By Xiao Yue Shan
“…the whole world became the self, a landscape across
which the poet capered at will.”
in china we are always looking for the sacred. between the worn sunset edges of stacked brick, over layers of newspaper shelling the walls, on the knotted starved backs of alley dogs, in water-logged plastic and cotton-candy smoke and chestnut blossoms. in china ancient geomancy demands an insurance of the holy on every home, above every door-frame. peeling red-gold paper serving blessing after blessing, all a part of the human campaign to reconcile the mundane with the divine. each household a church. each action a purpose.
I step off the plane in harbin to a steel heat. the sunlight grey gathered carefully in handfuls of dense, low clouds. this is my mother’s hometown, and though she’s nowhere near I find myself accidentally searching for her in the faces of women around me, in darkly shining braids and tall, raised necks. heels metronomic against airport tile, I pass wide prints of songhua river and taiyang island, the green a little too green, the blue a little too blue. it’s been a long five years since I’ve been back in my home country, and my eyes take everything in like it’s somehow momentous. the saturated tourist propaganda upon which water slants wide, broken here and there by dabs of boats and trees heavy with autumnal red. in the absence of anything familiar, I’m comforted by the gaudy display of pastoral scenery, its shallow beauty. bluest blues. greenest greens. and as I put my hand up to the photo I know how the river will travel from this glossy surface, where my fingertips touch, to da’an, to the manchurian plains, cutting through the changbai mountains and heilongjiang to ease the mid-august fevers of children as it did for me and my mother and her mother, before swelling back up through the land that meets my feet now.
the window of my bedroom in harbin has two sash bars that cross to form the character for field. on the 42nd floor, urbanity flattens onward, onward, building complexes as multiple as the lushest of grasslands, lights glimmering like yellow seeds, the concrete swells in mid-july heat and grows. the air is crowded with the symptoms of harvest; a rich dampness, a golden fringe, sweet fermentation. roads convolute this way and that, headlights reaching their orange hands toward ripe fruit. kneeled against the glass, I look over this land and think backwards – what came first, what cured the north to fertility, what wrote our characters into the bones of this earth?
we value age for the things time lends us, and there’s nothing older than china. when the land has been informed by bodies for so long, at some point people and their country coalesce; each person is an extension of the earth, and each move, no matter the direction, is informed by the centuries of history that came before. the mind of a nation is an imperfect thing; it doesn’t honour linearity or precision or even historical truth. it has no need or want for reality. so even china, who has turned on herself over and over in times of disunity and desolation and famine, holds her prideful legacy as the country of li bai, of lao zi, of sima qian. the land of wild birds startling in mountain isles, the land formed by heaven’s command, a gloating topography upon which sunlight and moonlight bathe together in the basin of the yangtze, their shoulders touching.
the poetry of china dates back thousands of years, and due to its antiquity, there’s a certain consecration that pervades its being. the ornate nature of chinese poetics has been elevated to religion. in chinese linguistics, there’s a dichotomy (and assumed hierarchy) applied to diction by the use of honourifics and other subtle inflections that denote esteem and respect. we cannot even speak of poetry without elevating it as holy, and thereby, appearing unapproachable in our commonalities, our days. yet – the food we set upon our tables, the trash with which we flood the rivers, the shortcuts we take to work. the poems we write, the literary landscape, pages and pages of pillars. the ashes of the classic of poetry, burned by an egomaniacal emperor, lines the depths of the chinese breath. we continue to cherish the printed word though we have abandoned so many gods. when I look into the faces of the people, the glass-strewn skyline, the names of these lands, I know what lived here before, who was here first.
as a child, I knew china as silken language, in fine, restrained lines of poetry, in stories told by my mother. I knew the waters of the songhua were brocade, that to startle the tide was to awaken a dragon. I saw ice sculptures diamantine in january. I smelled honey blown clear forth by heilongjiang lilacs. recalling the decembers of my youth, I crossed the street in front of my apartment building over and over again. decades of paper smoked upon wood, iron balconies filled to brim with laundry, the morning on my tongue as I rode in the basket of a bicycle. closing my eyes as my mother seared peppercorns in oil, I tasted china, burning when I bit down.
upon arrival, I look for her in the uniform windows and the bamboo-splintered construction sites, pushing aside the small framework of sweet-potato carts and porcelain stalls, between girls fanning their hair in doorways and vinyl tabletops, I wanted to find her sitting still as words on a page, patient to be read.
but harbin is dizzying; sweeping concrete overpasses and high-rises scattered like child’s-play, glow alternating amber and neon, memories of a russian occupation still alive in the grand arching doorways and jewel-like domes of byzantine architecture. I step past splayed cardboard flats of pomegranates and yellow apples, wind through cars parked wherever they can fit, and drift over stained wooden beams and dark, tarp-covered windows. between the ochre and sand-coloured buildings high enough to interrupt the clouds, there are alleyways brimming with decrepit floor-level houses, crumbling brick, shedding paint, translucent plastic pulled over the doors. everything is violent, in how only living things are violent. bare-chested construction workers clamouring at a restaurant window, men riding past sightlessly on motorcycles, children perched on wooden wagons, sucking on their fingers. even the seemingly abandoned, impossible homes have a washbasin by the doorway, blouses hanging on lines knitting through the thin backstreet. emerge from the crooked footpath and there’s the eight-lane highway again, rimmed with government properties and aquarium-faced dumpling houses. for a brief minute I stand at the end of the alleyway, startled and struck by light from all directions – a dim lamp through oil-slicked glass at my back, a bold orange puddle at my feet.
amongst carefully plotted foliage trimming highway traffic, amongst rusted bicycle bells, the rose-margined evening smog, amongst red sausages, almond-crust ice cream bars, and dumplings whose skins stick to the paper they are wrapped in, I am searching for inheritance. a taste of the history swallowed by the salt of the pacific as I crossed it, so many years ago. a physicality that is not reduced to the sound of tones on the tongue, or a penchant for spice, or the silhouetted profile passed down for generations. I wanted proof I belonged here, evidence that would come as viscerally as a kiss, a blow, an outstretched hand.
my grandfather died before I was born, and the few stories that are told about him are coloured with force, most of them ending abruptly with him slamming his hand down on a table. my grandmother is year of the dragon incarnate. she was tight pockets holding brown eyes deep, her short frame dusted with the steam of boiling star anise. my uncle is gruff and affectionate, chain-smoking cigarettes by the window and falling asleep bare-chested in an armchair. and my mother is thin with tough, small feet and a shock of long winding hair. when she laughs, it is the most wonderful thing in the world, because she rarely laughs, so when the cadence comes, it always brings with it a thunder that shocks out every other voice in the room. they all knew harbin with the intimacy of their own names, and I have returned to mark my signature alongside theirs, to make out the previous, ghosting shapes. to somehow deserve an unearned legacy. so it is that their forms and footsteps unfurl like ribbons, illuminating streets vivid and casting reflections in stones, transfiguring every surface into a mirror for which I could reach out, wipe with a palm, look into, and see only myself looking back.
lost in the light-struck contradiction of downtown harbin, I stop to buy a stiff, glistening stick of candied hawberries from a street vendor. perhaps it is naïve to contribute one’s character to a city of which the relationship is so sparse it might as well be brand-new, but as I bite into the tanghulu, the sweet and hot and tart overwhelms and the long arm of time finds something to hold on to. I am six years old again. I never left china, cut my hair, or slept outside of my grandmother’s bed. I’ve been here this whole time, my mother’s heavy hand on the top of my head, brushing wet november-flurries from my hair, the wind sparking her mouth red as a berry. around the corner the house she grew up in is still standing, and my grandmother is inside patching a quilt with flowering cotton left over from my great-grandmother. this city that is constantly making and unmaking itself has made me in the process. with the river-water of my father’s name, the royalty of my mother’s name, and the moonlight of mine.
through the cyclical freeways and gleaming commercial blocs, there’s the subconscious conviction that ancient chinese schools of thought continues to inform urban geography. harbin’s position in the far north has not only exposed it to various occupational forces and harsh winters, but its remove from the capital and the emperor allows for a certain alienation from dominant chinese culture. traditionally, north is the least auspicious direction; to be north of the emperor is to be further from heaven. thus, when heaven is not within easy reach, one has to find other sinews of dependence, sources of vitality and character outside the realm of royal unity. they say that’s why the people of heilongjiang are different. a little taller here, a little more brash, a little more courageous. tell anyone in china that you’re from harbin, and they won’t fight you, my cousin said to me, sitting in the kitchen eating vinegared cucumbers. why? I asked. because they know that we know how to fight. in the long months of snowstorm, the land is honey-comb with frost, and the air hurts as it collides against the throat, yet still the sidewalks are well-trodden from people licking crystal-sugar from bright-red hawberries, pouring shocking orange and blue syrups on soft mountains of shaved ice, the plump palms of children printing the snow-banks in strange pathways. there is a saying in china that goes: “a man does not know his own cowardice until he visits the northeast.” in china, the south faces the sun, and it is the source of glory, of the divine, of the absolution that has enchanted the country and encouraged its triumphs. this blessed light dims as it reaches back towards the north, leaving our glory to reside in our bodies, our families, our homes.
rounding a blushing corner, I come to face a pink building, the doorway framed with a sign of my name. I smile, snap a picture and send it to my mother, with a joke –I thought you named me after the moon, but it turns out you named me after a convenience store. in a bookshop, I brush the watercolour-covered shijing, and trace my fingers over the learned brushstrokes. at a badly ventilated hotpot restaurant by xiangfang park, my uncle pulls out thinning photos of my mother when she was my age. she was the princess of our household, he tells me, red-faced, and you are her daughter, so you too are royalty. I spend the days peeling the paper dresses of goldenberries and dazing on the sun-flattened cobblestone of what used to be kitaiskaia. dipping my wrists in the cloudy waters on taiyang island, bagging yellow peaches at the plastic-smocked fruit shop, dipping airy yellow pieces of youtiao in hot soy milk. what startles me about home is not the abstraction of the word, or its unreliable symbolism, but how it intercepts in its entirety certain moments lived, when all of a sudden your whole body says: here.
the main street, zhongyang dajie, is stifling despite its generous width and illusory perpetuity, so I step off and wander until I hit a steady stretch of five-storey apartments. all, stunningly, painted a shade of malted orange. their ground floors are a series of beat-up, shuttered shops, offering everything from LED televisions to customized steel plates to spring pancakes. there are no lines painted on the road, so the thick pour of traffic sees cars deftly dodging from left to right, occasionally bumping into a well-dented metal gate or a wayward step. a man climbs a ladder that is the very definition of unbalanced. a woman drops her handbag and curses loudly. there are empty window-frames leaned against a decrepit post, a wheelbarrow tipped over and melting into the street, a small red chair gleefully taking up a perfectly good parking space. it is a scene that cannot be easily described as glorious, but I drink in this music, a symphony of deaf musicians in which nobody is playing in the same key and the conductor is drunk on yellow wine. li bai would turn and run, but I stay. I listen. I want to reconcile the china of my mind with this one.
there are some scenes that cannot be romanticized. in garnet frames my ghosts of country collect. they are neat in fine syllables and faint, determined impressions. they are mere semblances of this lusting reality. past red tents filled with paper flowers and paths with sporadic missing tiles, I look for beauty, something I can tuck in with the scraps of childhood, the preserved persimmon leaves and dusty plastic lilies. but what’s here, in my hands, is a world. harbin refuses to be catalogued, to be gathered, to be made demure by the patterning of memory. literature exists beyond the canon; the language is richer and filthier and infinitely more alluring than beauty. I spent a week sitting down to informal chinese lessons with my cousin that were mostly composed of drilling slang. I want to sound like a dongbeiren, I told him. a northeastern girl.
what is the language of a nation? the innateness hypothesis assumes that language is alive at birth, that the foundations of grammar are naturally occurring phenomena which serve our thinking to the world. this is also presumed to be a constant interaction; the way we speak informs how we form those thoughts, and the way we intercept speech informs how we think about its meaning. china, then, has instinctively cultivated a poetics – in self-contained characters ranging from ideograms to pictograms to phonograms, in the brushed ink that darkened silk to call forth landscapes in tandem with lyric, in acute, visual lines that wandered every texture of chinese terrain, all the while calling back towards home. each language molds the minds of its citizens in a certain manner; china is a result of her literature.
in learning to write the chinese language, you are often taught mnemonics. walk in before you close the door.build the houses before you form the road. the strokes and radicals of each character has a specific order; if the order is wrong, the word is wrong, even if visually correct. yes, they say, it matters how you got here.
sitting at the kitchen table as a child, listening to my family talk over one another across alpine slopes of sunflower seeds and beer bottle caps, I stopped them at every opportunity. what did you say? what does that mean? as the night glossed on I kept listening, but couldn’t touch them. weaving in-between the skeletons of the language I knew, they were talking in chengyu, four-character idioms that had worked their way through centuries to embroider even the most threadbare of conversations. myth is constant on the chinese tongue. a single sentence can complete with thousands of summers past. a single note becomes a cadenza. we, the chinese people, are poets.
to write the character for I, start at the left corner, a short downward slope (撇). then a long, horizontal line rightward (横). return back to the first stroke and hook down (弯钩). cross that with a small incline (提). move to the right again, and let your brush guide deep vertically down, slanting, and tip up at the end (斜钩). then, about a third down, draw a slight leaning stroke, right to left (撇). then, finally, dot the right corner (点). this basic character traverses all four corners, ranges toward all directions. it seems to me an apt illustration for what it means to be an I (我).
my uncle takes me to a noodle house in xinlitun, and we knock together shots of baijiu and order more food than we could possibly eat. chive and prawn dumplings, cold roast noodles battered with egg and sesame, slices of pork dripping in chili oil and garlic, roasted cubed lamb, thin scallion pancakes. he was once a bureaucrat in the harbin government, and has never left asia. the government holds on to his passport, contriving an overwrought system of requests, fees, and time whenever he wants to leave the country. over dinner he laughingly sprays anecdotes of my unyielding grandfather and dispenses valuable advice about the kind of man I should marry. the spicy broth boils over in our bowls, and we brine and drink and smoke ourselves into jubilance. lighting up the eighth cigarette of the hour, he says he can’t imagine ever living anywhere else. with my mouth full of salt and spice and the heat of alcohol down to my collarbone, I ask why.
there are some static qualities about being an émigré from a country whose politics differ from your own. one, is that you realize an indelible or resolute nationalism is one of the most gratuitously harmful forms of human stupidity. two, is that your sense of identity becomes inextricably linked with your opinion of and attitude towards your country’s nationalism.
it may seem a little silly. to paraphrase charles simic: what’s the big deal about being born in one place or another when there are so many nice places to call home? I only lived in china for the first six years of my life, and though I am loathe to acknowledge the degree to which I’ve been “westernized”, it would be foolish of me to deny the formalizing factors of having been spoon-fed north american culture and ideals all these years. it’s only a shame that every country’s culture includes some aspect of nationalism, and nationalism, due to its quality of being the same in every damn place, is perpetually, arbitrarily and infuriatingly combative– we sit opposite saying the exact same things, yet they sound so contrary, coming from different sides of the table.
he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and waves the waitress back with another fistful of bottles (though my glass is still half-full). he says, this is my home. he says, these are my people.
something that goes unspoken: this is my home too. these are my people. and the thing is that you are always a pig if you resent your own people. and the thing about that is sometimes, your own people are strangers who spit in front of you on the sidewalk and knock you over for a seat on the train. and sometimes your own people strip your photos from your walls and send a bulldozer to your front door. and if your own people are kept from suing corrupt government officials by even higher-up corrupt government officials (who are, after all, your own people), if your own people continually conflate capital with self-actualization, if your own people’s newspapers espouse and magnify state-sponsored propaganda, unfortunately, none of it can be explained away even if you said you loved your own people, and believed it.
max weber once set out to prove that there is no justice in history, that the series of concrete events and structures that amount to history is not adherent to any moral stance ad infinitum. when we look at china, this seems to have been proven through the profound metamorphoses that it has gone through, culturally, politically, and economically. today, the country sees its people stunted under the weighty insignias of government officials and state-serving agendas, and the assumption could very easily be that the resolute disenchantment that weber prophesized has finally come into being.
the reason there is no “justice” in history, per se, is because history is independent of the individual, and justice is a human term, full of human fallibility. justice, in a way, can always be relegated to the realm of emotion. the same is often said of poetry. percy bysshe shelley demanded that we act as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and though hardly any chinese poet living in china would dare proclaim that of his or herself, this is in fact what is happening in a state in which non-government sponsored cultural works are censured or criminalized, and apolitical cultural works don’t exist. the common chinese stance – one that was established long preceding the creation of the communist party –is that an individual functions necessarily as a member of a collective. the chinese poet, then, is always writing in the “we.”
in the pursuit of definition, the pillar we return to, time and time again, is origin. the fact remains that I am who I am because of my home, but the most formative moments in my life were not the ones spent in china as a child, but the ones spent in departure, in distance. everything about looking back and not about being there. immigration is a divisive process of categorization– which parts go where? china gave me a birthright, a lineage, history and the taste of raw sugarcane broken straight from the ground. when I say the names of colours in chinese I can taste them. but only in leaving this behind did I receive a formal education of where I came from: poetry, an understanding, a parallax. when cultural identity participates with the self, an complex of essentialities evolve; some learned, some crafted, some seemingly innate, but all coexisting with one another in the small space of a body. snow-banks and hawberries and a library. it is through the process of alienation that I have been allowed the privilege to read the place I came from, to reach china with my inborn, yet still learned, language. all the same, looking at my uncle, I did not pity him for the smallness of his world or the constraints of his life. instead, I wondered what it could be like to never have to question the way back home.
I stand at the bay windows of the living room, and I watch the city soften. the nocturne pale-orange and grateful. something in the ashen air, blooming here and there with the incandescent glow of lamplight, tastes like the china who raised me. the small wind that darted my cheeks pink as a little girl, walking the streets below tottering in-between my mother and my father, watching the plum trees along songhua river proud with flower, tucking petals into my collar, the matchstick sun-glow spreading across the sidewalk like butter from a knife. I leash the memories and avow to never free them. I will need them in the many years to come.
in china I was always looking for the sacred. the common objects we imbue with spirit, the land always in respect to the heavens. But I don’t find the china of my mind; it is a creation myth, wandering and singing between this world and the next. a place where the rosetta and the tamed moments slowly overtake the constraints of reality. this room, this building, this street, this city, this country, all swelling and contracting to accommodate what I remember. the still smoking remnants of the glass ashtray, the thick wool-swathed wrists of my grandmother, the thrill of blue-sugar in january.
home filled to the brim and spilling over, a world of one’s own creation. the alleyways slowly coated in aluminum. the single smoking tower disappears as other smoking towers rise in adjacency. the river slicked over. the people multiplied. signature after signature pile up and rooftops are lifted from houses.
But still, here, amidst contradiction, amidst drowned books, seclusion, uncertainty, I look over my mother’s hometown, opacity descending, and I understand this ancient, time-learned need to look beyond what is here, in order to believe what is not.
xiao yue shan is a poet and essayist born in dongying, china and residing in tokyo, japan. her website is shellyshan.com, and she tweets at @shellyxshan.