Friday, July 31, 2009

The reqing are everywhere; or, Binglingsi and the world’s best driver

One of my students, also a veteran of exhausting back-country travel in China, has commented that “the reqing are everywhere.” “Reqing” is a Chinese term meaning “warmth” in its social sense, referring to the genial hospitality and openness that is the flip side of the total lack of privacy in modern China. And it’s true, the reqing really are everywhere -- local Chinese people who will invite you into their homes or to join them at table in a crowded restaurant, just because they want to get to know you or ply you with questions about your income, marital status, and lifestyle. My latest encounter with this phenomenon involved the driver I hired to take me part of the way to the Binglingsi caves. These are located in a canyon at the edge of a large reservoir formed by the building of a dam across the gorge at Liujiaxia, about two hours from Lanzhou by bus. For a long time (since the building of the dam in the sixties or seventies) the access to the site has been strictly by boat, and I expected to have to hire a boat and pay for all the seats in the boat if I wanted to have time at the site. As I discovered when I got to Liujiaxia, this costs close to six hundred yuan these days, nearly 100 US dollars, which was more than I wanted to pay. But apparently it is now possible, through either the building or improvement of roads, to drive from Liujiaxia to the cave site, and paying for all the seats in a car was only 260 yuan. That’s how I met Mr. Cui.

I actually love driving through rural Chinese villages, observing the agricultural and social life of remote places, and the often stunningly harsh landscapes into which they are set. I want to know more about what I’m seeing; but many Chinese people have trouble understanding my interest, thinking of villages and the countryside as backward, something to be ashamed of. To my delight, Mr. Cui wasn’t one of these. He seemed to find my interest in rural life entirely natural, and was happy to talk about what we saw.


Our road wound through one high-altitude village after another, past terraced fields at 2000 meters and above, dry fields watered only by sparse rains and planted, oddly enough, with potatoes and maize. The intensely blue-flowering plants growing thickly in rows around the margins of the fields turned out to be sesame, of all things, and I saw patches of big orange flowers, which seemed to be poppy, from the bus as well.

We talked about a lot of things: the effective segregation of Han and Hui villages, the function of small man-made caves by the roadside (they’re root cellars - finally, an answer!), the absence of groundwater which means that villages on the weather side of each ridge grow vegetables and those in the rain shadow grow grain, trading over the top of the ridge. Mr. Cui described a village diet based mostly on potatoes, which meant we had something in common, and I described the potato fields of Aroostook County, and the schools that let out for weeks during the potato harvest. I told him about the Irish potato famine and its influence on immigration to the New World. I translated the old Yiddish rhyme, which I learned from Joan Nathan’s cookbook (“Sontag bulbes, Mondag kartoffeln, Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes. Thursday something new! a novelty! a potato, Friday on Shabbes potatoes” -- which translates well into Chinese, a language that also has several words for potato) and he nodded in recognition. I tried to explain latkes.

The drive was about two hours, but we were thwarted at the very end by road repairs and had to walk the last half mile, which was obstructed by a bulldozer, three mules, some goats and a red cow. Binglingsi itself is in a canyon whose mouth overlooks a spectacular screenlike ridge above the reservoir:


Its cave temples are for the most part historically significant enough, but being neither so well preserved nor so numerous as contemporary caves at Dunhuang, they are generally overlooked. The exception is Cave 169, which I had come to see, and which is a natural cave thirty or forty meters above the riverbed. It is damaged as well, but still preserves some nearly unique cave paintings and an inscription dating to the year 420. Accessing it involves a precipitous ascent on wooden steps built into the cliff face, dislodging pigeons in the course of the climb:


I was accompanied by a junior tour guide, a girl in her early twenties, whom I expected to bemoan her posting here, so far from any center of population. But she turned out to be a Buddhist, who felt the sacredness of the site deeply, and a lover of solitude, which is indeed hard to come by in China. She was glad of the quiet and even suggested, shyly, that she wished she had her own room in the worker’s dormitory on-site. It seemed an appealing place to work; quiet indeed, since the economic crunch and the record low water level of the reservoir have both recently put a damper on tourism. There were not more than two other groups of visitors in the afternoon I spent on site. The slow pace seemed to cultivate an atmosphere of congeniality between the site’s caretakers; I heard a lot of near-familial banter between the (mostly male) security guards and the (mostly female) tour guides, and even the grizzled old monk who’d wandered down from the Tibetan monastery up the valley was given a respectful but not formal greeting, like an uncle, as we passed. The guide seemed slightly awed to be escorting someone who actually knew what they were looking at, but not too awed to wrangle over a few questions of interpretation with me.

On the way back, we gave a ride to one of the site’s staffers, an administrator who was looking for a lift back to Liujiaxia. Having paid for the ride already, I had no objection, and he bought a watermelon by the side of the road which we demolished at a little overlook with a view of the reservoir. He and Mr. Cui were apparently old friends, and launched into a lively discussion of village life that was utterly fascinating. They were both interested in the differences between the Chinese and US legal systems, but I was not well acquainted enough with the former to be much help. During the course of this part of the conversation, however, I learned a lot about village land rights and redistribution, along with the function of village cadres (among other things, the management of land rights and dispute resolution seem to be central). This conversation ended as we puttered down into Liujiaxia with a two-man contrapuntal discourse on the corruption that both men insisted was endemic to Chinese government and regulation.

Ironically, Mr. Cui turned out to have his own connection to the Northern Dynasties material I had just seen. When he told me his last name, he said “My family started out in Shandong, then moved west to Henan and Shaanxi, and some of us ended up out here.” He was right, but he was describing events 1500 years old. He had just recounted the Northern Dynasties career of the Cui lineage of Boling (in Shandong), an immensely influential family that played a role as courtiers to the emperors of several northern dynasties starting in the fifth century. He was, as it turned out, a Boling Cui himself, and aware of the fact despite the fifteen centuries between him and his famous ancestors.


Kester said...

Another interesting post! Just a quick question: did you have to arrange special access to get up the top caves at Binglingsi? The previous times I have been, that part has always been closed. But, I'm thinking of going again soon, so some updated info would be good. Thanks?

SEB said...

As at most cave temple sites in China, the "special caves" (in this case 169 and its sister cave around the corner, whose number I've forgotten) are accessible by special arrangement with the management. There is always an extra fee, but usually this doesn't have to be done in advance. In this case I paid for a regular entry ticket (50 yuan) plus a special entry ticket to cave 169 (350 yuan) and they opened it right up. All I had to do was tell the ticket seller. I suppose that on a crowded day it might not be possible to go up right away, as I believe they want to minimize the number of people who are up there at any given time, but that's the only complication I can think of.