The Search for Peach Blossom Spring
Before I moved to New York, I lived in Hong Kong for 17 years, and I have been into China several times. So I know a few things. But as the experts on China say “there are no experts on China; only varying degrees of ignorance.” Very true. But one thing I do know is that Chinese adore their children and it is always a good idea to bring something for the kids of anyone who does you a kindness. And since just about everyone in China has children and is constantly searching out ways around government regulations to have more, toys are always well received.
So, as part of my preparation for traveling in China, I find myself at the tiny gift shop on Manhattan’s 17th Street Pier, South Street Seaport, and I spot two perfect gifts to bring into China. One is an American “flag sparkler” for $3.95. The other is an American “flag yo-yo” for $2.50. What kid wouldn’t like his very own yo-yo or a gadget so cool that, as you push up a metal lever, a circle spins and sparks fly out? And both have been painted with the red, white and blue colors of the American flag.
But on my way to the cash register I look them over more closely and spot the line in tiny letters on both: “Made in China.” Probably the sparkler factory is right where I’m going. Or maybe they tore down Peach Blossom Spring to build the East is Red yo-yo Factory. I drop the tainted items back into the baskets and move on.
If I have any hope of finding Peach Blossom Spring, I decide that it is important to do as much research on Hunan Province as I can. I walk to a Barnes & Noble Bookstore and while searching for material on Hunan spot a copy of Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion. While paying for it, I say to the clerk: “I guess someday we’ll be reading about Daily Life in America on the Eve of the Barnes & Noble invasion.” That’s when I realize not everyone appreciates a jocular sense of humor.
I purchase and pour over maps of China, peruse guidebooks and spend a great deal of time on the Internet. I learn that Hunan means “south of the (Dongting) Lake” but the section on Hunan in the Lonely Planet guidebook is not encouraging. It begins: “Most people pass through Hunan on their way to somewhere else, but the province has its attractions.”
It seems that every explorer who ever made it to Hunan felt compelled to comment on the clannishness of the people. In the 1870’s, the writer John Thomson wrote that “the natural routes to the great consuming districts of (Hunan’s) interior are kept jealously sealed against external traffic.”
According to the National Geographic Magazine, by the year 1900, all 18 of China’s provinces had been explored and mapped by foreigners except Hunan. One of the magazine’s writers in that year seemed irritated: “The (Hunanese) are the most clannish and conservative to be found in the whole empire, and have succeeded in keeping their province practically free from invasion by foreigners or even foreign ideas.” (Gosh darn those dull-witted Hunanese –- don’t they know gunboats and missionaries and foreign concessions are all the rage in China?)
And a decade later things were no better. In 1911, William Geil wrote that the capital of Hunan (Changsha) “keeps up its reputation as the most anti-foreign city in China.”
I know the province was the birthplace of Mao Tse-tung and that people there clung to his teaching and honored his beliefs longer than elsewhere in China. Hell, for all I know, the Cultural Revolution is still going on in Hunan. Maybe I should pack my little red book of Mao’s quotations. (But not the one with an introduction by Lin Biao.)
On my first trip (“first” assumes I don’t find what I’m looking for the first time and will have to return; rather negative thinking, I know) I will be in Hunan for part of June and much of July. According to what I find on the Internet, July in Hunan is the month of rains, storms, floods, heat and humidity. A typical comment: “Hunan lies in the path of cyclones that pass from west to east along the Yangtze Basin in summer, bringing with them at times long periods of heavy rain, resulting in extensive flooding of low-lying lands.”
I decide in the face of this negative publicity I need to speak to someone from Hunan. As I’m in Manhattan, and as most provinces of China probably have an association in Chinatown, I grab the Manhattan phonebook. After all, in the old days, Chinese had associations for everything: cotton hongs, cotton yarn hongs, dealers in cotton fabrics, gold shops, silver shops, rice stores, black tea companies, green tea companies, kung yee tea hongs, king yee tea hongs, yee jin tea hongs, satin ribbon hongs, raw silk hongs, dealers in fish maw, silk piece good hongs, sandalwood hongs, wet nurse hongs, dry nurse hongs, bird's nest shops, rattan dealers, compradore hongs, lead and tin shops, paper hongs, fur shops, wood hongs, tea box makers, matting shops, linguists guilds, new clothes shops, old clothes shops, Chinaware shops –- well, you get the idea.
I search the phone book. Restaurants galore: Hunan Chef, Hunan Cottage, Hunan Delight, Hunan Delight II, Hunan East, Hunan Garden, Hunan Inn, Hunan Pan, Hunan Park, Hunan Royal. Alas, no Hunanese Association. But I do turn up a Hunan Commercial Bank in the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, the harried woman who answers the phone has never heard of a Hunanese Association. I am tempted to ask if she has ever heard of Hunan but she hangs up.
Which means, I suppose, that in June’s 95 degree heat, I’ll have to mosey about New York’s Chinatown until I spot a Hunanese Association plaque on a building. First, I take clothes to my local Chinese dry cleaners. The middle-aged owner, Gong Yuan-chang, is from Shanghai and his wife’s family name is Chu and since everyone at the hospital where she works as a nurse calls her to come quickly by repeating her name, the dry cleaners is named in acknowledgment of this repetition: Chu Chu Cleaners.
While the owner has me sign in the book for yet another lost ticket, I casually mention that I am about to leave for China.
Him: “Where you going?”
Me: “Hunan Province.”
Him: (slight scowl): “Why?”
Me: “I’m going to try to find Peach Blossom Spring.”
Him: (more scowl): “What?”
I switch to mandarin and explain about the poet and his most famous work. The owner’s face immediately lights up. “Yes, of course, T’ao Yuan-ming. A wonderful poet.”
He then half speaks, half chants two lines from the story of “Peach Blossom Spring” and tells me how when he was once injured and didn’t know what to do an American lawyer helped him without charge. The dry cleaner wanted to do something for the lawyer so he bought a painting of bamboo and used a Chinese brush to write the two relevant lines on the painting. The lines refer to that moment when the fisherman in the story could go no farther as the stream ended before a cliff. Just as he thought there was no way in, he spotted the opening and entered Peach Blossom Spring; and a wonderful new world opened up to him. The lines, according to the dry cleaner, are often used by Chinese when a situation looks hopeless but something unexpectedly shows the way; as the lawyer did for him.
Then he squints his eyes, looks at me skeptically and slightly tilts his head. “Are you really going into China to find Peach Blossom Spring?”
I reply in the affirmative.
He holds out his fist with his thumb up, a gesture among both Chinese and Americans acclaiming happy accord or outright admiration. “Good,” he says. “Very good.”
Of course, what he has to say to his wife over dinner that night might be something else. Perhaps more along the lines of a crazy, long-nosed, green-eyed, foreign-devil on a wild goose chase in search of a mythical utopia found only in a fourth century poem. Still, I am greatly encouraged by his reaction. It was not one of ridicule or disbelief. In fact, I am quite certain I detected more than a bit of wistful desire in him. It was almost as if he was wishing he could whip off his apron, turn off the lights, lock up the shop and go with me.
A friend points out that if I find the place, I’ll most likely be known as The Man Who Found Peach Blossom Spring. I like the sound of that. It’s right up there with The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Although the thought occurs to me that if I don’t find Peach Blossom Spring will I be known as The Man Who Didn’t Find Peach Blossom Spring? But I don’t think so because, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been called The Man Who Didn’t Break the Bank at Monte Carlo or The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Liberty Valance.
And it’s not as if I have to worry about someone else getting there first. It’s not as if several teams of famished explorers and their snowbound dogsleds are rushing to be the first to reach the South Pole. This is not a contest between tall ships with sleek bows and all sails spread racing from China to London with their precious cargoes of tea. As far as I know, other than myself, no one is rushing to discover Peach Blossom Spring. And that is one of the great benefits of being the only one to believe something exists: no competition.
I continue searching the Internet. One of the sites I find is “The Changde Adoptive Families Forum” put up by people who adopted babies from the city of Changde, exactly where I need to go to start my search for Peach Blossom Spring. The site explains why babies adopted from Hunan are known as Chili Babies: “The Hunan Province is known for the spicy and flavorful dishes that they create with hot peppers. Since everyone eats these dishes, the babies that are born there take on the characteristics of the hot ‘chili’ peppers. So the wonderful little girls we have taken home as our daughters will have the same hot and spicy personalities of the peppers. (Local guide) Daphne said that from now on, we should think of this story when our daughters are ‘exhibiting’ some spicy behavior!”
No mention of sons, only daughters. I e-mail one of the persons listed on the site and ask if they know of a hotel to stay in in Changde. The next day I receive an e-mail from a woman asking how I knew they had been in China ending with: “Have you been reading my mail?” Talk about “hot and spicy personalities.” I reply to reassure her that I have not but that I am in fact a psychic. I never hear from her again.
Late on a Friday night, outside my East Village apartment, the streets are swarming with apple-cheeked, beer-guzzling New York University students, and wannabe cool dudes from New Jersey (“bridge-and-tunnel crowd”) with green hair and rings embedded in their eyebrows, noses, lips and tongues, and local punks and skinheads with multi-colored Mohawks, kinky young women from Japan, their apricot eyes partly covered by glowing pink-and-green strands of once-jet black hair, Hari-Krishna people tapping on drums and banging cymbals and dancing themselves into a state of giddiness, sleepy-from-working-two-jobs male and female cops, who seem to be waiting patiently for Godot and most of whom have traded in their revolvers for semi-automatics, insouciant dog walkers neglecting to pick up after their Chevy-sized pit bulls and German Shepherds, and -- giving new meaning to a former mayor’s description of the city as a “gorgeous mosaic” -- bored Mexicans sitting in front of Korean greengrocers to ensure that no one of any nationality snatches up the buckets of flowers or baskets of fruit from the outside display without paying, and the few hookers and their pimps who haven’t yet got the word that our puritan mayor doesn’t like them.
Ensconced inside my semi-basement apartment, on the Internet, still searching for anything connected to Hunan province, I stumble across the “Hunan Yiyang Mosquito-Repellent Incense Manufacturing General Factory” and the “China Mosquito-Repellent Incense Industrial Association Directory Office.” This is good because Yiyang is a town between Changsha, the capital of Hunan, and Changde, formerly Wuling, home of the fisherman who started all this by getting lost, and I want to know if there is a train between the two places or not. The factory manufactures “coil mosquito-repellent incense, Cat brand insect-repellent spray, electric mosquito-repellent incense, quick-acting mosquito-repellent tablets, cockroach-repellent tablets and fragrant incense.” So who takes the tablet -– the cockroach or me?
I don’t like the sound of all these mosquitoes and cockroaches running around Hunan province especially since New York is on the alert for West Nile Virus-carrying mosquitoes (so the mosquitoes that migrated to Manhattan from the East Nile are harmless?) but I console myself with the thought that all of this battlefield artillery might be for export. It probably ends up in New York City.
I e-mail the Director and General Secretary. The e-mail is returned: “user address unknown.”
But while checking for that e-mail, I find another. My 81-year-old mother in Vero Beach, Florida, has sent up a note purportedly from my 89-year-old stepfather. On a recent visit, I had told them about my search for Peach Blossom Spring and explained why it will be similar to Don Quixote’s adventures in Spain. Over an Early Bird Dinner with no fewer than 71 items in its salad bar, I spoke to them of how in Don Quixote in China, readers would travel with a writer as besotted with the spiritual riches of China’s literary landscape as Don Quixote de la Mancha was besotted with of the ideals of chivalry. Whereas for Don Quixote, windmills and powerful magicians became the unbeatable foe, in Don Quixote in China, I would be facing an even greater adversary: modern China’s unbridled and unashamed passion for getting rich combined with its post-Cultural Revolution ignorance of traditional literature. Of course, I didn’t bother to mention that a foreign traveler searching for a quite possibly mythical utopia in a very materialistic, money-minded, China may well find more than his fair share of Cervantes-style punishments.
During several grueling shuffleboard matches I explained how I intended to be serious in my quest, but not to take myself too seriously; how I would draw parallels to the adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha, as I too might with justification be described as tilting at windmills and possessing a mind “crazed by reading;” as one whose “overexcited imagination blinds him to reality,” and described as an “idealist frustrated and mocked in a materialist world.” (In fact, the Chinese would have called Don Quixote a shu-tai-dz, a fatuous fellow who knows nothing of the world except through books.) And, of course, I explained all about Sancho Panza, the hapless squire to Don Quixote, whose only goal was to be governor of an island. Whatever it was in the early bird specials, by the time I leave Florida, I have a toothache.
My stepfather had shown no particular interest in my tale. But by some kind of bizarre coincidence, shortly after I left, they watched a TV version of Don Quixote starring John Lithgow as Don Quixote and Bob Hoskin as Sancho Panza, and since then my stepfather has been keen to accompany me to China as my squire. Almost insistently keen. This is his e-mail:
“To: Don Quixote de la Mancha from your friend and Squire Sancho. I have a few questions in my mind. I am thinking about riding the donkey. I assume that we both face the same way. Right? But how do I get him to start? Do I hit him on the back end (soft or hard?) Or whisper in his ear (right or left)? Then how do I get him to stop? This requires a lot of planning on my part even if I get a tall donkey. I don’t want my feet to be dragging as I might go barefoot. Let me know the answers and where I can get a donkey. You see I want to be all ready when called. Your good friend and Squire, Sancho.”
The tone of the message sounds more like my mother than my stepfather but the wackiness in my family long ago rubbed off on my stepfather so who knows. And the thought occurs to me that if an 89-year-old man serves as my squire in China while searching for Peach Blossom Spring, that would almost guarantee a write-up in Modern Maturity magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons. So the question is: Do I have it in me to sacrifice my elderly stepfather in order to reach millions of readers and sell lots of books? I decide to put off the soul-searching question but I respond to the e-mail by pointing out that one of the Eight Immortals used to ride a white mule which he would fold up and put in his wallet when not needed. When needed, he would sprinkle water on it and it would reappear. I suggest that my stepfather check out Vero Beach travel shops for something like that. I don’t bother to mention that the Immortal is said to have ridden the mule backward.
The woman at the post office to whom I hand my Hold the Mail card is Chinese as is my mailman. But both are from Hong Kong and neither has been to Hunan. And if I read their attitude correctly, neither has the slightest interest in going to Hunan. Ever.
One of the many translations of Peach Blossom Spring I have is from a book devoted to the poet by Professor Tan Shilin of Jinan University. It is entitled, The Complete Works of Tao Yuan Ming and is in both Chinese and English.
I find an e-mail address for Jinan University on the Internet. The response informs me that professor Tan retired from Jinan’s Foreign Language Department in Kwangchow (Canton)and now resides in Chongshan. I try the number several times; AT&T operators try the number several times. Nothing quite works.
The following morning a dentist informs me the aching tooth will have to be pulled. Lisa, the dental assistant, asks if I would like to have “twilight sleep.” She explains that she can place a nosepiece over my nose and, as I breathe in the twilight sleep, it will make me high and disassociate me from what is going on. As a college student of the 60's, of course I want to get high. And, as Lisa points out with a wink, “It’s legal.”
As we wait for the dentist to reappear with his tools, Lisa adjusts the machine behind me and says, “Let’s get you higher,” a beautiful phrase I hadn’t heard since the late 60's student riots at San Francisco State College.
I smile and say, “Lisa, let me take you away from all this.” No, wait, did I say that or just think it. No, I couldn’t have said it; I’ve got too many things in my much numbed-over mouth.
Lisa explains how far twilight sleep has come: that unless a patient is a rubber fetishist he will get tired of the smell of rubber from the nosepiece so twilight sleep now comes in various scents and Lisa offers a choice of three: mint, french-vanilla and -– I kid you not -– peach. So while the dentist is busily extracting my second pre-molar or pre-second molar or something like that, I ascend into the Land of Peach Blossom Spring, this time with a little assist from nitrous oxide. The dentist office gradually transforms and I find myself on a skiff gliding along a sparkling stream covered with peach blossoms. The peach trees end and I step from the boat onto the bank where, with very little trouble, I locate the eerie light coming from a narrow opening in the mountain. I squeeze through the opening and come face to face with the dental assistant dressed in the skimpiest of native sarongs. She hangs a garland of peach leaves about my neck and hands me a succulent peach. I realize I am about to experience pure happiness. But as she leads me off toward a thatched hut surrounded by vividly beautiful wildflowers I hear a strange cracking noise behind me. I turn to see my dentist emerge though the crevice. He says, “It’s out!” And I am taken off nitrous oxide and given pure oxygen and then the nosepiece is removed altogether and Peach Blossom Spring is no more.
When I return from the dentist, I spot what appears to be an extended family of excited Asians gathered in front of my building. They are using long bamboo poles to reach up into the branches of a gingko tree and shaking the tree for all they are worth; elderly grandmothers, middle-aged couples and plenty of kids. A few are pushing on the tree while one young man has even climbed on top of someone's parked van in order to reach higher.
Having lived in Hong Kong for 17 years, I know immediately that A. these were Cantonese, probably from Hong Kong, B. whatever part of the gingko tree they were after would be used in soup in Chinese restaurants or as medicine in Chinese pharmacies or both and C. they were extremely pleased to be getting it.
New Yorkers pass by and cast wary and suspicious glances at such goings-on and one actually stops beside me and asks, "Why are these people trying to push that tree down?"
The truth is the City of New York in its wisdom realized that even New York exhaust fumes cannot kill this hardy tree and so they planted them on every bare spot of ground. The problem is they were supposed to plant male gingko trees because the female gingko trees bear fruit (or whatever it is) and it is messy and, frankly, it stinks. Although, to tell the truth, the smell of the gingko fruit is not nearly so bad as certain other odors around my neighborhood, about which the less said the better. In any case, right in front of my apartment is a female Gingko tree, which each season never fails to be a beacon and a bonanza for extended Chinese families.
Meanwhile, back at the Chu Chu Dry cleaners, I learn that the owner’s father left China in 1946 and eventually taught Chinese at an American university for many years. But when he left China, he left his children behind and never returned to see them. Then, in 1972, his mother turned 90, an important birthday for Chinese, and so the dry cleaner’s father was about to return. Then Nixon went to China and suddenly everybody in America became a sinophile and wanted to learn Chinese and play the butterfly harp and watch kung-fu movies from Hong Kong, so the college persuaded him to delay his trip for one year. In March of 1973, the year he would have returned, he died of cancer. Although the dry cleaner did not tell his grandmother of her son’s death, she had a dream in which the son said they should both go together. She died in May of that year.
I ask where his father is buried and he says New Jersey. I mention the tradition that the bones should be buried in China and he quickly turns over a laundry ticket and sketches out a tree and jots down a Chinese saying about a very tall tree that sends down its seeds to the earth, meaning: no matter how important or how distant, one must always return to China. But he says if they had sent his father’s coffin back to China there would be no one to tend the grave. Here they can visit every year during the Ch’ing Ming Festival.
Then I learn the dry cleaner had been in China until the late 70's and was still a boy when in 1946 his father left for America. He looks away and lowers his voice as he tells me he never saw him again. At that, I pry no further, but I have seldom spoken to an older Chinese of any occupation without, over time, learning of some sad tale or even horrible tragedy just beneath the surface of his or her seemingly ordinary life.
My friend, Robert Lin, drops by. Robert is a fine actor who played Chairman Mao in Martin Scorcece’s film on Tibet, Kundun. I first met him when he tried out for my musical set in 1857 Hong Kong, Fragrant Harbour. But Robert is 6' 2", half Manchu, very scholarly, Chinese opera-trained, and with the broad face of a Northerner. My musical needed typically skinny and smaller Cantonese and we couldn’t use him. But we became close friends.
I casually mention to him my desire to find Peach Blossom Spring. He mentions the Chinese phrase, “Hua fu chui jih, (Hua Fu Chases the Sun). In other words, the Chinese version of a wild goose chase. We discuss it and he says that he hasn’t heard of any sightings of a remote, idyllic community like Peach Blossom Spring but has heard of several villages in one area of China in which women are in control and all is based on matriarchy. Having once been married to a Chinese woman, I have no doubt that despite surface appearances Chinese women are in control throughout China, but I ask him where this place of Women in Command is. He says he’ll try to find out but he warns me if I go there that I might become –- he hesitates, groping for the right phrase in English and finally finds it -– “a copulation tool.”
God, I wish my mandarin were as good as his English, but I hasten to assure him that I was in fact born to be a copulation tool of beautiful Chinese women in villages in the middle of China; that it has always been my destiny, my fate, my karma, and that I can easily swing around to the female-dominated villages on my way back from Peach Blossom Spring, kill two birds with one stone, and all that. He promises to try to find out more about them.
But shortly after, I hear that he has gotten his American citizenship and, after many years in the States, is going back to visit his parents. Reading between the lines I understand that his portrayal of Mao might not have gone down well with Beijing authorities and he decided to become an American citizen before heading back to China. Obviously, his mama didn’t raise no fool.
Meanwhile my own mother is inundating me with any and all newspaper clippings that have the faintest relevance to China. One of them involves a Florida schoolteacher who is going to live in China for a year with her husband. She has already begun studying Chinese culture as well as the language and, “the next step, she said, is to tackle the alphabet so she can read the language, as well.” My mother underlines that sentence. My mother knows the Chinese language doesn’t have an alphabet. In fact, my mother knows I will find Peach Blossom Spring before the Florida schoolteacher finds a Chinese alphabet.
I receive a notice in the mail that China desperately needs English teachers and several groups working in China will be speaking and recruiting nearby. I attend the meeting and learn that English teachers are in such demand that in one case a homeless man was sent to some remote province to teach. No one is quite certain what happened to him. A slightly embarrassed woman from Shanghai does her best to tactfully explain to a young Chinese-American woman that Chinese parents actually tell them they want “white” American teachers to teach their children English. To say the least, this information does not go down well with the young Chinese-American woman.
After the meeting, I take one of R.H. van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries and head for a Chinese restaurant where I have the famous General Tso’s chicken. I forget which, or rather, who came first, Judge Dee or General Tso, so I am not certain whether General Tso read Judge Dee’s murder trials or if Judge Dee ate General Tso’s chicken. A puzzlement.
When I return home and check the mail I find a “China for Children catalog” offering such items as Yang Ge dance fans, Tianjin folk art T-shirts, silk longevity scarves, Year of the Dragon lapel pins, and “cute and fuzzy” panda bear slippers. “A portion of the proceeds supports the work of Our Chinese Daughters Foundation, Inc.” Not knowing what might eventually develop from my trip to China, I decide to file the catalog for future reference.
I check the website of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and do a search of recent articles on “Hunan.” Time to see exactly what kind of place I am heading for. I find this:
4 February 2000: China residents of a Hunan village refused to help victims of a bus crash, instead they stole valuables, cash and clothes from survivors. The victims said the villagers asked them if they had money to pay for assistance, then looted the bus.
20 February 2000: A six-year-old girl was beaten to death by a 12-year-old boy in a Hunan village after she threatened to tell on him for setting off fireworks.
25 February 2000: A natural gas explosion in a workshop in Hunan province killed 13 people and injured 54.
8 April 2000: Two suspected murderers, members of an armed gang from Hunan province, were killed by police in a shoot-out in Chechiang province.
18 April 2000: An explosion on Thursday at the Liaowangping coal mine, near Chenzhou city, Hunan province, killed 11 miners, one missing.
24 May 2000: Mystery yesterday surrounded a helicopter crash which left two people dead and three injured in Hunan province, as investigators continued to probe why the mainland’s first corporate helicopter went down.
7 June 2000: A pontoon bridge crowded with spectators watching a dragon boat race overturned and threw 130 people into a Hunan province reservoir, drowning 13 people.
11 June 2000: A traditional dragon boat festival in Hunan turned into tragedy last week when a dam gate was opened, dragging a boat into a reservoir and killing 11 participants.
During a checkup I mention to my doctor that I am going to Hunan Province during the rainy season. He briefly disappears and then hands me some anti-malaria pills and the National Center for Infectious Diseases “Health Information for Travelers to East Asia.” Its list is as impressive as it is hair-raising: “Travelers’ diarrhea (E. Coli, Salmonella, cholera, and parasites), fever (typhoid fever and toxoplasmosis, liver damage), Malaria, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, leishmaniasis, plague, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, rabies, and Dengue. As Deng Hsiao-ping is deceased, I assume “Dengue” is not some strange romanization of his name or a misspelling but, whatever it is, it sounds ominous. I leave the malaria pills home but, just in case word arrives from Robert about the location of China’s matriarchal villages, I pack a few Viagra.
Don Quixote in China continues