DON QUIXOTE IN CHINA:

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This book is dedicated to two extraordinary men: Peter Tan Shilin, a scholar and freethinker living in Zhong Shan, Kwangtung Province; and to Guo Tongxiao, a farmer and visionary living in Longting Village, Yangxian County, Shensi Province.

 

“What is the meaning of this trip?” Hunter Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night” Edgar Allan Poe

“What a travel it is indeed that is recorded in this book, and what a man he is who experienced it” Basho

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches

 

 

A Note on Romanization Systems

When I first began studying Chinese at Monterey’s Defense Language Institute, I used the Yale System of romanization of Chinese characters, a modest, unpretentious, by-the-numbers sort of romanization. Later, at various universities, I began using the Wade-Giles system, you know, the one with the elegant apostrophes -- genteel and aristocratic. There is also the communist pinyin system in use on the mainland since the mid-50's, which you can recognize by the plethora of godawful z’s and x’s -- unbecoming, unsightly - dare one say -- uncouth. There are also a few other systems lollygaging about including the one created by the late scholar Lin Yutang and his friends, not to mention the old postal spellings of place names. In this book, I may have in a few cases even merged one or two systems with my own ideas. If you are a China scholar you will easily tell how the Chinese words are pronounced; if not, you won’t.

My advice is not to worry about it because most of the romanization systems in use seem to have been developed by people who have the same mindset as those who built the Great Wall -- i.e., to keep foreigners out. However, one favor: please note that the “j” in “Beijing” is pronounced exactly as the “j” in “jack” or “jump.” Dan Rather and other newsreaders who insist on pronouncing the “j” as if it were a French “j” (as in “je”) seem to have been misled by the pinyins “zh.”

As for snatches of poems which have been translated by me or by others, please remember what a wise man once said: “translations are like mistresses; they can be beautiful or faithful, but not both.” With few exceptions, that certainly applies to translations of Chinese poetry and to any English translation of literature of a tonal language. As the late scholar, H. A. Giles, wrote, “translations may be moonlight and water while the originals are sunlight and wine.”

DON QUIXOTE IN CHINA:

THE SEARCH FOR PEACH BLOSSOM SPRING

Introduction

To be perfectly honest –- and for much of this book I will be exactly that - the truth is if I could have one wish it would be that I could write like Paul Theroux. His wonderful travel writing has a kind of dispassionate moroseness, a cerebral melancholy, an intellectual despondency running through it which, in itself, seems to lend credence to his opinions. A man not easily moved is a man whose opinions we value. A man not readily impressed is a man whose convictions we respect. Those difficult to excite seem to possess a great wisdom while travel reports from the pen of skittish, often irrational, frequently paranoid, creatures like myself seem certain to be met with outright suspicion if not destined to be entirely ignored. This is my fate and I have learned to accept it. I can only attempt to make up for what I lack in moroseness, melancholy and despondency in other ways.

As the reader travels with me on my search for Peach Blossom Spring, he or she may sense that I possess more than a tad of immaturity in my soul; to which I can only say in my own defense that it has long been my most tenaciously held belief that nothing is so deadening to the human spirit as emotional maturity. It has been my experience that people with emotional maturity tend to miss all that constitutes the human voyage: the absolute horror and the inexplicable beauty; the obvious tragedy and the inexpressible joy; the ever-present absurdity and the irrefutable logic. People with emotional maturity do not search for Peach Blossom Spring. People with emotional maturity do not search.

And what exactly is Peach Blossom Spring, known in Chinese as T’ao Hua Yuan Chi? It is the best known work of the Chinese poet, T’ao Yuan-ming (T’ao Ch’ien), a short description of a utopia which, despite its brevity, has had a tremendous impact on generations of Chinese poetry and fiction. T’ao, one of China’s most beloved poets, lived during the tumultuous Six Dynasties period, specifically during the Eastern Chin dynasty (AD 317-420). Known as “the Gentleman of the Five Bamboos,” “the prince of hermits,” and as “poet of the garden and field,” T’ao espoused Lao Tzu’s attitude toward life: “The Way (Tao) never acts and yet nothing is left undone.” He retired early from the life of an official and lived as a Taoist gentleman-farmer, working in his fields, writing poetry and drinking wine. His poems on nature have been compared with those of Robert Frost and his style was later admired and even imitated by the greatest poets of the T’ang and Sung.

In Peach Blossom Spring, T’ao describes how a fisherman sailing along an uncharted stream comes upon a radiantly beautiful peach orchard where “a myriad of scented petals floated gently downward, painting both sides of the river with their soft splendor.” Entranced by the orchard’s almost preternatural loveliness, the fisherman explores the orchard and, as he does so, notices an eerie radiance from within a narrow passage in a mountain cliff. He enters the passage and suddenly emerges into a land of beauty and mystery, a halcyon, idyllic agricultural community. In the China of the fisherman there is almost constant war and turbulence, and existence is at best precarious, yet here he is astounded to find “vast farmland and imposing farmhouses, fertile fields, beautiful lakes, mulberry trees and bamboo groves.”

The villagers are surprised by his arrival but are pleased to converse with him. They tell him that their ancestors fled tyrants centuries before; and they have been hidden from the world of sanguinary wars, internecine feuds and constant suffering and know nothing of the outside world; nor do they wish to rejoin it. The fisherman is treated by the farmers as an honored guest, and is feasted with all the fruits of their harvest and their finest wine.

When the fisherman describes to them the violent and turbulent world he comes from, they shake their heads and sigh. For several days, the fisherman lives among them, spellbound by their good will and guileless ways. He watches in admiration as the people follow neither kings nor calendars but only the natural rhythm of nature. He senses a happiness and contentment in the villagers that does not exist in the China he knows.

Excited as he is by his discovery, the fisherman eventually requests permission to leave Peach Blossom Spring. The villagers allow him to leave, asking only that he not spread word of their existence (“let your knowledge of us go no further”). This the fisherman agrees to.

Despite his promise, however, he carefully marks his route and reports what he saw to officials. The officials report this to the prefect of the district who sends out an expedition in hopes of finding the utopia but to the fisherman’s amazement his markings have mysteriously disappeared and the mission ends in failure. Try as he might, the fisherman can never again find Peach Blossom Spring. Upon hearing of the fisherman’s discovery, a famed scholar plans another expedition but soon dies from a mysterious illness.

No further attempts were ever again made to find Peach Blossom Spring. Until now.

In “Peach Blossom Spring,” the fisherman who chances upon the Arcadian community is from the small town of Wuling. In my research I have learned that Wuling is now known as Changde and is in southern China in Hunan Province.

The poet himself lived near the beautiful Lushan (Lu Mountains) in what is now the neighboring province of Jiangsi. In his retirement, T’ao Yuan-ming was given to roaming the beautiful landscapes he loved, and his farm was not so far away that he could not have come upon the mysterious village nestled in the magnificent mountains which are now part of western Hunan province. It is my theory (the reader might here wish to place the word “crackpot” before the word “theory”) that T’ao Yuan-ming actually found Peach Blossom Spring and, as a poet, felt compelled to write about it. But to keep others (such as myself) from finding it and thereby changing it forever, he wrote his discovery as fiction, a tall tale of a remote, idyllic, isolated utopia so that none but the most unbalanced lunatic would actually believe it exists. Well, I believe it exists.

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Don Quixote in China continues

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Reviews:

From The Critics Library Journal

Barrett, the author of five novels set in Asia and a mystery novel set in New York City, explains that the concept of Peach Blossom Spring comes from the poetry of T'ao Ch'ien, who lived during the Eastern Chin dynasty (317-420 C.E.). Peach Blossom Spring is the poet's description of a utopia, which a fisherman enters to find great beauty and mystery. Though the utopia's residents treat the fisherman like royalty, he requests to leave. He attempts to find utopia again but fails to retrace his steps. Barrett has decided to take up the hunt, and this book chronicles his search on two separate ventures into China. The author speaks Chinese and has lived in Asia for 20 years, so he readily enters the lives of the people he meets, and readers end up feeling as if they have gotten an inside look at the world's most populous country. Barrett is insightful, knowledgeable, compassionate, spontaneous, and humorous, and he has produced an entertaining and perceptive book. Recommended for all libraries with Asian studies or travel collections.-Melinda Stivers Leach, Precision Editorial Svcs., Wondervu, CO Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

 

"You can't go wrong with de Tocqueville, Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson among others.  They are acerbic, witty, insightful, capturing the essence of the countries they visit and the people they encounter on the way.  Dean Barrett follows in this tradition with Don Quixote in China.  And it doesn't hurt that he's fluent in the (Chinese) language, too.  Comparison to the hapless knight's adventures is cleverly devised, such as blaming his setbacks on Freston the Magician.  Don Quixote in China is a travel book I won't hesitate to advise you to read.  Get Barrett's other books of non-fiction and fiction.  You'll be glad you did."

  Bernard Trink,  Bangkok Post

 

If you've been waiting for Bill Bryson to "do" China, here's a book you're sure to enjoy. DEAN BARRETT expresses admiration for the travel writing of Paul Theroux, but DON QUIXOTE IN CHINA: THE SEARCH FOR PEACH BLOSSOM SPRING rather brings Bryson, or even P.J. O'Rourke, to mind.
"The second you walked in the door, the experienced staff made up its mind about what it was you desired and either led you to a table and brought you a menu or else led you to a cubicle and brought you a woman. Either way, you would most likely to end up with Hunan crabs."

Don Quixote in China is Barrett's account of two trips to some of China's second line tourist attractions, notably Zhangjiajie and Lu Shan, in 2001 and 2002.  Despite an impressive familiarity with Chinese literature and ancient history, Barrett is as bewildered as any first time visitor about how modern China works, and this too he uses to good comic effect.

"I confess I have never understood the meaning of the expression "cash crops." Does it mean the other crops the farmer grows are just for fun? Or does he use the other crops for barter only? Do Hunanese farmers accept frequent flyer miles and gift certificates in lieu of cash for certain products?"

Don Quixote in China is an enjoyable stumble through the less visited reaches of China's tourist industry. ...a lighthearted read that any fan of travel literature will enjoy.

The Asian Review of Books
 

Dean's account of his search if often filled with hilarious episodes leaving the reader longing for more details of the trips.  I found the story entertaining and full of Chinese witticisms.  I recommend this book to anyone having an interest in China.

Roundtablereviews.com

 

The premise is intriguing. Taking an ancient description of utopia by one of China's most beloved poets, T'ao, as fact, Dean Barrett sets out to actually find Peach Blossom Spring. The first to admit that his theory might be "crackpot", Barrett nonetheless grasps the reader firmly by the hand and starts.

His eye for detail results in some priceless toss-aways: a nightclub drummer encased in bulletproof glass; men who fish in tiny bodies of water between rice fields; word-for-word copies of literature found in hotel rooms like "The Sobering Peppermint Spray (necessary for all drivers, shareholders and writers)...."

Barrett's ability to speak Mandarin, self-described immaturity and pervasive sense of humor leads to laugh-out-loud scenes, the ultimate being his off-the-cuff comedic performance on a remote mountain path for a bunch of coolies and Tujia female singers.. ...incredible wit and unapologetic, self-deprecating honesty.

Curled up with a Good Book Reviews

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