‘Writing China in Country’ is an exclusive milk series which showcases the thoughts and creative writing pieces from Bath Spa University students who studied in China last year. Writer Joshua Lambert is first to describe his time in Beijing and share his short story ‘Passing’.
Last year I knew relatively little about China and even less about Chinese literature – nothing a Wikipedia article couldn’t say better, at least. I did know a fair bit about writing however, such as the fact that inspiration is bound to experience, and experience is being in the right place at the right time. So, when an opportunity for a three-week study trip to Beijing came along I was ready to coerce, bribe and kill in order to get a position on the trip (turns out the sheer force of wishful thinking was enough). That July, four Bath Spa University students and a number of students from Adelaide University travelled to Beijing Foreign Studies University. The creative prescription of the trip was essentially to become melting pots. We absorbed Chinese literature, culture, lifestyle, history and as writers our remit was to represent this back through our own personal lens.
The trip was, for me, the most packed weeks of my life. Days would begin with lectures almost three hours long and would end with writing up my experiences – if only to keep track of them all. In between, we did everything self-respecting travellers would in Beijing: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the New and Old Summer Palaces (hipster as it sounds, the old one far surpasses the new), museums, art galleries and pleasure gardens. We even had time to check out places with less tourist traffic: the house of Lu Xun, for instance – an influential writer we were studying at the time. Of course a trip to see the Great Wall of China was imperative (the endurance it took climbing up there was almost as impressive as the Wall itself). We also visited the Seven-Nine-Eight Art District, a neighbourhood of galleries, installations and artisanal shops – my favourite slice of Beijing by far.
As wondrous as landmarks are, the real impression culture makes is in the everyday: the gauntlet of pan-language haggling at markets (aka the fifth circle of hell for the socially anxious); the lingering spectre of Chairman Mao, haunting Beijing still with his image above the entrance to the Forbidden City, his resting place attracting hour long queues and the National People’s Museum preserving at least five microphones he used like it was celebrity memorabilia on eBay. We were met with the shock of being denied our language, navigating in an English vacuum, complete but for comically mistranslated shop signs.
The weight of the experience could be summed up quite simply as being the outsider looking in: I was asked for my photograph more times than I could count for simply being a westerner with a beard (or perhaps for my otherworldly beauty, one of those). It’s impossible not to be philosophical; for a writer, there is nothing more valuable than being an observer. When I sat down to write about Beijing, even whilst there, it was the challenge of forcing everything I’d been exposed to through a funnel, and the epitome of a good experience is having more things in your head than you could possibly hope to say.
My piece below – only one of the small tasks in the course of our studies – is a response to a modernising Beijing. China is regarded as an intensely Confucian, traditional, country and modernisation is tied closely to western influence (for better or worse in equal measure). Like that of any country Chinese culture is the co-existence of the old and new, in underpasses as well as museums.
Simon and Garfunkel went uncharacteristically quiet. Ming-huá pressed her phone’s power button repeatedly – CPR for electronics – and it lit up, alive and healthy. Her headphones must be broken, then. She slung them over her neck.
Old Crow was in the underpass, as ever, hunched over his ancient erhu. Two years Ming-huá had walked through here and this was the first time she was hearing Old Crow’s music. Long, subtle notes unwound at the touch of his bow, peeling downwards in a melancholic cry. He knelt in front of a blanket, on which he sold odds and ends when charity was in short supply.
Ming-huá stopped, picking up a small stone bowl.
“Rice bowl of Confucius,” said Old Crow, “sturdy. Chop sticks sold separately.” Ming-huá nodded, and put it down beside a tattered piece of once-red cloth. She asked what it was.
“Sailcloth from Ching Shih’s Red Flag Fleet. Great to lay a table. Or for curtains.”
Still playing his erhu, Old Crow pointed out other items: the dagger Lu Bu used to betray his warlord; the fan behind which Wu Zetian winked and seduced an emperor; a brush used to write two of the four Chinese classics.
“Any headphones?” asked Ming-huá.
Old Crow gestured. The apple logo on the case was clearly drawn on in pencil.
“Fifty yuan,” he said.
“Whatever.” He tossed them over.
Ming-huá plugged the headphones in and walked away. Between them, Simon and Garfunkel drowned out the erhu.