South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China

South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China

by Seth Faison

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429973687
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 266 KB

About the Author

Seth Faison won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 as a member of the New York Times team covering the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He spent twelve years living in China, as a student, a journalist, and finally as Shanghai Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Faison now lives with his family in Santa Monica, California.

Seth Faison won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 as a member of the New York Times team covering the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He has spent twelve years living in China, as a student, journalist, and finally Shanghai Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Faison is married with twin children and lives in Santa Monica, California.

Read an Excerpt

South of the Clouds

Exploring the Hidden Realms of China

By Seth Faison

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2004 Seth Faison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7368-7



When I stumbled out of the train station in Xi'an, the late-afternoon sky looked vividly clear and blue. I felt dazed from a bumpy thirty-hour train ride from Hong Kong. My lower back ached, but I could not feel the ground beneath my feet as I walked. I was a hazy bundle of excitement and apprehension. My gaze fixed on the brilliant, limitless autumn sky.

A broad, muddy square stretched out before me, crowded with horse-drawn carts, rickety old trucks, and dirty buses. Simple houses on the far side of the square looked the color of earth, tawny and cinnamon. Old signs, browning with age, hung outside plain-looking storefronts. The air smelled dusty and sour. Thousands of Chinese men and women moved in and out of the train station in a tangled mass. Most of them looked like farmers from the countryside, with bronze weather-beaten faces and faded blue or green Mao jackets, bits of mud dried on their cuffs.

I put down my bags at one corner of the square outside the station. Two old men wearing threadbare Mao jackets stopped to stare at me, evidently curious about a Westerner. The men stood so close I wondered if they were going to reach out and touch my blond hair. I was anxious about talking to commoners. I had been warned that people in Communist China were sullen and would be afraid to speak to foreigners. The men spoke to each other about me as if I were not there.

"Da bizi zhen da," said the man with the scruffy white beard. "That big nose is really big."

I laughed involuntarily, surprising the men, who laughed too. "Big nose," the local term for Westerner, fit me well since I have a substantial beak. The man with the white beard seemed intrigued that the "big nose" could speak some Chinese. He offered me a cigarette, and I accepted, eager to please, even though I did not smoke. It was filterless, and I coughed on the first puff, eliciting even more laughter. That drew more listeners. In minutes, a crowd of nearly a hundred people crowded around me tightly, mouths agape. I felt as awkward as a novice movie star, attracting attention for my looks alone.

"Why did you come to China?" asked the bearded man.

"To meet you," I replied. Uproarious laughter.

Cheerful smiles on peasant faces, the easy bonding of laughter, friendly conversation. Relief flushed down to my toes. After worrying that I would feel like a caged animal in China, I was welcome at the train station. It softened my anxiety.

Riding on a clunky old bus toward the university where I had enrolled for a year, I looked out at the teeming sea of Chinese cyclists and pedestrians who packed the city streets. Millions of people, everywhere. In the pallid afternoon light, all the storefronts had the same dull look of simplicity and poverty. The bus weaved its way through a crowded intersection, headed for a towering monument with an imperial Chinese roof, jade green eaves sloping majestically on four sides. I learned later that it was the city's South Gate, built by an emperor intent on intimidating all comers with the size of his impenetrable front door. An enormous wall, forty feet high and wide enough on top for six horse-drawn chariots to trot side by side, surrounded the entire city. Xi'an had been one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world during the Tang Dynasty of 618–907, the terminus of the fabled Silk Road, before a long slide toward obscurity. Still, centuries later, the wall remained. As my bus entered the darkness of a long tunnel that cut through that wall, I wondered about the multitudes who had passed the same way over the past thousand years, courtiers who rode hundreds of miles on horseback to bow before an emperor, Communist soldiers promising to "liberate" the city from its feudal past, Red Guards chanting fanatical leftist slogans.

Outside the city wall, the road grew wider as the sidewalks disappeared. My bus headed toward the outskirts of the city. In the foot traffic, I noticed a barefoot young boy in rags hauling a wooden cart piled high with three or four long, heavy slabs of concrete. The boy leaned hard into a worn leather shoulder strap as he inched forward, sweat darkening his clothes. He could not have been more than ten years old. I craned my neck to watch him as the bus passed. After he fell from sight, I spotted another boy with a similar load, and then another. The road was crowded with farmers and tradesmen riding donkey-drawn carts, and filthy old trucks that lurched in the ruts of the road, choking out black clouds of exhaust. But I fixed my eyes on those young boys, sweating like medieval slaves. I wondered how many pennies a day they earned for their labor.

At Shaanxi Teachers University, the austere campus of gray brick buildings included a dormitory for foreign students. It had been built for the Vietnamese in the 1960s, when China and North Vietnam were allied in a war against the United States. By the time I got to China, in 1984, the notion of Asian solidarity had surrendered to an interest in making money. Universities enrolled foreign students who could pay to learn Chinese. Ten Americans and fifteen Japanese shared the rooms along two pea-green hallways with dim lightbulbs. I washed my laundry by hand in a cast-iron sink where my fingers pruned up in the cold water. It was primitive, but I didn't care about amenities. I was in China.

I became bewitched by China in college, when I fell for a classmate named Deborah Wang. She was learning Chinese, the language of her parents. She gave me a Chinese name, Fei Liangshi, by randomly picking three Chinese characters she liked. She went to China to study for a year and wrote me letters with engaging descriptions of Chinese villages, long train rides, and abandoned graveyards. Across thin pages of rice paper, she drew Chinese calligraphy, graceful emblems of timeworn beauty. I found myself drawn to these symbols of a faraway culture, intrigued that a written language could look so mysterious and meaningful. I started reading about China, its history of ruthless tyrants, its sophisticated intellectual traditions, and its vast peasantry. When Deborah returned to America, we split up, but she had already planted the seed in my mind. I signed up to study Chinese in Xi'an.

In my first weeks in Chinese class, Teacher Wang furrowed her dark eyebrows whenever I opened my mouth. I had to distinguish the four tones of Mandarin Chinese and remember which word went with which tone. Teacher Wang insisted that I get every tone right. She was patient and persistent. So many words sound the same in Chinese that one false tone can alter the meaning of an entire sentence. Mao could mean cat, hair, leader of China, crude, hat, or appearance, depending on its tone and context. Hui could mean return, meeting, regret, or kindness. I knew some basic Chinese from a summer program in Taiwan, and I could begin a conversation easily, as I had that first day at the train station. Since Chinese avoids annoying grammatical rules like conjugations or tenses — very sensibly, I thought — I could get through simple greetings without a problem. Yet I quickly ran aground as soon as a discussion became sophisticated.

The hardest part was learning vocabulary. There was no shortcut to learning Chinese characters. I had to memorize them, which was time-consuming and exhausting. I had to learn and forget a word ten to twenty times before I could hold on to it. Outside of my daily classes, I spent hours each day hunched over a simple textbook at a small desk, my legs squeezed underneath. At times, I yearned to be back studying high school French, where "the difference" was translated as la différence. In Chinese, it was bu yi yang. Looking up a word in a Chinese dictionary, by counting the strokes and laboriously scanning long lists of characters, was an ordeal in itself. I often got dizzy with frustration, and went outside for a walk to escape the torture. Seeing street signs in Chinese characters and struggling to decipher their meaning would renew my determination, sending me back to my desk. The payoff, accumulated painstakingly, was the charm and subtlety that lay within Chinese characters. I came to admire the balance built into each one. I learned how to pick out basic symbols, used like building blocks in complex characters. The symbol for water, for instance, is one part of the character for soup, alcohol, and coffee. The symbol for tall is one part of building, skyscraper, and tower. I loved the discovery one day that an, the word for peace, is the symbol of a woman alone under a roof. I imagined a house in the woods during a snowy winter night, with only a woman inside, peaceful and quiet. Teacher Wang frowned. More likely, she suggested, the character reflected the perspective of a man in ancient China. A man has peace only when he owns a home and owns the woman inside.

The student cafeteria at Shaanxi Teachers University was a dark, desolate, unheated cavern with gaping holes in the roof. At mealtime, I joined the crush of students in Mao jackets or worn army coats, each carrying a bowl and chopsticks in hand. In the darkness, with long snaking lines of students waiting for food, the place looked like a refugee camp. One line inched forward to a giant vat of rice, where steam rose so thick that it was sometimes hard to see the cafeteria workers in dirty smocks ladling out spoonfuls. Another line was for a choice of slop — boiled vegetables, sour tofu, or chunks of fat with a scrap of meat hanging off one end. Everything tasted a few days old. A few dilapidated, dirty benches occupied the far end of the cafeteria. Most students either squatted on their haunches to slurp the meal quickly or carried their bowls to eat back in a dormitory. No one spoke. I hoped to make friends in the cafeteria, but I always went back to my dormitory alone.

After a few days, I started making asides to the cafeteria workers as they put food in my bowl. Most looked askance, baffled by a tall blond "big nose" babbling in primary-school Chinese. But there was one woman whose wide eyes peeked out from beneath a drooping white surgeon's cap, who laughed at a joke I made about the food she was serving. The next day, I went back to take whatever she dished out, just for another shot at a laugh. She smiled broadly when I approached and asked my name. When I told her, "Fei Liangshi," she laughed hard, dropping her serving spoon. She told another worker, and he laughed as well. I knew I had a funny-sounding Chinese name, chosen for me by my college girlfriend, who had not realized that it was a synonym for wasted crops. On a tall and skinny guy like me, that was an unfortunate name. When the worker got over her laughter, she said she would call me Xiao Fei, or Little Fei, a casual form of address that tactfully avoided my full name. She told me her name was Shu. "Call me Little Shu," she said.

I went back to Shu's table every day. She always gave me a smile. She was sweet and plain, talking easily and sometimes picking her nose and inspecting her snot as we spoke. One day, she took me aside and asked quietly if I wanted to go out to a dance in the evening. I had been told that there was no nightlife in Communist China and was excited by the thought of venturing into a secret world of dancing and dating. Besides, I could escape the drudgery of my ordinarily deskbound evening, wrestling with Chinese characters. I could not help wondering, too, if I might get somewhere with Shu. Most Chinese women I saw on the street looked away when I tried to meet their gaze. Now that Shu asked me out, my mind began to gallop, envisioning possible scenarios.

I met Shu at the front gate of the university after dark. She had exchanged her cafeteria whites for a dark blue turtleneck and a London Fog–style raincoat. It looked like she had also combed her hair. She smiled as I approached on a bicycle and nodded toward the main road. Wordlessly, we set out, riding side by side. It was almost pitch-dark. When a truck passed us, its dim headlights illuminated a few donkey-drawn carts and peasant farmers walking in the road. Shu remained silent. I wondered whether she was having second thoughts about taking a foreigner out for an evening.

I followed Shu toward a street corner with overhead lights, which looked like an oasis in the blackness. On the sidewalk was a small night market, where food carts peddled noodles and assorted gruel for pennies a bowl. Shu parked her bicycle and stepped away, saying she was going to look for someone. As I watched her wander off into the small crowd, I momentarily felt like a small boy, wondering if his mother will ever come back. It was a feeling I often had those early days in Xi'an. But Shu had left me with her bicycle, so I told myself she had to return. Before she did, a slender man with a pencil-thin mustache walked up.

"Where's Little Shu?" he asked nonchalantly, as though I must be the foreigner he had been told about. He offered me a cigarette, but I felt shy, not sure who he was, and said no. He took my refusal without a pause and lit his own. Shu wandered back in a moment and told me her friend's name was Wu. "We already met," Wu said to her. She spoke to him in a muted voice. They did not touch, but I could sense that they were close.

We rode out on the main road again, three astride. My notion of romance with Shu evaporated, but I felt glad to be included in an outing at night. Shu and her friend murmured to each other as we rode toward the city's South Gate. As we pedaled inside the long tunnel under the gate, the sounds of our three rickety bicycles echoed loudly. We parked at a fenced-in lot where hundreds of other bikes were lined. An old watchwoman wearing a thick padded army coat held out her hand without looking up, and Wu dropped in a two-cent fee. A man with thick glasses inadvertently knocked over a bicycle at the end of one row and, like a domino, it knocked down fifty more bicycles, including ours. Shu's face contorted in anger as she cursed the man, using words I did not understand. I was surprised that a gentle-looking woman could erupt so suddenly. Wu put his arm around her shoulder and led her away, leaving the man behind to re-right the bicycles one by one.

We walked a block to our destination, a run-down movie theater. I wondered if I was being taken to see a film, rather than the promised dance. Wu bought our tickets for about twenty-five cents apiece, deftly refusing my efforts to pay for myself. We stepped inside the theater lobby, and I saw that it had been converted to a dance floor. The lights were dim, and the room smelled musty. An eight-piece string-and-horn band was playing 1940s tunes with the grace of a clunky washing machine. On the floor, men waltzed with women, men with men, women with women. The waltz was charmlessly called "three-step" in Chinese. Men and women who went to their day jobs in dull green or blue Mao jackets now wore Western jackets and floor-length skirts as they glided across the room.

Dancing had been banned in China during the days of political extremism in the 1960s and '70s, denounced by leftists as a symbol of bourgeois decadence. In Xi'an, dancing had quietly reappeared in the early 1980s. There was no change in the law. Old restrictions were simply no longer enforced. The manager of a movie theater could allow ballroom dancing in the lobby as long as it was not advertised and was kept discreet and orderly. One had to know where to go, or be taken by someone who did.

Inside the lobby, Wu asked if I would dance with him. I didn't know what to say. Dancing with a man was not what I expected. Besides, I did not know how to dance the "three-step." Wu did not believe me. The only Westerner in the place, he said, ought to know how to dance a Western dance. Ignoring my protests, Wu took my hand and led me firmly out onto the floor. Wu patiently showed me the same steps over and over, and acted unfazed when I kept stepping on his toes. I felt self-conscious, trying hard to keep up and to ignore the stares of other dancers. I was relieved when the tune came to an end, and I could let Shu take a turn with her boyfriend. They glided off together like a pair of expert figure skaters.

After a few more dances, Shu asked me to teach her how to dance disco, a word she murmured like a taboo. I was happy to show her something I knew. I took her to the middle of the dance floor and showed her how to move side to side, shake her hips, swing her arms. Other dancers stopped and stared, then created a circle around us, cheering as we danced. Pretty soon the entire dance floor enveloped us. Wu tried to step in to get us to stop. At first I thought he wanted to keep another man from dancing with his girlfriend, but he looked quite nervous. Shu rebuffed him while the others kept cheering us on. The louder they got, the more nervous Wu became. He pleaded with Shu to stop. Once we got outside, away from the crowd, he murmured to me, "Too dangerous."


Excerpted from South of the Clouds by Seth Faison. Copyright © 2004 Seth Faison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


chapter two Encounters with the Police,
chapter three Old Man Yang,
chapter four The Hong Kong Standard,
chapter five Beijing Spring,
chapter six Tiananmen,
chapter seven A Golden Venture,
chapter eight Shanghai Comes Alive,
chapter nine In a Pirate's Lair,
chapter ten Leaving Fujian,
chapter eleven A Dog in My Soup,
chapter twelve A Gay Wedding,
chapter thirteen Sauna Massage,
chapter fourteen Jin Xing,
chapter fifteen South of the Clouds,
chapter sixteen Pilgrims in Tibet,
chapter seventeen Sky Burial,

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