Today I heard a wonderful old story, called Butterfly Love. Long ago there lived a rich man who, although he had five wives, had no children. He desperately wanted a child and his sixth wife gave birth to a girl, whom he doted upon. He gave her absolutely everything she wanted. When she reached school age she wanted to go to school, but school was only for boys and her father refused. She begged and pleaded, and finally he compromised: she could go to school but only if she dressed as a boy. She went to school for years as a boy and fell in love with one of her classmates. The day of graduation she told him she would meet him in the park the next day and give him a surprise. When he arrived he saw her dressed as a girl and understood she was his classmate, and he too fell in love with her. The girl asked her father permission to marry the boy, but her father refused: the boy came from a poor family and she could not do this. He insisted she marry someone of his choosing, as has always been done in China. She finally agreed to her filial duty, her father chose a suitable husband for her, and she asked only that she be allowed to say goodbye forever to the boy she loved. At his house she learned he had died from lovesickness for her, and had been buried. The next day was her wedding. On the way to her new husband's house she passed by the boy's house and asked that the sedan chair stop for a moment so she could pay her respects. She was shown to the boy's tomb. As she stood there, the door to the tomb opened, she stepped inside, and the door closed on her. Two butterflies flew up, one to her father and one to the boy's parents, and then the butterflies flew away together forever.
Although I am not much of a shopper, I loved the lacquer store we went to this morning. Such beautiful things! Such as this coffee table, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and jade carvings:
Then we went to an old Buddhist shrine where I learned about religion and the Communist party in China. Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion. Most people were Buddhist. After the Communists came to power in 1949 people were told they could choose between being a Party member and having a religion. Most people, even if they weren't able to join the Party, a tightly controlled process, knew which side of the bread the butter was on and skipped religion. Now some people have gone back to Buddhism and some to the Christianity the missionaries brought in the 1800s, but most have no formal religion. However, there are a lot of holdovers: superstition, ancestor worship, and belief in heaven, hell, and reincarnation. Now, out of 1.35 billion people in China there are about 650 million party members. In the generation that is now 40 or 50 years old it was considered highly desirable to be a Party member: an apartment for life, an easy job from which you could not be fired, and a reliable and decent salary. Now people are much more interested in private sector jobs even though they are less secure.
Honestly, it is not possible to know by looking around that this is not a completely capitalist society: it sure looks like it. Even the apartment buildings are being built by private companies, not the government any longer. But the government owns all the land, cities and farmland, and leases it to people for free but only for a term of seventy years. Farmers farm land that is assigned to them; they do not own it. No one knows what will happen seventy years after this policy began (whenever that was).
And I learned why at least some sects of Buddhist monks are bald. Every hair represents a worry, so they shave their heads. This is completely anti-Confucian, which emphasized ancestor worship. Because your entire body came from your ancestors, you'd as soon cut off your hair as cut off your arm – all Chinese used to have long hair and men wore theirs in ponytails and topknots.
Inside a building at the shrine was a kang, about which I've read in books. In the old houses in northern China, the way they stayed warm in the winter was to build a fire in an adjoining stove (in the kitchen or otherwise) and vent the hot air under the tiled platform which was covered with a bamboo mat. They used a marble or wooden surface for a pillow! At my feet just outside this picture was a small low table -- people slept on the kang and spent the day on it to keep warm in the winter.
In this room I learned that Mike is something of a calligrapher. He wrote everyone's name on rice paper – which is actually paper made out of bamboo. It is important to have just the right amount of water in the ink: too much and it will spread through the paper, not enough and it will not paint. Here is Mike writing my name. Jo would be the family name, the character that sounds like “shan” means colorful, and the character that sounds like “der” means good person.
For lunch we had mutton soup, something only found in Xi'an. You are given a large bowl and you tear up something that looks like a thick English muffin into tiny pieces and put them in the bowl. At your place are two pieces of paper with the same number; you put one of those on top of the bread pieces and give your bowl to the server. Half a dozen appetizers are served while you wait for your soup, which comes back to you according to your number – very sanitary. It's lamb broth, very hot, with pieces of meat, scallions, seasoning, and the little bread pieces now tasting like dumpling dough. I love all the variety and the honored city-centric dishes.
Then we went to a farmer's market, which was amazing. I saw totally unfamiliar things – radishes almost as big as cabbages, gorgeous mushrooms, red carrots, quail eggs, lotus root (which I can now recognize), and many other things.
We passed the usual hundreds of tall apartment buildings under construction, just as I've seen everywhere. It's hard to believe there are enough people to fill them, but China is putting pressure on rural people to move to cities and is building enough housing for millions upon millions. Of course, one has to see them through the smog. China used to be 90 percent rural. It is now 70 percent rural and becoming more urbanized all the time, exactly the pattern of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.
We went to Donghan Village about an hour out of Xi'an for dinner and to spend the night. The village has been in this place for about 800 years. In the last fifteen or twenty years the government decided to help people build new houses in the “new” village because the old one was made of adobe and mud, needing to be repaired after every hard rain. This house looks really bad but it has been abandoned for 15 years, and the adobe bricks the houses were made from are now visible.
Here are some men playing Go with stones and bottle caps for the two sides.
There must have been a wedding here recently: here are the used fireworks containers.
The houses in the new village across the main road are frankly spacious and seem very prosperous to me. (Mike says this is a middle-class farming village.) The government determined how much of a footprint each house could have according to the number of people in the family, and subsidized the building materials such that when the houses were built they cost only $12,000; now they would cost much more to build.
I am staying in a house with three large bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom; three other women, friends from Princeton who travel together often, are in the other two bedrooms. Downstairs there is a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, I don't know how many bedrooms (parents, daughter age 15, mentally deficient son age about 18, mother-in-law), dining room and kitchen. It is considerably larger than my house! Here is a picture of the woman of the house on the right, her daughter in the middle, and her mother-in-law on the left. After 2,000 years rural China is still rigorously patrilocal: the bride moves to her husband's house and the groom brings his wife home to live.
This family essentially operates a bed-and-breakfast to augment their farming income. Farms are an average of 2.5 acres per family allotted by size of family and reallocated every four years to reflect changing family size – reductions by deaths, daughters moving out, sons moving to the city to work; additions by daughters-in-law and babies. City people like to come to the “countryside” on the weekends either for the day or to stay overnight, so they can taste fresh food – although the food I have had in the cities certainly tastes fresh to me – and so their children can see farm life, not many generations removed for most city people.
Dinner was much simpler than in the city, with fewer dishes. There was a thin crèpe in which you put the scrambled egg, the bamboo shoots and the green vegetable with a bit of meat. The dish in the front was some sort of bread that tasted fried to me, and there was also soup. It was all delicious.
After dinner everyone went outside to the communal plaza for dancing to music over a loudspeaker: Chinese music, the hokey-pokey, and the macareña, I am not kidding.
The toddlers had a great time running around.
It was really cold out there, so I've come in to write. My bed has a mattress warmer and a quilt; the temperature feels like 60 degrees at most. I think I'll sleep in my clothes. Nonetheless, being here is a huge privilege.