My Long Search for Chinese Beauty
China had never been on my list of destinations, had never occurred in my dreams - India, Japan, Tibet yes, but not China. This was lastingly changed by an invitation to an international laser conference in Guangzhou-Canton in 1983. I decided that as a thinking person I had an obligation to know more about this country. For over a year I prepared for this trip. This was not easy, in 1983 there existed no guidebooks, no pocket-dictionaries, and no up-to-date maps. The most recent guidebook was a voluminous, fully outdated Swiss Nagel Guide from 1964. Lonely Planet's revolutionary "China" would appear only in 1984.... One didn't need a guidebook or a dictionary, if one joined a group, but I was determined to go it alone.
I found a Chinese teacher, Taitai Li, the wife of an immigrant professor at UCLA. She taught me Mandarin with the aid of a Xerox-copy of a textbook she had used in Beijing. It relied heavily on rote learning not only of words and phrases, but of entire sentences. My teacher also did not consider it necessary to teach me writing characters. Soon she lost interest: You are intelligent, but you refuse to learn anything (by rote!). I continued on my own and collected a basic Chinese pocket dictionary on my first computer from the vocabulary of Taitai Li's textbook. Ultimately I found a heavy modern Chinese-to-English dictionary on my way in Hong Kong, and during my long trip read in it with increasing pleasure. However, a modern Concise English-Chinese-English dictionary (Oxford) became available only in 1986. Still, by the end of my trip I could decipher street names, restaurants, some dishes, hotels, and railroad stations - and say enough to buy a ticket, to rent a room, and not to starve - understanding the locals remained a problem.
More successful was collecting a table of comparative history from the Chinese point of view, which earned me the respect (so badly needed) of the people I would meet in China. I learned much from this labor, which extended over several years as I added more events from many sources. See Synchronology of the History of China, Central Asia, and Europe.
Armed with an itinerary covering several weeks and extending as far as Xinjiang and possibly Tibet, I flew to Hong Kong. I stayed a few days with my sister's family, and with her husband Derek's help took the train to Canton. I complacently expected to be able to pull this travel-stunt over the Academy Sinica as I had done so successfully in Moscow in 1977.
It quickly turned out differently. The junior professor at the Academy who had invited me, and whom I met on the conference in Canton, visibly worried by so much initiative, said bu shi - no way to all my wishes. Why did I want to go to such far-out places? He had never been there. I was missing the support of Prof. Basov, which I had enjoyed in Moscow. When I finally reached Beijing, it turned out that I was in the custody of a classified military department not the Academy, and there was no way of changing from one departmental box into another. They wanted to see me fly home to be released of their responsibility for me, after which I could come back under a different sponsor, like, e.g., China International Travel Service (CITS) if I wanted to tour the country. I was suspended in uncertainty for two full weeks, until I succeeded in forcing a compromise on the sponsoring institutes. The foreigners police finally issued me a visa to travel on my own cognizance as a "Foreign Student of the Chinese Language Traveling Alone" a category somewhere outside the law. Which suited me fine, but all this wrangling cost me the sympathy of the Academia Sinica - a small loss - and an enormous amount of energy and patience on my part. Unnecessary to say that Xinjiang and Tibet would be unreachable.
Five weeks by myself became a long time, during which I often did not speak a word of English with anyone for several days. A very hard exercise - full of unexpected adventures. I learned so much about China that I tried to wish this experience on someone else, but only my fearless daughter-in-law, Anne-Cécile would dare to repeat it alone and without a knowledge of Chinese in an equally haphazard way in 2002. In 1986 and 89 Cornelius, speaking Chinese well, saw the parts I had not been able to get to: Xinjiang, Tibet, and Southeast China- and I took Barbara there in 1987.
By that time I knew how to travel without CITS, how to buy tickets, get a room in a Chinese hotel, and find my way with the help of Chinese maps. Travel had also become much easier in 1987, one did not need a special visa any longer and found many more people speaking English and being used to deal with foreign tourists.
The itinerary I had planned for our trip in 1987 had included a flight to Lhasa either from Hong Kong or from Chengdu. This was foiled again by the monks in Lhasa staging an uprising on the very day we arrived in Hong Kong. Once again Tibet was closed except for group tours organized through CITS. Lhasa remained elusive. One had to be flexible, and I rerouted our itinerary to follow a large spiral turning in the opposite direction of my 1983 route, leaving out Sichuan, Beijing and Shanghai, but adding the center of the Old China: Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, the little-known Putuo Shan Dao, and Xiamen in Fujian, where I was invited to the second international Chinese laser conference. For a start Barbara and I spent several days in Guangzhou, flew to Guilin for my third trip down the Li River and from there to Kunming, to visit charming and beautiful Dali. Subsequently we flew to Xian and by train to forbidding Lanzhou. Against all odds and all local restrictions we were able to take a 500-km taxi ride to Labrang and see this largest Tibetan monastery in China (Gansu). You will see these places and what followed in these pages.
From these travels emerged a vast canvas of the Many Faces of China which you will not find in any coffee-table picture book and a description of our adventures. Trying to balance these two objectives I have not only included my most cherished images of people and landscapes but also lesser illustrations of our life-on-the-go.
What was I looking for in China besides my basic curiosity about the Chinese people? After many discussions with my friend Zhu Qingshi in Xining and Guilin I returned home in 1983 with two overriding conundrums, the role of Confucius in Chinese thinking and the Chinese understanding of beauty - which in turn has been deeply affected by Confucianism's opposite, Buddhism. The practical aspects of Confucius' humanism became transparent when I spent many days on the overcrowded trains of northeastern China, and Zhu's patient teachings opened a door to an understanding of the monochrome images of Chinese sensibility. During our very last days in 1987 in Suzhou I finally found an image which opened my eyes to Chinese beauty: It combined the written word (Confucian) and the visual beauty (Buddhist) in one picture. I don't think Zhu Qingshi has ever seen it. I must send it to him.
And a monastery on top of Putuo Shan added a new dimension to my - otherwise strongly Tibetan - view of Buddhism. This experience is enlarged on (and roman-ticized) in chapter 55 of Konrad and Alexander.
You can read a more detailed description of my 1983 journey in the Return of the Monkey King, instructions on how to decipher (Tibetan) Buddhist images in Buddhas and Mandalas , and a helpful history of China in East-West: A Synchronology of the History of China, Central Asia, and Europe. A map at the end of this section shows our various travels circling forbidden - Tibet, the secret goal of all my searches in Asia....