from these directions or not. Who can say whether he went on to "paint the bones?" But, after reading the letter and looking at the illustrations, I realized two things. First, Xu's paintings of horses do not just reflect the essence of horse: they make the viewer think "How good it is to live in a world with horses in it." And, at the same time, "How good it is to live in a world in which people paint horses."

Second, the Parisian paintings of Beijing, and the Xia woman in her headscarf, and the shrewd-eyed Ren Bonian all represent the dissemination of skill, its transplantation from Europe to China. Xu Beihong's letter to his student represents the preservation of skill, its communication from master to disciple. Whether the results of these two kinds of transmission are sublime or merely proficient, the process itself is nothing less than that which feeds humankind: it is culture, the act of sustained community.

And that, I think, is what we want the new century to look like.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"The Wit of Eternity"

For twenty years, I have had nothing to say about Tiananmen Square. I still have nothing, really. Just a very short story and a translation.

A few days ago, some acquaintances told me that, during the 1989 democracy movement, they had initially supported the protesters. They had admired their zeal and shared the disgust they felt for the corrupt government. But later, when they got a closer look at the leaders of the protest, my acquaintances changed their minds. "Those leaders were so hypocritical," they told me. "They'd whip the crowds up into a frenzy, then go out for a big meal in a fancy restaurant while everyone else stayed behind at the demonstration. They were just as corrupt as any official."

OK, but they weren't the ones with the tanks, right? I didn't say that out loud, but perhaps something in my expression suggested what I was thinking, because one of my acquaintances seemed anxious to explain. "There's nothing we Chinese fear more than instability. Nothing. With our history, what we've lived though, anything seems better than that."

This time I found my voice. "So they reminded you of the Red Guards? Is that it? Because they were agitated, and reckless, and so incredibly young?"

Actually, I didn't think it was such a bad excuse. Not for the crackdown, I mean, but for the fear. If I'd lived through the Cultural Revolution, I'd probably be terrified of rebellious teenagers for the rest of my days. But someone else, joining the conversation, seemed to hear the censure implicit in my tone.

"The government had to crack down. They had to be stopped. But, yes, the measures taken were too extreme."

You think?

Someone else countered, "Actually, what other measures could they have taken? There were too many protesters, all out of control. It was terrible, but what else could be done?"

I didn't say anything more. I just tried to forget about the conversation as soon as possible. And I did pretty much forget about it. But while I was busy pushing it down to the bottom of my mind, something else floated lightly to the top. It was a poem by Liu Xiaobo. I had translated it for a commemorative anthology a couple of years before.

For Seventeen

(You didn’t listen to your parents’ warnings, jumped out the bathroom window, snuck away. When you fell, holding up a banner, you were just seventeen. But I lived; I am already thirty-six. In the presence of your shade, to survive is a crime, and to give you a poem is even grosser shame. The living ought to keep their mouths shut, ought to listen to the murmurs from the grave. That I should write a poem for you! I am unfit. Your age, seventeen, is worth more than any word or work – more than any thing that can be made.)

I live,
even sustain a certain notoriety.
I want the courage, or the quality,
to proffer a handful of flowers and a poem,
to come before a seventeen-year-old’s faint grin,
though I know – I know –
Seventeen doesn’t carry the slightest grudge.

Your age (seventeen) tells me this:
life is plain. It lacks splendor,
like gazing at a desert with no borders:
with no need for trees, no need for water,
no need for the dappled touch of flowers,
you take the sun’s malice; that is all.

At seventeen, you fell on the road,
and so the way was lost.
At seventeen, eyes open in the mud,
you were peaceful as a book.
Here, in this world,
you clung to nothing,
nothing but your pure, white, spotless youth.

When, at seventeen, your breathing stopped –
well, it was like a miracle –
you had not lost hope.
The bullets ripped through the mountains,
convulsed the seas,
as, for a time, all the flowers in the world
took on one color only.
Seventeen, you didn’t lose hope,
couldn’t lose hope.
Take the love you never spent,
give it to your mother;
her hair is white now.

Your mother, who once locked you away.
Her line was broken
under the red and five-starred flag.
High and fine,
your mother,
your own blood,
shout-roused by your dying glance.
She carries with her your last will,
walks among the tombs.
When she herself is ready to fall,
with your ghost breath
you brace her up,
you set her on the road.

Past age or youth,
past death,

As I explained a minute ago, it's been twenty years, and in all that time I've had nothing to say.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


While I was out running errands this morning, I saw a mother leading a toddler by the hand. The two of them were headed in my direction. As they drew near, the toddler stared at me, reaching up with his free hand as if he wanted to clutch at my skirt. I guess his mother noticed that something about me had captured his attention, because, rather than simply passing by and continuing on her way, she stopped and told him, "Say hello to the lady."

The little boy didn't say anything, but he didn't seem at all shy, and he continued to reach up and stretch out his fingers. It was almost as if he were a kitten wanting to bat at a dangling toy.

After a minute it struck me that he was looking at my parasol. I furled it, moving slowly so as not to startle him, and held it down so he could inspect it more closely.

"That's a parasol," his mother and I told him. "Parasol."

When it became clear that looking wasn't quite enough, I held it down still further, close enough for him to touch. He felt it gravely, rubbing the material between his fingers.

"Well, that's all right then," said his mother briskly. We nodded at each other, our transaction complete, and she led the little boy off.

I resumed my own progress a little more slowly. I was puzzled. Beijing is full of parasols at this time of the year. There's nothing special about mine. Not now, anyway. It's true that when I first had it I was very fond of it -- at that time it was a bright lemon-yellow, festive and sunny -- but over the years it has become grubby and faded. As I walked along toward the shops, I realized that I'd been discontented with it for a while now.

This set me thinking about the different kinds of parasols I would get if I could. Perhaps a navy-blue-and-white striped one, like a French sailor's shirt. Or a smart red, yellow and green one, like a cafe awning. Or, for very hot days, a pattern of cool green leaves, like the wallpaper in an old-fashioned drawing room.

The trouble is, the last time I looked in the catalogue that sells the sort of parasol I require -- it's made from cloth specially treated to block ultra-violet rays -- the only colors on offer appeared to be two shades of yellow (butter and lemon), a deep, dark blue, something between navy and indigo, and a rather nasty porridge-grey the manufacturers called "stone." They don't make anything else.

Actually, I do have one other parasol back home in the States -- lemon yellow trimmed with blue lace, left over from a friend's wedding. It is very pretty, but I wouldn't want to carry it on ordinary occasions, and anyway frilly lace isn't what I'm after now. I want something smart and sporty, or possibly something elegant and understated, but anyway something very fine and satisfying. It seems a great pity not to be able to have it.

I was feeling a little sorry for myself by the time I reached the shops. This was ironic, because my principal reason for visiting the shops this morning was to buy clothes hangers for some new summer skirts my mother had found at a sale and sent to me in a package that also contained anise cookies shaped like fish with currants for eyes. If I can't have the sort of parasol I would like, certainly my closet is overflowing with many other good things.

Then, while I was choosing hangers, something unexpected happened. An old lady standing near me in the aisle began chatting casually to me. "Look at this hanger. What were they thinking? All these hooks and doodads! Completely unnecessary! These plain ones are much better, don't you think?" As a matter of fact, I had been thinking exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment, but that wasn't really the strange part. The strange part was that she was the one who had started the conversation. Not many people here do this with foreigners, unless it's to ask where you're from or if you understand Chinese. But this old lady seemed not to care where I was from. We were just two women, shopping for hangers in a neighborhood supermarket.

On my way home, I began to feel a bit better. I'd been on the receiving end of some active friendliness from a total stranger. I had some new hangers for the skirts my mother had sent me. And a passing toddler had admired my parasol.

I found myself wondering if the little boy had been too young to notice the spots and blotches that seemed so evident to me, or if he'd seen something I couldn't, some bright blaze of possibility -- the parasol as it could be, perhaps, sunny and glowing, careless as a dandelion.

I suppose I suspected this last because it had been so easy to satisfy his wants. All he'd had to do was feel the thing, rub it between his fingers, and his needs were answered.

After thinking about it a little longer, I decided that it was too early to give up on my own wants. What is desire, after all, but an acknowledgement of prospect? Want need not always be accompanied by a sort of desolate hopelessness; we need not always turn our backs on the view that our hearts have awakened. Sometimes the things we wish for do come to us if we are patient. I almost feel I can see my new parasol now, as trim and fetching as a sailboat, bobbing on the horizon.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Last week we had a record heat wave. It was 80 degrees Farenheit and we were barely into the second week of April. The air managed to be both parched and sultry at the same time, as if a kettle of ashes had decided to see what it would look like dressed as fog. For a few days I was really afraid that spring was over for the year.

During this period I kept finding myself thinking of a favorite couplet by the medieval Chinese poet Xie Lingyun. He was a great hiking enthusiast and is said to have invented a kind of clog specially designed for climbing mountains, but poor health often confined him indoors. After one such illness he complained:


I had not yet had enough of the green spring's joys;
Now I must see the summer passing too.

Sometimes it seems to me that these lines say all there is to be said.

But then on Wednesday the weather turned round. Light winds blew the soggy dust from the air. Sunlight slanted on the deep green pines. The new leaves on the poplars looked impossibly fresh and cool against the bright blue sky. Chastened by the memory of the recent heat, I tossed all my work to one side and set out on a late-afternoon ramble through a nearby park.

This park -- it's actually more of a garden -- is really something else. It includes a kindergarten and two playgrounds. It has a small ornamental hill criss-crossed by flagged footpaths and terraced with small green plants, two stone bridges (though the stream they span is almost always dry) and dozens upon dozens of weeping willows. And, as I discovered this spring, it has an almost indecent profusion of flowering trees and shrubs.

There are peach trees, cherry trees, plum trees and flowering crab-apple trees. There are lilacs, both purple and white. There are dogwoods and magnolias. There is a wisteria trellis and a hawthorne hedge. And those are just the ones I recognize. There are also bushy plants with yellow flowers something like fluffy anemones, little purple bulbs something like a cross between an iris and a hyacinth, and many other things as well.

In order to furnish my ramble with a sense of order and purpose, I decided to start by visiting all the clumps of lilac in the park and then work my way through the peach trees down to the unidentified yellow bushy things.

The park was full of people. Late afternoon seems to be a popular time of day for airing toddlers, I suppose because they're just up from their naps. Their grandparents sat chatting on benches, turning their faces to the sun. The afternoon session at the kindergarten was drawing to a close; parents stood waiting by the gate.

At first I was too engrossed by the lilacs to pay much attention to the park's other visitors, except as a pleasant backround to all the flora, but then I noticed something. No one was returning my smiles. Every time I passed someone I smiled in the rather mild, sunny way you do when you want to suggest that it's a nice moment to be living in the world and you're glad the person you're smiling at is there to share it with you. And each time I smiled, all I got back was a blank stare. Deflecting the minor complicity I offered -- hello, there, comrade, God speed you -- the stare took nothing in, offered nothing back. It was very dispiriting.

The thing is, this particular expression used to be a standard experience for foreign visitors to the Middle Kingdom. I first heard about it from a teacher in high school who had traveled all over Asia. She told me that the only country she hadn't liked was China, and she hadn't liked it because of the way people looked at her. Sometimes the looks were merely blank -- taciturn, inward, unsmiling -- but other times they were actively hostile. I didn't quite believe her at first, but not long afterward I visited China myself and found that she had been telling the truth.

Though it was disappointing to feel so unwelcome, there were compensations. Plenty of people were eager to make friends. One had only to find them. "The China look" as I came to think of it, usually managed to remain part of the background, part of what made China what it was, like third-world toilets and pebbles in the rice.

But on this trip I have generally met with very different treatment. Until Wednesday, I had thought that the China look had vanished from Beijing, perhaps driven away by China's meteoric rise to wealth and power, or perhaps swept away by the pluralism that might be expected from an Olympic city. I'd been imagining telling all my friends about it when I went home for the summer: "You'd never believe how friendly people are. When you smile, they smile back. Sometimes they even talk to you. It's as if they think you're a real person. It's like a -- well, it's like what it is, a modern country."

So, my experience in the park was particularly unsettling. It set off a chain of resentful memories and began to eat away at my pleasure in the flowers. For a few moments, I found myself wondering if something had happened -- if President Obama had said something inflammatory about Tibet, or Taiwan, or silenced dissidents -- and imagining what I would do if the situation really got out of hand.

Then, after a few more minutes, I found myself thinking of something that had happened in one of the lessons I taught during my last sojourn in Beijing. I had asked the class to invent an English word and explain its meaning, and one of the students came up with the word "pandasmile," which she said described the face that China showed towards the world. I remember thinking at the time how ironic it seemed: "smile" was the last word I would have used to describe the way the Chinese faced the rest of us.

Later, though, I began to see the word my student coined in the very different context provided by Peter Hessler's remarkable book River Town. The book contains a number of descriptions of the "Chinese smile," all of them suggesting a tough and understated ethos -- brave, controlled, suppressed-- but the one I find most haunting is last, near the end of the book:

After our last meal the family lined up at the door and waved goodbye, standing stiffly and wearing that tight Chinese smile. I imagined that probably I looked the same way -- two years of friendship somehow tucked away in a corner of my mouth.

Every time I think of this moment, I feel as though I've seen that smile myself hundreds of times -- I can almost see it in my mind's eye -- but then it slips away and I realize that I am only imagining it.

I thought of these things, of pandasmile and River Town, of confusion, hope and disappointment, as I made my rounds among the lilacs. Then suddenly the scene changed. My path was blocked by a mother who stood waiting near the kindergarten. She was chatting to another mother, and, as I edged past her, she gave me a bright, absent smile -- the sort you might give to a stranger when your attention is taken up elsewhere but you are glad to spare some cordiality. My heart fluttered. This is what I mean, I thought. People are so friendly now. They treat you like a real person. Not an intruder, not an alien, not a foreign guest, just someone who passes you on the road.

It was as if a spell had broken. By the time I turned for home, several other people had smiled at me. There was an old lady trundling a toddler on a sort of combined pram and tricycle, and a young girl in a school uniform, and one or two others as well. As I passed a clump of the unknown bushy plants with the bright yellow flowers, Mr. Hessler's tight smile flashed again across my mind's eye, but, before I could quite get hold, it was gone.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Salad Seasons

Spring is here. Forsythia spatters the parks and gardens with speckles of bright yellow. Cherries have begun to bloom, both the pale pink and the deep. Light zephyrs whisk through the greening willows. Magpies hop about, looking hopeful.

And, more importantly, the local supermarket has begun selling pasta salad again.

It was during my last trip to Beijing that I first realized pasta salad has actual, you know, seasons. That was a dozen years ago, when I first made the acquaintance of the Beijing summer specialty known as liangpi 凉皮, "chilled skin." The name may not sound terribly appetizing out of context, but in the gasping, humid heat of a Beijing August, anything with the word "chill" in it is pretty welcome.

Or so it seemed to me, as I stopped by the street vendor's cart and peered at his display: neat cubes of diced wheat gluten, fresh green-and-white heaps of shredded cucumber, slivers of tough beancurd peel, bouquets of fresh coriander, six or seven different sauces and, of course, the "skin" itself, which is actually wide-cut fresh pasta made of mung bean starch.

"Try it," said one of his customers, a middle-aged woman who was digging into her portion right there by the cart. "This is real Beijing fare, a traditional summer snack. You'll love it." I didn't need to be asked twice. I stepped right up and requested a helping, plenty spicy and with all the trimmings.

The middle-aged woman was right. I did love it. Chewy, tender and slippery-cool all at the same time, fragrant with coriander, rich with sesame and breathing a curious, heady, almost perfumed heat -- I had never tasted anything like it. Soon I was visiting the cart almost every day, bringing my own metal rice box so as to avoid using the styrofoam cartons supplied by the vendor. (Who thought I was off my rocker. "It's to protect the environment," I told him, but he just shook his head. Crazy foreigners.)

But, before the mooncakes left from the Mid-Autumn festival had been quite eaten up, the streetside liangpi gave way to luzi 炉子, "stovelings," which turned out to be sweet potatoes roasted in their jackets and sold from makeshift ovens fashioned out of large barrels and lugged about the city by bicycle. There were also chestnuts, both fresh and roasted. A friend taught me how to make chestnut-chicken soup. With its pale slices of chicken floating in a deep, dark broth seasoned with ginger, clove and juniper, it seemed the essence of autumn.

Then the winds rose. Yellow leaves fluttered to the sidewalks. The skies grew high and blue. Frosts set in. Piles of pale winter cabbages lined the streets like stacks of firewood. Local eateries served a rough and warming concoction of dried mung bean noodles and pickled cabbage, with pork or without according to taste. The steamed buns at the local state-run bakery were equally hearty, filled with pork and seasoned turnip.

Then, long before I was tired of turnip buns, the winds changed. Willows fluttered pale green branches. Little round toddlers were gradually divested of their magnificently colored woolly coats and jackets, one layer at a time. The luzi man told me that this was his last week selling sweet potatoes. He was most apologetic, but actually I didn't mind. The buns and pancakes at the local bakery were now filled with a pungent chutney made of chopped fennel greens, extraordinarily addictive.

When I had eaten my fill of the fennel buns (which took a while), there were tiny, leaf-green cabbages about the size of a softball. Cooked with ginger and vinegar, they made a delightful accompaniment to the miniature guotie 锅贴 or "pot-stickers" sold just outside the university gate. Unlike the various sorts of "pot-stickers" or "Peking ravioli" sold in the West, these had wrappings made of a yeasted dough rather than a pasta. They were cooked in a large press something like a waffle iron (but without the cleats), producing a delicious, intensely flavored little gobbet that managed to be crispy on the bottom but, as Mr. Woodhouse might have said, "without the smallest grease."

The days grew warmer and another kind of guotie appeared, this time wrapped in pasta and filled with a mixture of minced pork and summer squash. You could almost feel the sunshine on the broad-leaved vines. It was like eating a garden.

I was home by the time liangpi season was in full swing again. I returned for a couple of months in the autumn, but, before I had a chance to make any chestnut-chicken soup, and I found myself back home again. I didn't return for a long, long time.

Nowadays the snack stalls have nearly vanished from the streets of Beijing. If you want liangpi salad you have to visit the deli counter in a supermarket. Most people blame the grand municipal tidying effort that preceded the Olympics, during which nearly all street food was banned or at least greatly restricted, but I think we were headed in that direction anyway. Outdoor markets are disappearing. We shop indoors now. Heaps of exotic produce decorate the supermarkets all year round. They hail from every region and represent every season.

There are gleaming mounds of multi-colored peppers, purple eggplants and deep green cucumbers. There are leafy branches of kale and rape, celery cabbage and spinach, watercress, lettuce hearts, rocket, mustard, fennel, chives, cilantro and many other things I don't recognize. There are impossibly slender scallions and thick leeks, lotus roots and fresh bamboo and mushrooms of every variety. There are apples, pears, peaches, lemons, melons, berries and pineapples. Some of them are packaged in plastic, some of them are sold loose. They are nearly all spotless.

The maids soak all our produce for an hour or two before cooking it, in an effort to leach out the pesticides. My hosts import as much of their fruit as they can, for the sake of their children. But the imported fruit isn't organic either, and of course the fuels burned in its transportation merely add to the burden assumed by earth and air, seed and water.

It is natural to be tempted by the prospect of having what we want when we want it. It is hard to ask the question:

Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?

And it is harder still to answer it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Early this morning, I woke up with a strange sensation. I felt hushed and expectant, almost as if I were in a church. The air outside my window was cool, the light dim and grey. For a moment I thought that these things alone were responsible for the still, listening mood into which I seemed to have awakened.

Then I heard the music. It was a recording of the Tallis Scholars singing Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, and it was coming from the kitchen. Apparently one of my students wanted to listen to it while he ate his breakfast.

Well, that wasn't such a surprise after all. Allegri's Miserere is my student's new thing. He wants to have it near him all the time. I don't know how he can stand it, myself -- Miserere strikes me as so thoroughly exalted and celestial, so pure in its sweetness, so haunting in its crystalline articulation of the essential, ineffable longing that seems to lie at the core of the human spirit, that there's only so much of it you can take at one time.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea, et a peccato meo munda me.

I mean, come on. At breakfast?

But the thing is, this little boy gets very, very interested in whatever interests him, at breakfast and everything, so I guess that's that.

What surprises me, in a way, is that his taste alighted on this particular piece. Don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting his choice. In my totally untrained and ignorant opinion, Allegri's Miserere is, without question, the most unutterably lovely piece of music known to man. It's just that, in the context in which I introduced it, I'd have expected a more tempered response.

After all, the whole thing happened pretty much by accident. My students had spent the previous day (starting at five in the morning) at one of the innumerable academic competitions that seem to be the lot of the average eight-year-old in Beijing. During their English/Latin lesson that afternoon, they were understandably too tired to do the exercises I had planned, so I scrapped the main lesson and hauled out some recordings for them to listen to instead.

I had kind of expected them to get a kick out of the first recording I played, which was "It's Witchcraft," performed by Frank Sinatra. For one thing, we're in the midst of reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, so the idea of enchantment and its various ramifications is much on their minds. And for another thing, they are always asking me about jazz (I don't know why), so I had imagined that related musical genres would also interest them. But the big band sound seemed to leave them pretty cold.

So, I switched gears again and told them the next piece would be a Latin psalm. They perked right up at that. They don't actually know much Latin, but they love the idea of it (which is, after all, the main thing -- you can't teach that) and they also love the idea of the Christian liturgy. Anyway, I played it for them, not expecting much except the few minute's peace which the this-is-Latin-so-be-good-and-listen-to-it trump card usually furnishes.

In the event, they weren't quite as attentive as I'd have liked while the music lasted, but then when it was over one of them said to me, quite seriously, "I think maybe I have heard this before. In a movie, maybe." I told him that this was quite possible; it is, after all, a famous and much-loved piece and is certainly featured in some film scores.

(In fact, I had briefly considered playing's extremely successful spot "The Human Cost of War" for them, so they could see the way the music contributes to the power of the ad. But then I decided they would find it too upsetting, so I didn't. I mean, come on, they're only eight.)

Then I played them a Bach prelude -- Julian Bream on solo guitar, and then the lesson was over. As we packed up our books and papers, I asked them which piece they had liked best, and they both plumped for the Miserere. William said it was the best music he had ever heard. He said this a few times. Apparently he told his mother the same thing later that evening. Then he borrowed a copy of the recording from me.

We had Miserere again at lunch today, and I suppose we'll have it yet again at dinner, and tomorrow at breakfast, and so on for some days until William has had enough of it, or perhaps until one of us confiscates his iPod. In the meantime, I have looked out a Chinese translation of the 51st Psalm (luckily it is readily available online, so I didn't have to repeat the Horace adventure) and have promised to teach them the Latin version in our lessons.

Fitting out their Latin and Chinese translations in preparation for today's lesson, I was reminded of a story I told them yesterday: according to tradition, only the choir at the Sistine Chapel was initially authorized to perform Allegri's Miserere; anyone else who tried it did so under threat of excommunication. Then Mozart came along and (so they say) wrote it down from memory after hearing it once. After that, it could not be contained. As William has so effectively demonstrated, it now belongs to everyone, everywhere.

Of course, that's the thing about music, isn't it? It is a function of the laws of physics -- it inhabits the material universe in which we also live and breathe -- and yet it is disembodied, as if it were a being of pure spirit. It has a way of spilling over walls and stealing through windows. It floats on the wind and lodges in the heart.

Since I'm writing a dissertation about a closely related topic -- about the transmission of music by means of poetic description, actually -- I feel rather as if I ought to have something more to say about William's new discovery. But I don't seem to come up with anything. I mean, it's kind of all been said, hasn't it? As the Chinese Record of Music has it, "Music unites." And, as the philosopher Xun-zi pointed out, "Music is delight."

On that note, tomorrow we'll be doing The 59th Street Bridge Song. I am hoping that my students may be coaxed into connecting the line "I've got no deeds to do, no promises to keep" with another poem they have already studied:

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

As the fellow said, "When a friend arrives from far away, is it not indeed a joy?"