If you go around Beijing – well, any city in China, I guess, but especially Beijing, where construction is upcoming, ongoing, and ubiquitous – you’ll see the character chai, painted in white, marked on a lot of buildings. Chai is composed of “hand” plus a phonetic element which means “repel, reject,” and it means “destroy, demolish, knock down.”
“Looking for a Hermit But Not Finding Him” is a common title/theme in classical Chinese poetry. The poet, wanting to learn about the Dao, goes to some random mountain to seek instruction from the hermit there. Upon arriving, he finds that the hermit’s shack is empty, and that the hermit is nowhere to be seen. In tne end, the poet learns a Very Important Lesson about the learnability of Dao (or Chan, or whatever), and comes to realise that the hermit has chosen to teach through his absence. A pretty typical example is Tang poet Jia Dao’s “On Searching for a Hermit and Not Finding Him:”
Under pines I asked a boy
Who said his master was collecting herbs.
“He’s somewhere on this mountainside,
I can’t tell where in all these clouds.”
I’m basically a city boy: I want noise, activity, hustle and bustle. I require museums, concerts, and something resembling a counterculture. All of these things can get lumped together with the Chinese word renao*, which literally means “heat and noise,” and Beijing is renao in the extreme.
To be honest, I haven’t been going out as much as perhaps I ought; there are concerts that I’ve missed and museum exhibitions – like Yang Liwei’s capsule from the Shenzhou-5 – that I’ve meant to go to. Really, though, actually going to all the amenities offered by a big city isn’t necessary; as long as they’re there, I’m satisfied.
A few weeks ago, Kun and I went for a bike ride from our apartment. We went along Xueyuan Lu, and then to Jimen Qiao, and then along the Third Ring Road for a while – it was a substantial enough ride.
After about 45 minutes of biking through varying levels of traffic, we arrived at Houhai, a huge artificial lake surrounded by old-style buildings and hutong living alleys. A few of the alleys we went through were marked for demolition; as part of Beijing’s mania for modernisation, lots of old buildings are getting torn down to make way for high-rises and new roads. So going through the narrow alleys flanked by crumbling brick buildings, it was hard not to picture a big “chai” hanging over all of it.
We were planning to go to Gong Wang Fu, Prince Gong’s Residence – a huge garden which is supposed to be the model for the Daguan Yuan – “Grand Vista Garden” – in the Qing-dynasty novel Hong Lou Meng, A Dream of Red Mansions. As we went through the turning alleys, though, we couldn’t find the place for the life of us, and got conflicting directions from locals. Finally, we asked a bicycle rickshaw driver, who told us that, yeah, it was just around that corner, but had already closed for the day.
So we just biked around the dusty, mossy, doomed old alleys for a while.
Back at Houhai, there’s a street called Yandai Xiejie which leads from the main road to Yinding Qiao, which bridges Houhai and separates it from Qianhai. The sun was already down by the time we got there, and as we turned onto Yandai Xiejie, we saw a car trying – stupidly, since the street is barely car-width, and the Houhai footpaths are less – to get from the main road to Yinding Qiao. It was blocking the street, and ten or fifteen cyclists were stuck in front of it, trying to move away as it slooooooooowly progressed towards Houhai. At one point, between cyclists, car, and vegetable carts, there was a total gridlock for several minutes as vendors pulled their things out of the way, and Kun and I sat, with everyone else, as we waited for things to get sorted out.
A young girl, around 7 years old, maybe the daughter of the vegetable seller pushing his cabbages out of the way, burst into maniacal laughter at the backup and started doing a little dance:
“Guobuqu, guobuqu, ni jiu shi guobuqu!” – “Not getting through, not getting through, you’re just not getting through! Ha ha ha ha hahahahaha!”
“What are you so happy about?” I asked her.
“This is great!” she said, and pranced on ahead to continue her little dance.
And for a minute I felt exactly the same joy that she felt, and wanted to dance like she was dancing. Because I realised: there is nowhere I would rather be than here, and nothing that I would rather be doing than this.