Digital Dave's Ruminations

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...where Digital Dave occasionally shares his thoughts on China, Photography, and other various and random subject-matter.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Reflections on our visit to the People’s Republic of China

Greetings from China. Our nine-week stay here is rapidly coming to a close. As usual, it has been quite an awesome experience for us and I hope you all find these reflections on our visit interesting. I have posted photographs taken over the course of our stay on the internet at the following address: The photographs illustrate much of what is written about below; I hope you enjoy them. Looking forward to seeing you all soon!

Gu is a Chinese word that means ‘ancient’. Lau is the Chinese word for ‘old’. Conjoined, the two words form Gu Lau, which loosely translates to the English phrase ‘Once upon a time, long, long ago’. Chinese culture has indeed been around for a long, long time; it began to take form some five thousand years ago in modern-day Henan Province’s Yellow River Valley, which makes it the oldest continuous society on earth. While other countries have gone through six or eight different languages and have experienced major migrations of population and dramatic permutations of culture throughout their recorded history, China can trace her mother tongue directly back to the Shang Dynasty oracle bone inscriptions from 1300 B.C. And by virtually isolating itself from the rest of the world for several millennia, China has maintained a largely unadulterated ethnic demographic and a way of life that persists to this day.

There has surely always been some outside influence on Chinese culture, (where did those Shang Dynasty chariots come from?), particularly in the last couple of decades; but the notion of Chineseness, an almost proprietary sense of invention and ownership of virtually every aspect of Chinese society and culture, is an idea that the Chinese are understandably proud of. At first blush, it’s easy to assert that modern China has been heavily overcome by Western culture. But the Chinese have an uncanny ability to adapt, even co-opt, Western influences to their liking. When one enters one China’s growing number of McDonald’s or KFC restaurants, one does not wonder where in the world one is standing - one unmistakably recognizes that one is in a Chinese McDonalds. Even if the reason for this is mostly aesthetic - hanging large red lanterns in the front window along with some Chinese characters goes a long way towards making anything look Chinese - it still doesn’t diminish the fact that one of the quintessential icons of Western culture has been so successfully integrated into Chinese society that it barely registers on the incongruity scale when one finds a McDonalds nestled in a Beijing hutong or across the street from a Ming Dynasty drum tower. China has also adopted another Western icon as their own: Mickey Mouse is so ubiquitous a sight throughout China that one half expects the rodent to speak fluent Chinese.

Of course, culture consists of far more than aesthetics; the substance of the collective culture of over 1.3 billion people’s speaks far more to their way of life than just red lanterns, stylized Chinese characters and ancient-looking-pagoda-roofs on top of ultra-futuristic-looking skyscrapers. On this, the fourth visit that Katrinka and I have made together to China for her archaeological dissertation research, a sense of what exactly it is that defines the substance of modern Chinese culture begins to emerge (to the extent that it can with any degree of objectivity; we see this culture filtered through our own, very American, sensibilities). One thing is for certain: the Chinese have a very clear sense of identity that stands in stark contrast to America, where almost everybody can trace their roots back to another country. The Chinese are very comfortable in their cultural clothes and, although a palpable sense of burgeoning individuality appears to be creeping into their society (particularly among the young), the Chinese share the very strong common bond of their ancient heritage. It may be the ultimate example of nationalism and I’m sure that this is what keeps China from coming unglued.

Katrinka, as most of you know, is studying China’s Shang Dynasty (2100 B.C.-1100 B.C.), the second dynasty in China’s historic dynastic system. (Archaeologists dispute whether the Xia Dynasty was really a distinct culture of its own, or actually an early precursor to the Shang. In any event, the Xia is generally given status as China’s first dynasty.) Her examination of one of China’s earliest post-Neolithic societies helps to give context to modern Chinese culture. We’ve spent the past two months here in Yanshi (YEN-shur), Henan Province, the site of an early Shang city that boasted a palace and distinct, well defined, elite and commoner dwelling areas. In performing high-tech residue analysis on pottery sherds from cooking utensils used in both the elite and commoner sections of the Shang city, Katrinka will attempt to flesh-out the emergence of early societal social stratification. Did the elites eat meat and the commoners millet? Did they eat each other? (not so far-fetched an idea). Did they all eat together at McDonalds on Sunday nights? Katrinka’s research will hopefully soon provide the answers to these questions.

Per usual, we began our visit to China with a stay in Beijing before taking the twelve hour overnight train ride to Yanshi. Beijing is a city under wholesale renovation, the 2008 Olympics being the carrot-at-the-end-of-the-stick that is motivating the Central Government to spend hundreds of billions of Chinese yuan on preparing the city for what will amount to a monumental Coming-Out Party that summer. The economy in Beijing continues to expand a pace that would make Alan Greenspan blush (and Chairman Mao do a back-flip in his Tiananmen Square glass mausoleum). The beneficiaries of this rapid economic growth are enjoying a standard of living unprecedented in modern Chinese history and, frankly, it’s gratifying to see. Over the course of three short years’ worth of visits to Beijing, we’ve seen the town transformed from a rather stodgy, rickety and dirty old city to a confident, world-class metropolis. Strolling along Beijing’s upscale Wangfujing Street, it’s easy to forget that it’s barely been a couple of decades since Deng Xiaoping first declared that “It’s glorious to get rich,” and sanctioned China’s first experimental Special Economic Zones near Hong Kong and elsewhere which began China’s march from state-owned industries, collective work-units and green Mao uniforms to its current status as WTO member and world economic powerhouse. Who would have ever foreseen that China would eventually become one of the largest purchasers of U.S. Government bonds – in essence, America’s banker?

Of course, dramatic change such as this doesn’t come without a price: Widening social stratification wrought by China’s rapid economic expansion has developed to the point that it is now one of the priority issues being addressed by the Communist Party. Remarkably, this is being talked about openly in public (a virtually unfathomable notion even a year ago); although no one seems quite sure precisely what measures are being considered to solve the problem. Beijing now has very distinct upper-class districts populated by elegantly-dressed, BMW- & Audi-driving citizens. However, some of the folks driving donkey-carts and pedicabs in adjoining neighborhoods surely feel a bit left out of China’s renaissance. While there is no sense of any simmering civil unrest over this matter (other than whispers of organized protests in some rural provinces), one clearly notices the boundaries between the haves and the have-nots becoming more clearly defined and one wonders to what extent Chinese society can tolerate further stratification at this rate of speed.

It appears that, for the time being, the new, overall higher standard of living and quality of life in China will trump the stratification issues. People are having way too much fun spending their money on all their myriad new consumer goods to get too worked up about the social repercussions. Those on the trailing edge of China’s new prosperity have at least an elevated sense of opportunity and hope. Additionally, China’s very deep nationalistic pride and its long collective cultural history will help to keep this society more or less cohesive (and the Communist Party in power) in the short term. But certainly the question of economic and social polarization must be dealt with effectively sooner rather than later. Here’s hoping that the Communist Party manages this situation with the same effectiveness that they seem to have thus far managed the radical changes to China’s economic system and social structure.

Speaking of the Communist Party, one must question whether ‘Communist’ is even a remotely accurate description of China’s system of government today. The Chinese clearly live under a one-party system that still maintains a zero-tolerance policy toward public dissent of the government, among other freedoms regarded by most of the world as basic civil and human rights. No one will mistake this system for a democracy, but all of the economic, social and political reforms of the last twenty years have, without question, rendered it an unrecognizable form communism. Is this system communist-in-name-only? The government is authoritarian, to be sure; socialist, perhaps; maybe even a mutated form of capitalist – but definitely not communist (at least not as I knew Communism, growing up during the Cold War years of Sino-Soviet domination of the East.) Indeed, it should not go without notice that I’m writing this little bit of political thesis right out in the open in the lobby of a hotel deep in the heart of China, unfettered (or so it seems) by prying or suspicious eyes. But feel free to put aside a few bucks to bail me out of the gulag, just in case…

Unlike Beijing, Henan Province hasn’t so obviously reaped the benefits of China’s economic boom. As China’s provinces go, Henan is perhaps one of its least glamorous. It is not really a tourist destination (unless you are a fan or a student of the many forms of the ancient Chinese art of Kung Fu that emerged about twenty miles southwest of Yanshi at the Buddhist Shao Lin Temple and is still practiced and taught there by practitioners from around China and the world). Henan is primarily an agricultural and industrial province and has little to attract much interest beyond the fact that the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, is a convenient transportation hub to other more intriguing destinations in China. (The city of Kaifeng in eastern Henan Province, the only major city in Henan that we haven’t yet been to, is said to be very beautiful and worth a visit, if for no other reason than it has a sizable population of Jews whom are said to be descended from an ancient band of Israelites that somehow found their way there (probably via the Silk Road)…and stayed. Maybe that’s how we Jews got our penchant for Chinese food.

Henan is not completely devoid of cultural status, however. It is something of an archaeological mecca, of course, and the city of Luoyang, about a hundred miles east of Zhengzhou has a few relatively worthwhile attractions. Luoyang’s major claim to fame is the annual Peony Festival, in which a particularly beautiful variety of peony flower blooms for a period of only ten days in a locally-famous city park, drawing visitors from all over China. If the peonies don’t happen to cooperate with the festival schedule by blooming in time for the April 15th opening day, the Luoyang Tourism Administration cleverly applies fake peonies to all of the park’s bushes (I guess you just have to squint your eyes a bit…) Just outside of town is the Bai Ma Si, or White Horse Temple, where the Bodhisattva, after arriving in China from India, purportedly established the first Buddhist temple on Chinese soil, along with five of his Chinese disciples. Nothing of the original temple remains today, however there is a beautiful Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) pagoda and a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temple and monastery on the beautiful park-like grounds. Unfortunately, a bit of the sheen has been removed from this otherwise beautiful site by the surrounding acres of souvenir stalls filled with hundreds of aggressive vendors hawking chincy artwork, fake artifacts, incense, and the telling of fortunes, all at the usual ridiculously inflated prices. Sadly, this is not an uncommon scene at most Chinese tourism points of interest: One can buy a Chairman Mao clock, t-shirt, or statuette from vendors stationed not fifteen feet from the man’s corpse. A little further outside of Luoyang is the Longmen Shiku, or Dragon Gate Grottoes. This is the site where Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) emperors commissioned the carving of tens of thousands of Buddhas and related Buddhist icons into the caves and cliffs along the banks of a tributary of the Yellow River. They range in size from a few inches to 17 meters, and many, if not most of them, are headless because their craniums were pilfered by nineteenth century foreign “art collectors” (several reside today in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as museums throughout Europe). To add insult to injury, the Red Guards of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) decimated many of the statues as part of Mao’s campaign to rid China of any remnants of its past and revise its history to suit his efforts to maintain a power-base among China’s youth. Some of the statues are riddled with bullet holes. The site is nevertheless overwhelmingly breathtaking and mercifully free of the usual souvenir hawkers. (There is a gift shop built into one of the riverbank caves but it is nicely camouflaged).

The city of Yanshi, home to 800,000 residents, is essentially a suburb of Luoyang on its far eastern outskirts; an outpost, really, between Luoyang and Gong Yi, the next big city to the east. Though situated in and among the many villages and wheat fields of rural Henan, Yanshi is nevertheless a colorful, bustling town filled with outdoor markets, high-rise apartment complexes, music blaring from storefronts, and, of course, people everywhere. Not many foreigners pass through Yanshi, let alone stay there for a couple of months, so Katrinka and I have been the focus of much interest among the locals. If people are initially a little dubious as to what a couple of Lau Wai (a more-or-less respectful term for ‘outsiders’) are doing in Yanshi, they are quickly disabused of any concerns when we explain that we are here so Katrinka can study Chinese archaeology at Yanshi’s very own Shang city excavation. (We’ve discovered that a fair amount of locals aren’t even aware that they have a local archaeology excavation. In fact, after the excavation work was completed, a reproduction of the Shang city’s palace foundation was built on the site so that the city of Yanshi would have a bonafide local tourist attraction. No one showed up and the outdoor museum fell into a state of neglect; the palace reproduction is overgrown with weeds. An attempt is just now being made to spruce-up the grounds; time will tell if any interest in the site can be aroused.) Generally speaking, people have been very receptive to our presence, and most have been effusive in their friendship. In terms of our being American outsiders, a few people have asked us why our country invaded Iraq. We tell them to send an e-mail to W and ask him. (In contrast to Mr. Bush, they absolutely love Bill Clinton here; he’s practically a cult hero. Ronald Reagan is also held in high regard). Otherwise, people just want to know what life is like in our country: What kind of food do we eat? (Hamburgers, hot dogs, and ’sandwiches’ are what they assume to be “American food”). How much do things cost as in America, as opposed to China? (Their party line is that America is very “developed” and we all have boatloads of money. We explain that America is very expensive and our boatloads of money don’t go very far.) Mostly, they just want to talk about … well, basketball.

Our hotel, the Yanshi Binguan, was built in 1992, but is in a state of repair more consistent with 1952. It is regarded as the best hotel in town, and it probably is, but you certainly wouldn’t want to put your mother up there (most of you, anyway). The standard of cleanliness at the Yanshi Binguan is nothing remotely close to Western standards; vacuums are unknown in Yanshi. Admittedly, it’s hard to keep anything clean in Henan Province, mostly due to the loess that blows into the province from the Gobi Desert (which is what gives the Yellow River Valley area the unique soil content that has allowed so many of Henan Province’s ancient cities to remain so well preserved under layers of earth containing the remnants of succeeding eras). But it can be tough to spend time, never mind eat, in a facility that has gobs of spit on the floor and reeks of urine because of the hotel’s low-quality plumbing. While the Yanshi Binguan does accommodate a variety of people, from traveling businessmen to local partygoers, and hosts the occasional conference, it clearly also serves as the local brothel (not unlike most hotels in China, even five-star models in Beijing). The hotel’s adjoining “massage parlor” offers a variety of “services” to the discerning traveler (as well as several of our discerning hotel managers, from what we’ve noticed) and its staff can be seen doing their afternoon exercises and playing badminton in the hotel parking lot, just like all of the other hotel employees. Still and all, we’ve been treated very well overall by the hotel’s staff and have made quite a few friends.

If Henan is not ultimately a tourist’s paradise, it may be an ideal province to visit if you want a taste of China’s heartland; hardcore China, if you will. Just as California and New York are not wholly representative of America, China’s fast-growing eastern provinces, enormous cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou that have quickly modernized and benefited dramatically from China’s economic boom, and inner provinces such as Yunnan, Sichuan and Guangxi that are renowned for their majestic scenery, do not the reveal the whole picture. All are worthwhile places to visit, but they aren’t necessarily the best places to explore if you want to get your finger on the pulse of China’s heartbeat. As China’s most densely populated province, and with the vast majority of its residents living in the countryside rather than big cities, Henan is a fairly accurate microcosm of the way that most Chinese people live.

Henan’s two largest cities, Zhengzhou and Luoyang, each have populations of over seven million; a half-dozen smaller cities have populations of five to six million. The rest of Henan’s one-hundred million residents live in an interconnected network of small villages, literally thousands of them, each of which is surrounded by fields of wheat, corn and various other crops that are tended collectively by the villagers. One can travel for miles upon miles through the countryside without encountering any significant break in the network of small towns and villages; it’s a seemingly never-ending trail of humanity and it’s very definitely the Third World. The villages typically each have two- or three-thousand residents living in run-down brick and masonry dwellings, usually with extended families - often four generations worth - sharing a common space. Many of the villages have been built and rebuilt again over the course of hundreds, and even thousands, of years. One can often see the remnants of previous incarnations of a village in the form of centuries-old, disintegrating walls and buildings that are interspersed among the newer ones. In spite of the fact that many of the villages have been refurbished relatively recently, most of them are in ramshackle condition with few or no paved roads and little in the way of modern amenities. Dogs run wild in the streets among children and farmers. There is no plumbing; bathroom facilities consist of outdoor troughs, the contents of which are emptied after a time with buckets and used to fertilize the crops. Also fertilizing the crops are the remains of deceased villagers, who are customarily buried right in the middle of the fields, their graves marked by floral wreaths atop the burial mounds. (When one eats locally-grown vegetables in rural China, one is careful to make sure that some of late Uncle Chen or Aunt Ting-Ting didn’t end up in the dish; never mind the fact that Cousin Du’s doo is all over the soil that is all over the cucumber. This is just one of many reasons why we affectionately refer to our accommodations here in Yanshi as the Hepatitis Hotel). Some of the wealthier villages (generally the ones nearer to big cities) sport televisions and cell sites for mobile phones; the poorer villages do not. In fact the poorer villages, in some instances, consist of cave dwellings carved out of the pliable loess soil that is particular to Henan Province’s Yellow River Valley (which is aptly referred to as the Cradle of Chinese Civilization because of the myriad Xia and Shang cities that existed there). China has a lot of people to feed and much of that food is grown by peasant villagers in the flatlands of Henan Province. Some 700 million people throughout China live in rural villages such as these, cultivating crops and livestock and often never venturing far beyond their village for the duration of their entire lives.

Some villages obtain an economic leg-up in unique and innovative ways. One evening Katrinka and I were riding in a taxi on our way back to Yanshi from Luoyang when the driver abruptly turned off the expressway and onto a dark, long and narrow dirt road in the middle of a wheat field. We tried to query the cab driver as to what exactly he was doing, but his thick, guttural local dialect was impossible to understand. As we approached the village, we saw several men glowering in the distance under the dim lights of a street corner lamp post. Thinking we were about to get robbed, or worse, Katrinka and I began to formulate an escape plan. Speaking among ourselves in English, we decided that we both had big heavy telephoto lenses with us that we could use to bonk our antagonists on their heads with. Or maybe Katrinka could finally have a chance to put her years of studying the martial art of Taijiquan to practical use (while I ran for help, of course.) The driver pulled over to the side of the road just as we reached the village street corner and four or five tough-looking village men approached the taxi and peered inside at us. They exchanged a few heated words with the driver; it vaguely sounded like they were negotiating a price for something. Were we being sold into enslavement, Shanghaied, as it were? They handed the driver a small piece of paper and pointed down the cross-street. Our driver, apparently sensing our concern, blathered on at us in his unintelligible local accent as he made a left turn and proceeded down another long, very dark road. After what seemed like miles but was probably only a few hundred yards, the driver stopped at another dimly-lit street corner where stood another posse of tough-looking village men. The driver rolled down his window and handed the men the little piece of paper along with…five kwai (the equivalent of about seventy American cents). He then made yet another left turn and headed back towards the expressway, down another long, dark road that traversed the fields. We emerged from the road and re-entered the expressway about two hundred yards beyond a toll plaza - one that charges ten kwai for highway access. The driver looked at us with a broad, toothy grin. Katrinka and I breathed a sigh of relief - we finally got the picture.

Another village, this one known as Ta Zhuang (TA-jwong), or Tower Village, because a Tang Dynasty (619-907) pagoda once stood there, has gained economic advantage in different way. It is located at the edge of Yanshi and it just happens to sit atop an ancient Shang Dynasty city. It’s entirely possible that some of today’s Ta Zhuang’s residents are descended directly from the citizens of that Shang City. The Chinese Institute of Archaeology, a central government agency in Beijing, decided to undertake a major excavation there in 1983. It was be an obvious disruption to the lives of the approximately three thousand villagers, as the excavation traversed their crop fields and even parts of their housing areas. The Institute also needed to build two field stations for their archaeologists, one adjacent to the excavation site to store material and equipment, and another one in the middle of the village itself to be used as a headquarters and office. Whatever compensation Ta Zhuang Village received (or still receives) from the institute has elevated its status to that of a relatively “wealthy” village. No one would ever mistake Ta Zhuang for a modern condo complex, but many villagers are sporting brand-new motorcycles, scooters and TVs, and their school is immaculate compared with the rest of the village (nice to see where their priorities lie).

When we came to Yanshi for a brief visit last November, we took some stealth photographs from the Ta Zhuang Field Station gates of Ta Zhuang villagers going about their business. The most gratifying aspect of these photographs is that we’ve now had the opportunity to get to know many of the people in them! How amazing that the nameless guy hauling a cartload of logs through the village in one of the photos turned out to be the Field Station cook, and now our dear friend. Knowing that we’d be spending a great deal of time in and around Ta Zhuang on this current visit, we printed up several of the photos before we left home to give to the villagers as presents. One of those photos in particular paid us back beyond our expectations. A middle-aged man was riding his scooter with an adorable little girl on the back of it through the village. He spied me pointing my camera at him and he stopped and struck a proud pose as the little girl looked on with a precocious expression on her face. I told him as best I could in my broken Chinese that we’d be back again next year and give him a print of the photo. I’m sure he didn’t entirely believe it. When we actually showed up this year with the photo (a nice, big 8.5 x 11), the guy was dumbfounded. He told us he was the village leader and invited us to come the following day to a party and feast that he and his entire extended family would throw for us, along with lots of friends from the village.

The party was quite an experience. A kitchen was set-up in an outdoor courtyard wherein four or five villagers cooked food in dozens woks, pots and several huge vats. To no avail, we tried to sneak a look at what we’d be eating, knowing we were in for a genuine Chinese village meal that would likely consist of “peasant food” of varying degrees of palatability. Katrinka and I were given seats of honor at the dining table inside the house. There we dined with our host, his four brothers, and his elderly mother (who gave Katrinka her prized, hand-made pin as a gift, much to the astonishment of her sons), while his two sisters and dozens of nieces, nephews, cousins, neighbors and friends flowed in and out of the house. We learned that the little girl on the back of the scooter in the photo is one of his younger brother’s daughters. (China’s official One Child Policy, implemented in 1979, did not affect this family for two reasons: The older siblings were all born before the policy went into effect and the young children and grandchildren were all born after the policy was recently modified to apply only in large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Two children are now permitted throughout rural China). As dish after dish of mostly really tasty food was brought to the table, we waited for the proverbial Other Shoe to drop. I suppose I knew in my heart that there would come a day in my life that I would eat donkey meat and boiled cow innards; I just didn’t think it would come so soon. Thankfully, our hosts plied us with enough Luoyang Gong pijiu (the locally brewed beer) that the food went down without much resistance. We just pretended it was fillet mingon.

Speaking of food, the aforementioned Field station cook, Wang Zhejun, has a habit of preparing interesting lunches for us that consist of a broth filled with vegetables, rice-noodles, and meat that he evidently is not clear as to the origins of. When we’ve queried him as to whether the meat he has served us is pork, beef, or chicken, he has responded with “yes” or “I think so.” We’ve begun counting the dogs around the village.

Katrinka’s work, in and among the two field stations and the excavation site, has been rewarding but exceedingly difficult. Sampling from among the tens of thousands of available pottery sherds from the Shang City is far more grueling work than one might imagine (which is why Katrinka is at the excavation site at the moment and I am currently sitting in the air-conditioned hotel lobby). Her research is not only an intensive intellectual exercise that requires an intimate knowledge of the minutia of, and subtle variations in, ancient Chinese pottery, it is also a physically demanding job that involves sifting through hundreds of heavy baskets full of dirty sherds for long hours in, shall we say, less-than-optimal conditions. Besides the loess that is constantly blown around by heavy southerly winds, the air is filled with particulate matter from the area’s many coal-burning power plants, steel factories, and other heavy industry. The pollution is so thick and hazy that some days the area seems to be filled with San Francisco-style fog. After a few weeks in Yanshi, we began to realize that the pollution was constantly in our noses and throats, and our sinuses were swollen all the time. We were getting droning headaches that would last for days, until a rainstorm would blow through and finally clean out the air for two or three days. The interior of China has a long way to go to catch up with the progress that has been made in cleaning up the air in Beijing and other eastern cities over the past few years. The smaller field station adjoining the excavation, where Katrinka does much of the grunt-work of her project, is also a difficult place to spend long hours because it reeks of the smell from its outhouse (an extended family of five lives in squalid conditions at the station as caretakers and farmers of a small patch of adjacent land). One day, the smell was particularly strong and offensive and we noticed that it was because an individual was emptying-out the outhouse troughs with two buckets on either end of a pole that he carried across his shoulders. He then poured the contents of the buckets into the little field containing rows of newly-sprouting vegetables, before returning to the outhouse to collect more “fertilizer”. The fellow looked from a distance to be vaguely familiar; when he approached us after finishing his work with a very sheepish look on his face, we immediately recognized him. Turns out our “Village Leader” is also the village poop-collector.

Making Katrinka’s work even more challenging is the fact that she must communicate with her associates in Chinese, which is difficult enough, especially considering that she must employ much arcane, technical archaeological terminology. But this is Henan Province and people here speak the local Chinese dialect. Henanhua, or Henan Language, is not as diametrically opposed to Putonghua (or Mandarin, the official national language, but one of just many dialects spoken throughout China) as, say, Cantonese, but it is still very difficult to understand. Imagine trying to hone your foreign-language listening-comprehension skills among people speaking with what sounds like cotton-balls stuffed in their mouths, let alone trying to conduct a professional and very expensive archaeological research project among colleagues you have to struggle to understand.

(Personally, I have discovered an interesting conundrum with regard to my own Chinese-speaking abilities (I’m not even attempting to learn the written language). It seems that the more I learn, the worse I get. It’s fairly easy to speak Chinese well if you only know a handful of phrases and words that you’ve practiced and tend to use over and over again in conversation, as was the case when I arrived here. But as my vocabulary has expanded and I’ve boldly asserted my self more intricately in conversations with people, I’ve begun to mix up my ‘guas’ and ‘guos’ and confuse my ‘xias’ and “xiangs”. People’s typical response to this is to either look at me like I’m from Pluto, or to drop to the floor in hyperventilating, quivering fits of laughter. Sometimes, only a perfectly annunciated Ni Hao “hello” is required to cause little old ladies to bust a gut and place a call right in front of me on their cell phone: “Hey Agnes, you’re never gonna believe this … are you sitting down? A white guy just said hello to me in Chinese!!! Baaaaaa, ha ha ha ha ha!!” I shall nevertheless not be deterred in my efforts to learn the language and will continue to hope that I do not inadvertently say something offensive or insulting to provoke the proverbial International Incident that always feels like it’s lurking just around the corner whenever I open my mouth.)

Mitigating the difficult conditions in which Katrinka has to do her work are her wonderful colleagues. The archaeology site director, Gu Fei, (pronounced, much to my delight and amusement, Goofy) is an interesting guy who has been very professional and very helpful with Katrinka’s research. He took us out to eat at a banquet with two of his colleagues from the nearby Erlitou excavation, which was notable mainly for the fact that Katrinka and I were then able to say we had dinner that evening with Gu, Du and Xu. Another fellow, Guo Tianping, is basically a fifty-two year-old peasant who grew up around the archaeology excavations at Erlitou. Consequently, he has a visceral knowledge and understanding of the artifacts of the Xia and Shang dynasties in a way that could never be attained purely from an academic education (which he does not have). Like many farmers who grew up around the various Henan archaeology sites, he has been hired as a technical assistant at the Yanshi Field Station. He has gone to great lengths to assist in Katrinka’s work and has genuinely touched us with his generosity and his easy-going outlook on life. He is a product of the Cultural Revolution and his world-view has been profoundly affected by it. Thanks to him, we have gained great insight into the lives, culture, and thinking of Guo’s generation of modern-day Chinese.

Also lightening the mood at the Ta Zhuang Field Station has been dozens of the village children, who having discovered our daily presence at the site, have paid us frequent visits. At the risk of sounding totally clichéd, these kids have filled our lives with joy and sunshine with their laughter and innocence. They are mind-bogglingly intelligent and educated for their ages and economic conditions, and they could give some American kids a lesson in manners and politeness. They want nothing else than for us to take their picture and, believe me, you couldn’t buy this kind of photography opportunity if you tried. These children have touched our hearts in so many ways, and only the most cynical and jaded individuals (well, I suppose that’s most of you) would not be totally moved by the experience of interacting with them.

Finally, China’s ongoing fascination with the NBA bears mentioning. It continues to amaze me. It’s not that there’s anything particularly unusual about a foreign country taking an interest in American professional basketball. It’s just that the Chinese are obsessed with it. It’s all they want to talk about. Yao Ming this, Yao Ming that. They’re all freakin’ Houston Rockets fans. I could barely contain my glee back in April when my Golden State Warriors actually beat the Rockets (albeit without Yao Ming) in a game that we all watched on TV at the field station. And now the kids are all sporting NBA jerseys, wearing their caps sideways, and listening to hip-hop with Chinese lyrics. At parks and playgrounds all over China, there are twenty-foot-tall statues of basketball players where previously statues of Chairman Mao once stood. I shudder to think of what might happen if, God forbid, these people ever discover golf.

David I. Greenberg

May, 2005

Yanshi, Henan, People’s Republic of China