lotus flowers, peonies and the great wall… imaginings

I’m going to China. It turns out I’ve been offered a job to teach at a university in Nanning, Guangxi Province, in southwest China.  It’s not far from Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Guilin.  I’m supposed to arrive on September 1, 2014.

The first time I went to China was in September 2010. I was working in Korea at the time. Koreans have a Thanksgiving holiday in September, called Chuseok.  In modern South Korea, on Chuseok there is a mass exodus of Koreans returning to their hometowns to pay respects to the spirits of one’s ancestors.  I also made an exodus.  To China.  Five days in Beijing and The Great Wall from September 21-25, 2010.  I had no ancestors to visit in Korea.   So.  I explored this next-door neighbor to Korea, though I only visited a tiny dot on its expansive landscape.



For a while, in one of my past incarnations, I was a quilter.  What I loved about quilting was designing them, buying the different fabrics and putting them together into a beautiful whole.  I really hated the sewing.  But I designed and made a number of small quilts, art pieces really. At the time, Asian fabrics were in vogue, fabrics with lotus flowers, peonies, all of distinctly Asian design.  I loved these designs.  They made me think of China.

I have always loved Chinese calligraphy and many times have wanted to take calligraphy classes, but I never have.  The writing is art in its purest form, much as Arabic calligraphy.  I love it and maybe someday, in some future incarnation, I will learn how to do this.


There are many enticements to this exotic country in the Far East.  In the 2006 movie The Painted Veil, Edward Norton plays a British medical doctor treating a cholera outbreak in a Chinese village, while trapped in a loveless marriage to a faithless wife, Naomi Watts.  The panorama of the karsts in southern China that permeate scenes in the movie are breathtaking and gorgeous.  Karsts are limestone protrusions that jut up in the midst of rice paddies, rivers & farms, especially near the Li River in China.

There was the artistically done, fantastical 2000 Chinese martial arts movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 卧虎藏龙.  This film transported me to a fantasy world where people could fly, sail, fight impossible battles, and fall passionately in love.

The well-done 2001 movie, Beijing Bicycle, portrays a more hopeless city of modern times.  Guei arrives from the country and gets a job as a messenger. The company issues him a bike, which he must pay for out of his wages. When it is stolen, Guei hunts for it and finds that a student, Jian, has it; for him, it’s the key to teen society – with his pals and with Xiao, a girl he fancies.

Guei finds the bike and stubbornly tries to reclaim it in the face of great odds. But for Jian to lose the bike would mean humiliation. The two young men – and the people around them – are swept up in the youths’ desperation.  This is an amazing movie that shadows my imaginings of Beijing.

Another movie that touched my heart was the 2001 The Road Home.  The story tells of a young man who returns to his native village after the death of his father, the village’s schoolteacher, who died while trying to raise money for a new schoolhouse. His body is in a neighboring town; the young man’s mother insists that it be brought back on foot, in case his spirit cannot find his way home. From this starting point, the young man recounts the tale of his parents’ courtship, which involved a red banner, mushroom dumplings, a colorful barrette, and a broken bowl.  It was a quiet and moving story that I adored.


Over the years, I have read books that fueled my imagination, that informed me, about this country so different from my own.  I read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, a book about 3 generations of Chinese women.  It’s an autobiographical family history by Chinese writer Jung Chang.  It was published in 1991 and won two awards, the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year.  It tells the story of the author’s concubine grandmother, her mother who was in the Communist Party, and the experience of being part of the Cultural Revolution.  I learned more about China from this book than anything else I have ever read.  It’s truly amazing.

I read Amy’s Tan’s books: The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s WifeThe Joy Luck Club was written in 1989 and focuses on Chinese American immigrant families in San Francisco who start a club called the “Joy Luck Club,” playing the Chinese game of Mahjong while eating their native foods.  The Kitchen God’s Wife deals with the American-born daughter of a Chinese mother and a Chinese-American father.  Though these books don’t deal with life in China, they reflect the Chinese immigrant experience and the difficulties of merging two cultures.

I recently read Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement.  I so enjoyed this epic tale of Violet Minturn, who grew up in the courtesan houses of Shanghai during the early 1900s. Violet encountered one horrible experience after another during times of upheaval in China, and I wondered how anything could ever come out well for her. She is the beloved daughter of Lulu, her American mother who runs a high-class courtesan house. When her mother leaves Shanghai, Violet gets left behind due to an act of chicanery by her mother’s friend, Fairweather; she has no choice but to become a virgin courtesan. Violet finds she is half-Chinese, and her mother’s affair with the Chinese painter Lu Shing is an integral part of the story. Later, after her beloved husband Edward dies and her daughter Flora is taken from her, she ends up back in a courtesan house. When Violet looks to escape the courtesan life by marrying a “poet,” she finds once again she’s been duped and ends up a prisoner in a remote part of China, 300 miles from Shanghai, in the Valley of Amazement, the place depicted in a painting done by her father.  Though the book is long, I really enjoyed reading it and imagining life in Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century.

Before reading The Valley of Amazement, I read Ha Jin’s Waiting.  I loved this book so much! Winner of the National Book Award, Waiting tells the story of Lin Kong, a doctor in the Chinese army, who returns to his village each year to divorce his peasant wife, the loyal but unattractive Shuyu. Their marriage is an arranged and loveless marriage, and Lin has lived apart from Shuyu for almost every year since his marriage. However, whenever he returns home, he feels a comfort he can’t really explain, although he and Shuyu have no intimate relationship. Every year for 18 years, he is unsuccessful in his attempts at divorce and must return to the city to tell Manna Wu, the educated modern nurse that he loves that their wedding must be postponed again.

Lin Kong is an educated bookworm, passionless in almost every way. He doesn’t feel strongly about divorcing his wife, who embarrasses him with her bound feet and her peasant looks. Neither does he feel a strong passion for Manna, although he does find her attractive and feels he must love her because he feels very comfortable, and not embarrassed, with her. In all the years of waiting for this divorce that never materializes, there is not a shred of impropriety between he and Manna. Lin Kong is an indecisive man who questions his feelings on everything, and thus is paralyzed by indecision.

Though the story is a very quiet one, full of everyday life and mundane details, I couldn’t put it down. I too found myself waiting, and waiting, for something to happen which would give some resolution to Lin Kong’s life. When after 18 years, he’s legally allowed to divorce his wife without her consent, he does so and promptly marries Manna. Manna wants to get pregnant right away, which Lin Kong doesn’t want. He immediately begins to feel burdened by the twins Manna has and by married life. By the time they marry, Manna has aged and Lin wonders if he was ever really in love with her. He still visits his wife and daughter, who move to the city to be nearby, and he feels comfortable with them. He finally gets what he wants, yet he is still waiting. For what, I don’t know. He doesn’t see the people around him who love him dearly; he keeps thinking there should be something more. He even considers planning an escape with his last bit of savings, abandoning all his family.

It was strange while reading this: it slowly dawned on me that Lin will always be waiting. In the last chapters, I began to see myself, and everyone. It seems we all live our lives in a kind of restlessness, waiting and waiting for something to happen, but not having any idea what it is we’re waiting for. We wait, as life moves forward around us, unnoticed and unappreciated.

I read a book by Lisa See, Peony in Love. Set in 17th-century China, the novel is a coming-of-age story, a ghost story, a family saga and a work of musical and social history. As Peony, the 15-year-old daughter of the wealthy Chen family, approaches an arranged marriage, she commits an unthinkable breach of etiquette when she accidentally comes upon a man who has entered the family garden.

I love it that Chinese books so often have flowers in the titles.  They sound so romantic, so secret garden-like. Books that are on my To Read list by Chinese authors are: Red Azalea, Pearl of China, Empress Orchid, Wild Ginger, and Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li, and A Good Fall by Ha Jin.

I also read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, another novel by Lisa See.

Before going to Turkey, I finished reading a novel called The Piano Teacher that took place in Hong Kong during WWII and 10 years after.  This book really made me want to visit Hong Kong, which I’m sure, because of its British colonial past, is a much different animal than mainland China.

So, 再見 = zai jian (goodbye) to my home in the USA and 你好 = ni hao (hello) to China.

Categories: Beijing, China | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “lotus flowers, peonies and the great wall… imaginings

  1. Myrna Chicas

    Such a good post! I skipped some of the book summaries, but the information about the black market organs was sooo interesting.
    China will not be how you think or imagine it to be. It will be better and worst. The Chinese people are also the best and the worst of the country. Enjoy it b/c it will surely be an adventure! I may be going back too by the way! I want to make the most out of my visa since I paid so much for it. This time however, I will stick with the south part of it.


  2. Martha

    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of my favorite books. I’m going to try some of your other suggestions. I just got a Kindle and it’s too easy to order books. I’ve been going crazy.

    Some how after going to China the black market for kidneys doesn’t surprise me, but it is sickening. After going to China there’s something I can’t describe well that I just find frightening.


  3. Hey Martha, It’s funny, I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan while I was in China and it added so much depth and understanding to the trip. I will actually talk about it in my 4th day blog, especially about women and the footbinding. I’m still not sure about my impressions of China, but sadly I think I got the Westernized version. This is why, even though the tour was logistically great, it wasn’t the cultural adventure I like to have in my travels. I don’t think I had the TRUE experience of China.


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