Chasing the Moon

Stories by Akiko Sugimoto

Possed by the Magic of Kanji
Witch in Training
Landscapes of Stone
Going North
Mao at Baiyunguan
My 1997
Guizi and Ahn
Three Chinese Stories

Chasing the Moon (4)

By Sugimoto Akiko

Landscapes of Stone

A version of this story appeared in
The East, 41(4), November/December 2005, pages 36-39

Chinese buildings are sometimes red or green. Some of the oldest and newest faces of Beijing, however, are grey stone. Beijing winters are extremely cold. Yet when I was a student there, I liked taking walks in the fresh air, my hands shoved into the pockets of my down coat, my shoes drumming the stone pavement.

On the Beijing University campus is a lake called "Unnamed Lake" (Weiminghu, –’–ΌŒΞ), and according to a professor familiar with qigong breathing practices, there are very powerful spirits in the lake. Since Beida was the best university in the country, no one dared play there, but students enjoyed skating on the ice of other Beijing lakes.

Summer Palace and Ming Tombs

The northern parts of Beijing, away from the heart of the city, are a bit dreary, but the semi-rural areas have their virtues. In the northwest suburbs is Yiheyuan (θσ˜a‰€), the famous Summer Palace. With a history of over 800 years, its present size and opulence are due to the spending of Empress Dowager Cixi (Xi Taihou, Ό‘Ύ@) in 1888, and again in 1902 after it was demolished by foreign troops.

The central attraction of Yiheyuan is Kunming Lake (Kunminghu, ©–ΎŒΞ), a man-made pond that takes twenty minutes to drive around by car. Crossing part of the lake to a small island is a 17-arch stone bridge, paved with long narrow slabs of rock that look like stepping stones. If you stand right in the middle of the bridge, you can see the willows around the lake being blown by the breeze, all trailing in the same direction.

When Kunming Lake freezes over in winter, it becomes a skating rink for people who live nearby. Before it completely freezes, when ice is beginning to form, some people dive into the water naked. Just watching them was freezing enough for me.

Further north, but still in Beijing, are the Thirteen Tombs (Shisanling, \ŽO—Λ), an outdoor museum of graves of the emperors and empresses of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). I entered the park with a ticket discounted for students and found practically no one there. The further I went, the colder it got. Finally I reached the tombstones. The marble caskets, faintly green in the sunlight, appeared to have cut from thick ice. I wondered who would want to rest in such a place.

Great Wall

Past the Ming tombs, heading ever north, about two hours by bus, is the Badaling section of the Great Wall (Wanli Changcheng, –œ—’’·ι). The wall is really many walls, originally earthworks built over two millennia ago by local kingdoms, partly to defend themselves against each other, and partly to discourage the invasion of Hun tribes (Mongols). Through the centuries, the original barriers were repaired, reinforced, extended, connected, rerouted, and new walls built. Today some sections have been restored as tourist attractions, but many are crumbling and some are hardly recognizable as barriers, much less walls.

The Chinese term for "great wall" actually means "long castle", and in fact parts of some walls resemble the ramparts of Gothic castles in Europe. Climbing to the wide path on the top of the stone-faced and stone-paved Badaling wall, and walking to a vantage point, you can see dwellings that have been built of the same kind of stone as the wall. There were red persimmons on trees by some of these homes. I was with a Mr. and Mrs. Wang, who were fluent in Japanese. Reaching another high point of the wall, we sat at the edge, and they took out apples and peeled the skins in long, unbroken pieces.

Hutong courtyards

Old Beijing was a city ringed by defensive barriers. In the center was the "Forbidden City" (Zijincheng, Ž‡‹Φι), now the Palace Museum (Gugong Bowuguan, ŒΜ‹{”Ž•¨ŠΩ) at Tiananmen Square. The city, a castle of sorts where the emperor lived, was enclosed by several stone walls built in concentric squares at stragegic intervals. These walls have been replaced by the numbered "ring roads" (huanlu, ŠΒ˜H) that define Beijing today.

The heart of Beijing is the "Inner City" (Shinei, Žs“ΰ) around the Forbidden Palace inside the First Ring Road. This is where the most luxurious hotels and department stores are located. Beijing University, and the Summer Palace, are near the Haidian district just outside the northeast corner of the Third Ring Road.

Between the big roads in this part of Beijing, called the "country" or "suburbs", are many hutong (ŒΣ“΄), which are lanes or neighborhoods of stone homes built around courtyards. Many hutong have names that reflect a connection with an older way of life. Goldfish Hutong (Jinyu Hutong, ‹ΰ‹›ŒΣ“΄) once had many stores that sold goldfish.

Inside hutong are "shiheyuan" (Žl†‰@), a cluster of homes built around a courtyard, entered through a gate. The courtyard, which typically has a garden, is a commons for the residents, who might consist of four or more families. Such a configuration fostered large, extended families.

Some of the courtyard homes that remain in hutong today were once the abodes of some very powerful people. The former residence of the general-cum-politician Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, Σ‰ξΞ, 1887-1975) was very large and had a fine garden. It is now a Japanese-style ryotei (—Ώ’ΰ) or high-class restaurant.

Lu Xun

One day, while walking through a hutong, I ran into the Lu Xun Museum (Lu Xun Bowuguan, ˜Dv”Ž•¨ŠΩ), which very much excited me. Lu Xun (1881-1936) was one of the greatest writers of recent-day China. The museum is housed in the courtyard home in which he had once lived.

I first went to the garden and looked for the jujube trees, for one of my favorite Lu Xun essays began with his observation that "In the courtyard of my home are two trees. One is a jujube tree, and the other is also a jujube tree."

Among Lu Xun's pupils was an attractive student named Xu Guangping (1898-1968) who later became his wife. I knew she had been with him at his study in Shanghai, where he died. But I wondered if she had ever lived with him at the hutong.

The trees were no longer there. The museum, though, was full of the books he had loved, such as Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Shanhaijing (ŽRŠCŒo), which I especially liked -- the "Classic of Mountains and Seas", a collection of legends about geographical places. It made me happy just to know that Lu Xun had written politically scary lines like "Turning a brush into a sword, and slashing away at social conditions, is my work."

Flying flutes

I like how the walls of hutong, made of stone, reflect sounds. The winter I first came to study in Beijing, the sounds that made me feel that I was in a different country were those made by the flocks of pigeons that flew around with tiny clusters of whistles attached to their rumps.

The whistles are cheap and are sold on the streets. They are made of bamboo, reed or gourd, and come in many sizes and intricate designs. A typical whistle consists of three or more pipes of different thickness and length joined with varnish. The mounts used to tie them to the tails of pigeons are also made of bamboo.

When the pigeons change their angle of flight, the sounds also change. The first such sounds I heard seemed to come from the ground, and I wondered what had made them. I thought I might have been hearing the stones gnashing in the wintry cold.

I always enjoyed my walks, wandering through the hutong near the campus, led by such pigeon whistles (geshao, ιω£). Once I saw, at the base of a wall in a hutong, being sold as makings for lunch, a row of chickens with their heads just cut off. Blood had pooled in the hollows of the ground. I was shocked, but only here could I see how people in China lived, their preparations for lunch, their relaxed afternoons. Now and then heard a popular song from a radio, or the playing of an erhu (“ρŒΣ), a string instrument known in China from antiquity.

I would walk around a hutong half-lost, not knowing or really caring where the exits were. Food stands and stalls would appear out of nowhere. Noodles just kneaded, cut, and boiled. Steamy dumplings full of tasty morsels. I gained weight on those walks.

The residents

The residents were all very gentle and modest. Behind one gate was another. I often had no idea which was an entrance to a courtyard, or which was the door to a home. But the residents didn't seem to mind.

One old lady set a chair out on the street and began darning something while watching a cable tv program through the window of another home. An old man climbed to the roof of a hutong and waved a piece of red cloth on a pole to guide his pigeons home.

As I went on my daily walks, I got to know some of the shop people. Wenwen was the daughter of a family that sold apples. She was in the second grade of elementary school and was always drawing frogs on the paving stones. One day I said to her, "You like drawing frogs, huh." Her uncle said, "Wenwen's a frog," and laughed while pointing at her green pants.

On past the hutong was a park. As evening came, old men would gather and absorb themselves in smoking pipes and playing Chinese chess.

A colony of artists

Every hutong is different. Closer to the center of Beijing, near a certain art college, is a hutong which shelters many art students, former students, calligraphers, painters, designers, and others who have converted the rooms of the hutong into studios.

The people who have strayed into this hutong openly display their works of art and lifestyles. The students are very frank and friendly. They serve tea and pitch themselves, in hopes of being recognized by Americans and Europeans who come to purchase works of undiscovered new artists of China.

In the ateliers, visible through glass windows in white wooden frames in the stone walls, you might see baggy "people's clothes" (renminfu, l–―•ž) died pink or yellow. Or, on a huge canvass, an oil painting of faces of Beijing youth, drawn especially large, in caps blazoned with the star of the Red Guards, pulled down over their eyes.

These young artists like to lampoon their country's politics. While aware of the police, they strike courageous figures, seemingly undaunted, though there is something sorrowful about their struggle for attention.

In a huton near lake Beihai, just northeast of the Forbidden City, was an Internet cafe run by some of these young Chinese who are giving their lives to art. In the evening you can see, on the opposite side, the red-tinged silhouette of the roof of the Forbidden City. The cafe is like a museum of modern art.

Booktown coffee shop

Just outside the East Gate of Beijing University, where I lived on campus, was a hutong lined with bookstores. In a back alley was an unusual coffee shop called Baise Shike or "White Time" (”’FŽž), run by a Taiwanese man with his mainland wife, who had graduated from Beida's literature department.

There weren't a lot of cafes or coffee shops that far from the center of Beijing. This one was also uncommon in that it had a certain hand-made quality not found in the shops in the center of the city, most of which were foreign franchises.

Climbing the stone step to the narrow entrance, you would always see in the arched window on the right some purple tulips, which the wife always kept fresh, and a napping cat. The walls inside were decorated with records.

Both the cake baked by the wife, and the strawberry milk made by the husband, were delicious. But what I liked best was the library of books they had collected. The husband, being from Taiwan, was deeply knowledgeable about Japan. He had a number of books in Japanese, and he let me freely read them.

Taiwan, aka the Republic of China, embraces a number of complex political issues with China, aka the Peoples Republic of China, which claims the island state is merely a province. Though their marriage was complicated by such circumstances, the couple seemed to have forged a close bond through literature and other common interests, and their way of life. On the stone floor of their shop was a carpet, which lent the room a different sort of warmth than that I had felt in the studios of the art students.

Killing time

The Chinese government has brushed ά (she), in large bold strokes with yellow luminescent paint, on the walls of many hutong, causing residents to respond with uniform anger and sorrow. The graph announces the hutong is soon to be torn town in the name of urban development. The bookshop hutong was not in danger, but the wife of the Baise Shike coffee shop kept her cat away from the walls in case the bulldozers suddenly came.

Not only does everyone in a marked hutong have to move, but they will lose their close-knit communities. City planners argue that hutong are old and dirty, that their residents would be better off in new condominiums.

Many hutong have already been destroyed. Some have been targeted because they are full of shops that sell pirated game software, DVDs, and other illegal goods. Others are slated for removal connected with preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

Most of the sections of the Great Wall are in ruins because long ago they lost their political utility and were abandoned to the elements. The hutong are being intentionally destroyed by human hands and machines.

I don't know how many destroyed hutong walls I saw while studying in China. One ramming with a bulldozer will easily topple a wall. It takes only minutes to destroy generations of life.

Within the stones of all hutong are time. The stones aggregated in their walls are seeped with the sentiments of human life and families that go back for decades, even centuries. The instant they crumble, time dies, and all that remains is a pile rubble.

(Translated by William Wetherall)

Sugimoto Akiko has had an interest in literature since childhood. She studied philosophy at Beijing University in China, and graduated from Temple University in Tokyo, where she studied comparative religion, psychology, and Asian studies. She hopes to continue writing, with a sense of humor and romance, about the lights and shadows of human experience. The writer Inoue Yasushi (ˆδγ–υ 1907-1991) was her grandmother's older brother.