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'beautiful,' and other words

The haze hasn’t settled over the city yet and you can still see the stars, but make no mistake about it: summer has come.

There’s no Shadow Traffic here; all of the traffic reports that get broadcast on the taxi radio station seem to have been submitted by drivers via text message, rather than radioed in from a helicopter. I like to imagine Shadow Traffic reports, though, because I imagine they’d go something like this:

“A collision between a cargo tricycle and a taxi has traffic backed up for two kilometres on Shuangqing Lu; damage estimates stretch into the dozens of jiao. An argument is raging between the leather-skinned, Henanese driver of the tricycle and the foreman of the road crew whose work caused the tricycle to swerve left into the taxi, upending its cargo of battered cardboard and filthy styrofoam.”

While “teaching” English, and later when translating Chinese into English, I found that a favorite adjective here is ‘beautiful,’ as in “Harbin is a beautiful ice city” or “Yay, Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, My Beautiful Homeland,” or “The vast, parking lot-like expanse of concrete known as Tian’anmen Square is very beautiful.”
Beijing is not, on the whole, when you get right down to it, a beautiful city. It is grey. It is dour. It lacks the skyward-reaching ebullience of Shanghai, to say nothing of the style. If you were to picture a city built by Mongols, inhabited by Manchus, razed and rebuilt by socialists, and neon-lit by people with no taste and a lot of business sense, you would have Beijing. And so the overwhelming drabness of the city serves to frame and to highlight the pockets of beauty that are to be found within it.

Kun and I biked over to Houhai yesterday – down Xueyuan Lu to Jimen Qiao, along the Third Ring Road to Xinjiekou, down Xinjiekou to the maze of hutong alleys. A stop at a roadside bike repair stand detoured us to Xihai, better known as Jishuitan: another one of the artificial lakes in the area. It was a Sunday afternoon, and people sat under the willows that line the lake, fishing, chatting, and generally chilling.
The sun was starting to go down, and so the light hit everything at a low angle, turning the lake into a sheet of gold, making the grey and red buildings around it radiant. The license plates on the cars parked in the alleys identified the area’s residents mostly as military officials, making for a nice illustration of 文武, the ideal blend of the cultured and the martial.

I’m not doing a good job of describing this, and I’m sorry.

Zhuangzi said: Snares are for catching rabbits. Once you’ve got the rabbits, you can forget the snares. Words are for catching ideas; once you’ve got the idea, you can forget the words.
And sometimes the words aren’t enough to catch the idea, and all you have are memories, mutable and imperfect, to tell you that you saw something beautiful, something that was absolutely of the moment and can never be the same again.

11 Comments

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Well done.

    Once, years ago, I walked past a small pine tree that had a silent zone of pin-ey resin-y air around it, and felt part of the tree’s secret life, and I’ve never been able to convey the quiet perfection of that.

    Monday, May 31, 2004 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  2. zhwj wrote:

    Citing Master Zhuang about the inability to describe something? This was, remember, a man for whom there were never enough words to describe the sound of flesh ripping from bone…

    I enjoyed your description, although it could be that my memory of those areas filled in the ideas not conveyed in the words.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  3. song rong wrote:

    amen

    Wednesday, June 2, 2004 at 3:34 am | Permalink
  4. Beautiful.

    I’ve been trying to describe the scene under Jinsong Qiao in the evening: two Yangge groups practicing under the bridge, one at each end while the traffic roars around and over them. I just can’t capture the mood, though. You, on the other hand, have done a brilliant job of describing one of Beijing’s little pockets of beauty. Good on ya.

    Wednesday, June 2, 2004 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  5. carlo wrote:

    you are a brilliant catcher of rabbits, mate. i almost feel guilty i’m not paying for reading your stuff. and wherever it is that you decide to go in the end, make sure that your scribblings are still available on the web. there are quite a few rabbits out there.

    Thursday, June 3, 2004 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  6. Brendan wrote:

    zhwj – That’s like the Bai Juyi poem about Laozi, the one that goes

    “He that talks doesn’t know.
    He that knows doesn’t talk,”
    –said Laozi in a book of 5,000 words…

    Saturday, June 5, 2004 at 4:35 am | Permalink
  7. paul crudden wrote:

    bravoand I can ditto all but the erudite
    sentiments above when you put something between coversI WILL FREE MYSELF OFGUILT KEEP US POSTED WERE EVER AND WHATEVER
    MEA CULPA
    PAUL CRUDDEN

    Sunday, June 6, 2004 at 4:08 am | Permalink
  8. Prince Roy wrote:

    glad to be up and running so I can visit your always worthy site again. Hey, I think I can almost understand your almost pubescent infatuation with Maggie Cheung. I’ve seen a lot of her early flicks recently and she’s kind of cute (when she doesn’t have a death stick lit in her mouth).

    Thursday, June 17, 2004 at 5:26 am | Permalink
  9. 香山异人 wrote:

    behind every beauty, you can only find ……

    Thursday, June 17, 2004 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  10. mike wrote:

    That’s the most succinct and accurate description of Beijing I’ve read in a long time.

    By the way, when you say beautiful are we talking mei(li)?

    Sunday, June 27, 2004 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  11. Benjamin wrote:

    I almost kicked a taxi cab today. I was thinking of horrible things to do to him, but I think the heat sweated the madness out of me. Maybe it’s different in Beijing, but up here in Harbin, it’s crazy. I feel like I’m back in America, except there are no traffic laws. The cars don’t stop! If you get squashed, it’s your own darn fault.

    Sunday, June 27, 2004 at 11:41 am | Permalink

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