Chris Taylor

The Chinese friend

The-Chinese-friend

IF I WERE NOT exhausted by the fury of China’s bus station queues, I would never have decided to join a tour to the historic hill resort of Lushan. I would also never have met Wang. We picked him up next to the train station. He was tossing a cigarette butt into the gutter and slouching aboard the minibus like a fugitive plotting his next move. His fingers were grimy and stained with nicotine. Rodents might have nested in his tufted hair. He slid into a seat and promptly fell asleep. I didn’t pay him much notice. I was in thrall of the tour.

Chinese, like Japanese, are all for tours. Every self-respecting tourist attraction has its hierarchy of sights, its hoary accretion of wide-eyed lore and its filing-cabinet litany of statistics. Alone or in the wrong hands you might end up just gazing in bemused wonderment, but that would never do. Chinese like to come away from their holidays the better for them. We came to Mount Lushan to name the parts: the inspiration-seekers who’d toiled up its slopes, the great and mighty (Chiang Kai-shek among them) who’d vacationed on its cool, mist-shrouded ridges, the makers and shakers (Mao Zedong for one) who’d drunk tea and debated China’s unending national problems in its villas. We’d come to see Lushan’s pen-and-ink landscapes, its roiling cloudscapes, from the exact appointed vantage points that landscapes and clouds should be seen. We’d come to get the facts and leave the better for knowing them.

They came thick and fast. We were Group No. 28, and our guide, a young woman in a no-nonsense red suit and armed with a shiny gold megaphone, provided committee-like statistics of every bridge we trundled over, the crops we passed by, the weather that drizzled miserably on us. “Lushan has an average winter temperature of 1.9 degrees,” she announced as we rolled over a 79-meter-long bridge built in 1987. “You will note the peasants in the fields to your right planting rice. The average rice harvest in Jiangxi province …”

Wang slept through the high-decibel, statistical assault like a baby. But at Lushan he was tapped awake. It was time for introductions. Wang was “Zhejiang friend.” A timidly smiling gentlemen dressed in a shabby business suit, the washing instructions sewn onto the right cuff, was “Shanghai friend.” A fresh-faced young couple who looked recently married were “Shandong friends.” The sour, pinch-faced, cadre-like young man with acne that no one spoke to was “Hubei friend.” I was “English friend.”

Our first stop was the People’s Hall. It was here in 1959 that Mao made a bellicose defense of his disastrous Great Leap Forward even as peasants across China starved in the millions. His portrait presided over the hall, which milled with the faithful, most of them dressed in uniforms of the People’s Liberation Army. The auditorium was full of numbered chairs. On the stage were four more chairs identical to those provided for the audience. Historical significance notwithstanding, there is only so long I can look at a hall full of chairs. I drifted upstairs, where I found a photo gallery of Communist Party bigwigs at play—Liu Shaoqi playing checkers with an unnamed minion, Mao at rest.

I was gazing at Mao, that aged infant, Mickey Mouse tufts of hair sprouting from his temples, the rotund earnest fix on everything, me trying to imagine the man behind the mask, amid a party of army officers, when Wang bounded up beside me.

“What a load of bullshit!” he said.

“Well …” I said, momentarily speechless. “It depends on your politics, I suppose.” The officers gave Wang a sharp look. He shrugged and sauntered off. The army officers stared daggers at his retreating back.

At Dragon Fountain Lake we were presented with a tree. It was a towering object, a cedar of some description, I guessed, and we stood before it in a small huddle, our necks craning heavenward, while our guide adumbrated its height, its age, the circumference of its trunk, its estimated number of needles; she listed the poets who had girded it in metaphor, the painters who had seized its essence with a few deft brush strokes. More tour groups arrived and formed patient queues behind us.

My mind, I’m afraid, temporarily stood easy under the assault of so much arboreal trivia, and when it snapped back to attention, I discovered that the guide had been telling us that we were on our own for the next one and a half hours. She had, it seemed, been giving us detailed instructions about which path to take in order to get back to the minibus in time. I trudged off with the others, but she could tell I hadn’t been listening.

“English friend!” she cried in a reproachful squeal through the megaphone.

Approximately one-hundred heads turned. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Not really,” I called back. “Don’t worry. I’ll just follow group No. 28. Wherever they go, I’ll go.”

“Well, don’t get lost and hold us up.”

Remember, I muttered to myself, no more tours. I cast around for Wang, but he was nowhere in sight, so I tagged along behind Shanghai friend. In the event, there was no need. The approach to Dragon Fountain Lake involved clambering down a steep flight of stairs. At the bottom was a pond and a concrete yellow dragon. A feeble fount of water dribbled from its snout. A queue formed for photographs. When the photo session was over, we trooped back up the stairs to the minibus. To lose yourself on such an adventure, I concluded, could only be achieved by a desperate plunge into the undergrowth.

At the next stop, I didn’t even leave the minibus. The guide promised wonderful views, but the mist outside was so heavy you might have carved it up and exported it to wherever in the world mist was in short supply. My fellow tourists trooped out in a plaintive chorus: “Aren’t you coming? It’s going to be very beautiful.”

Wang returned about three minutes later. He stamped into the bus shaking his head in disgust. “That was a lot of fun. You can’t see a thing in this weather.”

The rest of the group were close on his heels. In the summer season, the guide explained, the views truly were very beautiful; this probably wasn’t the best time to come to Lushan.

We stopped for lunch. I’m not sure how it happened but somehow I ended up in one restaurant with Wang, and the rest of the group ended up in the restaurant next door. He ordered an omelet peppered with tiny fish; I ordered a pork and eggplant casserole.

“Know how much this omelet costs?” asked Wang.

“No.”

“Thirty yuan.”

“That’s an expensive omelet,” I said. “Perhaps they used extra eggs.”

“You can buy a dozen of them for ten yuan at the market.”

Wang picked one of the little fish out of the omelet and held it in the air with his
chopsticks. “It’s these little fish that are the problem. Any idea what they are?”

“Just looks like a little fish to me.” I didn’t know the Chinese word for minnow, and I doubted that’s what it was anyway.

The waiter wandered over and sat down at our table. “Are you here traveling or here for a conference?” he asked.

“Well, we’re here for a meeting with Chairman Mao,” I said, “but he hasn’t showed up. Any idea where he is?”

The waiter grinned.

“Ha!” said Wang. “Fuck your mother. Mao Zedong; he fucked us over for thirty years. The Communist Party is still fucking us over. But you’re okay. I’ve never talked to a foreigner before. Have some omelet.” He gestured at the omelet with his chopsticks. “You can call me Wang.”

I gave him my Chinese name. I ate some omelet and little fish; he ate some eggplant and pork.

“You know what I think?” said Wang. “It’s fate that brought us together. Yes, fate. Here’s me, a bumpkin from Zhejiang—yes, that’s what you should call me: a Zhejiang bumpkin—and here I am eating a meal and speaking Chinese with a foreigner. It’s fate, that’s what it is.”

The idea that fate had brought me together with Wang—to what end?—was a slightly disturbing one, but I know too that the Chinese have no truck with the random, with chance. “You know,” I said, “China’s so big most Chinese don’t get much chance to meet a foreigner.”

“No, it’s fate, that’s what it is.” Wang helped himself to a mouthful of my eggplant. “You’re from England. That’s a rich country. Do you have human rights over there?”

“Well …” I began.

“Fucked if we do over here.”

The waiter, who had been listening in, got up and left.

Wang then insisted on paying for my meal. I tried to pay my way, but it was hopeless, and in the end I simply thanked him.

“Fate brought us together,” he said with a solemn nod.

Our next stop was Dragon Head Cliff, a spectacular vantage point. Clouds lapped at our feet like a steaming tide. A craggy islet of rock rose in the near distance, a lone fir perched impossibly on its summit. Shadowy cliffs stood shoulder to shoulder in the distance. It was a scene that looked as if it had been conjured into existence by a Chinese brush.

The guide droned out the inevitable roll call of artists, but before she’d finished Wang began to become agitated. He waved his arms outward at a distant row of cliffs, and the guide faltered in her monologue.

“It’s ridiculous!” said Wang. “We’re all standing here, because this is where we’re supposed to stand. But if someone had decided we had to stand over there, we’d be standing over there.”

A shocked hush fell over the group.

Wang appealed to me with his eyes. “Wouldn’t we?” he demanded. The guide glared at me. I said nothing. The guide coughed and resumed her speech. Wang shrugged and stomped off.

He was waiting for me on the next ridge. He gestured helplessly out at the scene before us.

“They say it’s amazing. I’ll tell you what’s amazing, when a person can start with nothing and make a pile of money. That’s amazing.”

“Well, perhaps,” I said carefully, “when you’ve got a pile of money, you’ll want to do something with it. See amazing things maybe.”

He scowled. “Maybe. But the only people in this country with money are the Party and their hangers-on.”

The guide, her gold megaphone held aloft, was heading our way.

“Here she comes,” I said.

“The ugly bitch.”

We drove back into Jiujiang, the town in which we’d started. There were no more statistics. Everybody nodded off. We dropped Wang off at the train station, where we had picked him up. He scrambled out of the minibus and lit up a cigarette. He took a few steps and then turned and waved. It was a half-hearted, diffident effort, and halfway through he gave up. He shrugged and turned away.

The terrible thing was, he was right: about Mao, about the Party, about the absurdity of our neatly organized sightseeing expedition. He was an outsider and I was a foreigner, which amounted to the same thing. My mouth opened. I wanted to call out, “I’m sorry!” But he was disappearing into the heaving scrum of the train station.

Harvest Season, a novel by Chris Taylor, is  available through Amazon in print and digital formats. In the UK: printdigital.