A few years back, my company sent me to Anhui (pronounced "On Whey") Province in eastern China. I was to be part of a team that would assist in the startup of a newly constructed synthetic gas plant in Huainan city, a town whose only claim to fame is as the birthplace of tofu. (See Scott ROC #365 with overlaid arrow.)
Scott ROC #365 Map Stamp (Arrow indicates location of Anhui Province)
I had never been to Anhui and really did not know what to expect. My mother-in-law came from there and I was hoping, at the very least, I would find an opportunity to visit her home village. I did notice that, whenever I told Chinese friends that I would be going to Anhui for a month or so, I generally got the same reaction: "Anhui? There’s nothing in Anhui."
I was further discouraged by my initial meeting in Houston with the other members of the startup team. They had recently returned from a startup in Italy where nothing had gone well. The team leader advised me, "If this turns out to be anywhere nearly as confused as it was in Italy, this startup could drag on for months. I imagine we will have to work around the clock to get this thing going. I will probably be putting you on a twelve hour night shift after we get there".
Now I understand that when a company sends someone abroad, it isn’t for the purpose of taking a sightseeing trip. Even so, you expect to be able to take in a little local color. This trip wasn’t looking too promising. As it turned out, though, early predictions of a grinding work schedule in a bleak, uninteresting locale were not what I found at all.
Huainan is a small city by Chinese standards, the population being only about two million. We flew from Beijing to Hefei, the capitol of Anhui province. A van dispatched by Huainan Chemical Corporation was waiting for us at the airport. From there it was about another three hours drive to Huainan city. The highway we traveled on had been recently paved and the ride was pretty smooth except that, every so often, our van had to swerve into the oncoming lane to avoid the makeshift roadblocks in our lane. These had been put up by farmers so they could use one side of the highway surface to spread their newly harvested rice and let it dry in the sun. It must be a fairly normal occurrence because our driver seemed to take it all in stride.
One thing you see everywhere in China is food growing. There are a lot of people to feed and usable land is limited. For example, rice will be planted at different times in adjacent fields so there is always a new crop coming up. In one section the grain is ripe and ready for harvesting. Beside that is a field of rice just beginning to sprout heads and, next to that, new rice shoots stand just above the water level. Another example of maximizing land usage is cucumber cultivation. Because the cucumber is a climbing plant, farmers grow the vegetable on arched canopies and then raise other plants that do well in shade on the ground beneath.
On the sides of very steep hills where growing most plants would be impractical, you may see plantations of tea bushes. The hills are so steep it makes you wonder just how farmers manage to get up there and pick the tea leaves.
Scott PRC #2304, Agronomist Ding Ying
Chinese scientists are engaged in a crash program to develop higher yielding crops to feed an ever-growing population. At the same time, urban growth keeps gobbling up an ever-shrinking mass of arable land. (See Scott PRC #2304, Agronomist Ding Ying who developed a high-yielding strain of rice)
Arriving in Huainan we were dropped off at a small, but clean, hotel owned by the company, which, in turn, is owned by the local Communist Party. Once we were settled into our rooms, there was still several hours of daylight left. Most of the team members opted to take a nap before supper. It occurred to me, though, that this might be my only chance to look around the city before being locked into an endless cycle of working night shifts and sleeping most of the day. As quickly as I could get free, I set out walking toward town.
In the big cities of China, the residents have long since become accustomed to seeing endless streams of foreign tourists and so they seldom pay us any mind. In Huainan however, "Foreign Devils", such as I, are a little scarcer. Sure enough, wherever I walked heads turned and I frequently found myself leading a parade of curious children.
On that first day I happened upon a group of older men huddled by a street corner all watching two of their members playing a game I didn’t recognize. Many of these men were squatting on some very, very low stools. The players had marked a grid on the sidewalk with chalk and were placing game pieces on the improvised board.
As I looked on I noticed that many of the men were glancing at me out of the corners of their eyes. Finally, curiosity got the best of me, and I asked one of the spectators just what was the name of that game. Hearing me speak a few words of Chinese, the game, known as "liu bo", was quickly forgotten. Suddenly, I had become the focus of their attention.
"Where are you from?" "I am an American." "Where did you learn to speak Chinese?" I frequently answer this question by saying that my wife is Chinese. Most of the time, that answer seems to suffice. The term I used for wife, "tai tai", is one they probably hadn’t used in forty years. The preferred socialist term for wife in the Peoples Republic is "ai ren" meaning "loved one". One of the old guys seemed to marvel at that saying, "How about that? His tai tai is Chinese."
The Chinese are very hospitable people, especially those who have the fewest material possessions. Very quickly these men were insisting I sit on one of their impossibly low stools. Several packs of cigarettes appeared in front of me, which I politely declined. These men made every effort to make me feel welcome. This would be the first of several occasions during this trip when I was genuinely touched by the generosity of people who have so little, and yet were freely offering me what little they had. I doubt many foreign visitors to America enjoy a similar quality of hospitality from the total strangers they meet here.
I wasn’t involved with the Italian project, but I can tell you that, at Huainan, the Chinese definitely had their act together. The engineers, technicians and plant workers we dealt with were all incredibly well-prepared. This made the work go much more smoothly than any of us had anticipated. As a result, the plant startup and commissioning went off almost without a hitch. Of course, this made us look good and also meant that we would have some time on our hands to do a little sightseeing. Contrary to the advice that there was "nothing" to see in Anhui, we were soon to discover that there were more important historical sites scattered throughout the province than we would ever have the time to visit.
What really made it possible for us to do sightseeing in Anhui was the fact that we had established a good rapport with the plant manager, a Communist party appointee named Zhang (pronounced "Jawng"), who was originally from Shanghai. Mr. Zhang let us know he appreciated both the quality of our work and the fact that we knew how to behave ourselves. One evening after supper he visited us at our hotel. For a while he talked about various aspects of the project.
Then he described his frustration with a French engineer who had been there a few years earlier. Apparently the Frenchman spent his evenings carousing about the city’s few bars, often returning very late in the night with a companion and waking everyone up with his rowdy behavior. The implication of that story was that we had not caused Mr. Zhang any trouble or embarrassment. As a reward for being such a dull bunch, plant manager Zhang made arrangements for us to visit some of the region’s historic sites.
Scott PRC #2691 "Red Flag" Autos.
One Sunday we were loaded into the company’s fleet of "Red Flag" brand automobiles (See Scott PRC #2691) and headed off to see what Zhang described as "an old walled city" located about 20 miles away. That city we visited, called Shou Xian (show shee-en), was certainly "old" alright. It had been in existence for about two thousand years. We were told that this city was the site of one of the most important battles ever fought on Chinese soil. In terms of its significance to the survival of a great civilization, it ranks with the Battle of Marathon in Greece.
In the fourth century AD, China was very nearly overrun by an invasion of northern "barbarians", known as the "Jin". Leading an army a million men strong and, seemingly unstoppable, the Jin forces rolled over vast areas of China, taking city after city, until they reached Shou Xian, called "Shou Yang", in those days.
Atop the wall above the city’s east gate, we could look upon the site of the Battle of the Fei River. Here, in 383 AD., a regiment of the Jin’s elite cavalry backed by legions of experienced troops were soundly defeated by a Chinese force and the tide of war was turned. From that point forward the empire of the Jin "barbarians" began to crumble and China was saved.
Scott PRC# 3366-69 celebrates some of the historic landmarks in southern Anhui.
A set of stamps issued by the Peoples Republic, (Scott PRC# 3366-69), celebrates some of the historic landmarks in southern Anhui. We were able to visit two of those locations. The first, a World Heritage Site named Tangyue (Tong Yu-eh), dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). One could call Tangyue a village but it is actually a sprawling compound housing the many generations of a once prominent family. The founder of the clan was a merchant who became fabulously wealthy distributing salt. He obtained a license from the Imperial Salt and Iron Monopoly Bureau guaranteeing him exclusive regional distribution rights. The village he built to house his clan prospered for centuries until recent times when salt became commonplace, no longer a precious commodity.
The village is a complex of small, attached houses. The house windows are framed with gilded carved wooden lattices. You step through Moon Gates into enclosed courtyards dating from the Ming dynasty. You traverse the community by walking down narrow alleyways that wind their way among the houses. It is as if you had stepped into a different age. In the midst of the compound, I was gripped by this sense that I had emerged into the pages of a famous novel written in the Qing dynasty. The book, titled Hong Lou Meng, has been variously translated as The Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, The Story of the Stone and so on. As a novel, it is a tale that exists on many levels. Just as there are scholars who continue to analyze Shakespeare and James Joyce, so, likewise, there are "Redologist" (Hong xuejia). These are China scholars who devote their lives to the study and interpretation of this book.
The Dream of the Red Chamber is told through a series of episodes. The book recounts the story of a once-prosperous family now barely clinging onto the fringes of the Chinese gentry. It is a complex book that combines elements of social criticism, eroticism, religious perspectives touching on the supernatural and much more, all told through the lives of the family members. (See Scott PRC #1761, depicting a scene from the novel)
Scott PRC #1761 depicts a scene from the novel The dream of the Red Chamber.
Making your way through Tangyue village is very much the same as walking through Pompeii. You look about in wonder and say, "so this is what it was like". But Pompeii is an excavated relic. In Tangyue hundreds of people still live out their daily lives in a fashion not that significantly removed from when the village was first founded. There are few places left in the country that give you quite the same sense of daily life in a Chinese town a thousand years ago.
One prominent feature of Tangyue village is its series of seven "honorific arches" (again refer to Scott PRC #3366 above). These are massive stone arches standing over a walkway which leads away from the village. There are inscriptions carved into the stone of each arch extolling the exemplary lives of the recipients. Such arches could only be awarded at the behest of an emperor in recognition of outstanding virtue and merit. These arches had been bestowed upon the village one at a time, by different emperors over a period spanning two dynasties.
Sadly, owing to the changes brought on by fortune, war and the insane devastation wrought during the Cultural Revolution, there are very few such arches still standing in China.
We took our leave from Tangyue and traveled to another ancient village called "Xidi" (pronounced "shee dee") which was founded in 11 AD. Whereas the architecture of Tangyue is rather simple and straightforward, the buildings of Xidi are bold and colorful with dramatic sloping roofs and elaborately embellished walls and columns. Xidi has been described as a "living museum" because of its excellent state of preservation. With so much going for it, Xidi village is an obvious setting for historic movies.
This turned out to be the case on the day we arrived. A film crew was on site shooting scenes for a serialized television drama. The center of town was cordoned off, and we had to wait for breaks between takes to make a closer inspection of the town’s main buildings. The town also boasts a large stone arch, although it is a Governor’s arch rather than the gift of an emperor.
Just around the corner from where the film crew was working, we stepped into a building only to discover one of the film’s actresses receiving the final touches to her makeup. One of our team dared me to ask her to if we could be photographed with her. Never one to shrink from a challenge, I walked over and spoke to her. She agreed. For all that, I never did get a copy of the picture.
During the entire trip, I noticed that all the tourists we encountered were Chinese. There were no other westerners visiting these historic villages. Agreeably, Anhui is out of the way and less well known. For someone taking that once-in-a-lifetime trip to China, a tour of Beijing with, perhaps, a side trip to see the Terracotta Warriors in Xian is enough to fill one with memories for years to come. That being so, should you ever have the opportunity to travel farther afield, there is much to see in Anhui, including China’s most spectacular natural wonder, Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), which will be the subject of a future article.