It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
One of my Oberlin teachers once told a story about taking his 4-year-old daughter to Times Square. As they gazed at the flow of light, suddenly David noticed that his daughter was crying. “Honey, what’s wrong?” he asked. “Daddy, it’s so beautiful!”
It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen; but it comes at the end of this, the story of the new year, the Year of the Rabbit, the spring festival. In fact the episode really begins with the train to the Ice World, and the Tianjin train station waiting hall, a typically Chinese cavern, too big for the light to effectively reach the floor, so big that the birds migrate from the north end to the south every winter, big enough for a boulevard of palm trees down the middle, from tracks 1 to 24. (Beijing South is similar — the banner image at the head of Tianjin Diaries.) Emerging from the escalator on January 6, we were startled to find the place so crowded that you had to edge and weave your way, even down the middle. “Carry-on” was redefined. Our modest wheelies were dwarfed by colorful tarp sacks the size of bean bag chairs, amoebing the floor. This was no longer travel — we were witnessing human migration on a Chinese scale. Imagine if almost everyone in the US decided one day to hit the road — here, 300 million people were going home to their families in cities and villages, home to celebrate the new year. “The largest internal migration in history,” said the China Daily. As usual, we had stumbled into tumult — but still, the new year was nearly a month away.
This was our first clue that among Chinese holidays, New Years is big. In the first two weeks of the January exodus, Tianjin lightened up in the way New York does in August, a dip from the usual street jam. Our campus emptied completely by mid-January, going dark and quiet. And everything turned red. Paper cutout banners flanked every door, with intricate patterns of fishes (= prosperity, by some pun) and rabbits (zodiac animal for the new year), and most commonly the character for “fortune” (as both luck and money), but upside down. Why? Because the word for upsidedown sounds like the word for “enter” — hence, “enter fortune.” Red also became the color of clothes; if you are born in a rabbit year, you are obliged to wear red (for luck, of course), so all the stores filled with red items. Since not everyone chooses bright red for daily wear, the red items were either traditionally ceremonial, the high collared jackets or dresses, or discrete — undies or shoe inserts. Of course all of these were inscribed with incantations and characters of luck. And red gifts. Everything in every story and at every street stand appeared in giftable cardboard suitcases: fruit, eggs, meats, teas, booze, nuts, food supplements, energy drinks, coca cola and other sodas, bottled water, juice, instant coffee, vitamins, chocolate, honey, ginseng, just to name some of the recognizable items. At the moment I’m breakfasting with a can of “Alpha amygdaline drink,” from the case given by Ms. Shen, the kids’ daily cab driver. Alpha amygdaline drink is derived from apricot pits, according to googlemind. It’s good for your health, of course. To me, it tastes like a vanilla milkshake, while those with senses of smell think first of paint thinner. But probably the biggest intimation of the holiday to come were the fireworks stalls that sprang up on every other corner everywhere — the big intersections usually had two. Typical stands were about thirty feet long, selling explosives from a spectrum of fire. At one end, the little stuff, suitable for toddlers: three foot long sparklers (here, made with gunpowder, more like handheld fountains) and spinny whistling fliers that shoot to the second storey. Then, along the middle table, a boy’s dream of firecrackers. When I was a kid, we smuggled strings from Canada, and a big one might be a weave of skinny two-inchers about the size of a potholder. Here, the small size was a folded mat of red fingers, as big as your arm. The largest firecracker unit was a wheel like a fat manhole cover. Either was good for a wall of noise lasting about a minute. Then you got to the big stuff, the aerials and fountains, ranging from basket barrages about the size of a cookie jar to colorful cubes equal to a shipping trunk, easily three feet on a side, a bundle of cannons with a single ominously short fuse.
Of course we wanted to be a part of this. But apart from our growing awareness that this was the Big One, it wasn’t clear how an expat quartet of ignorant illiterate aphasics could fit in. The kids had a week off from school, a pitiful nod of a break compared to the month or so of real holiday. We seized our chance to visit Hong Kong, and then Nanchang, also in the mid-south. Both visits hinged on the enormous generosity of our students, a student of mine in HK, and one of Cheryl’s in Nanchang. First, Hong Kong. Hong Kong is to China as Manhattan is to the US — compact, cosmopolitan, comfortably international. For us, then, far easier than life on the mainland. The British colonial remnants include driving on the left, “mind the gap,” and English, spoken even by cab drivers. Fireworks are illegal there, and in general we got the impression that New Years was not such a big deal, kind of like the holiday in the US: A party, a cheer, and a brunch. Our sense of ease in Hong Kong made it seem familiar, but looking back on it, the feeling was merely relative — in fact HK is as much phantasmagoria as any of the amazes we’ve seen. We had Leo and his girlfriend Carrie to take us to their favorite neighborhoods and the big, wonderful skylines, and guide us into food territories we could not have visited otherwise. The Liyeungs embraced us as family, with mind-boggling generosity, and we began to get New Years. It’s about gifting, not just on arrival and first meeting, which we successfully anticipated (cherries to us, nuts to Mrs. Liyeung, a tie to Mr. Liyeung (useless in China, but graciously received nonetheless)). Gifts passed with every meeting, including the big family dinner, when Leo’s aunts all had something for the girls. A special custom is the “red envelope,” for cash for the youngest family members. Rianna and Morgan were raking it in, while their parents felt guilty, having underestimated the volume of this custom. New Years is obviously all about family, as is most of Chinese life and culture. And that means Food. It’s always family style here, generally grabbed from the turntable of platters directly, so any meal consists of some of every dish served, and the correct amount of food is enough to cover the table in platters stacked two deep. This is not an exaggeration. Chinese restaurant dishes are served when they’re ready, in any order that the kitchen makes them. So it is not unusual to get a sweet baked dessert within five minutes and some huge fish or meat platter 45 minutes later, when one is stuffed beyond imagining. Usually the table quickly fills with big bowls and platters, but then more comes. The present plates are consolidated into smaller dishes, and soon new plates are stacked on the intersecting corners of old. We foreigners strive for the clean plate club, but in our experience real Chinese diners are content to leave half behind. (Incredibly, I’ve actually lost a few pounds here.) Chinese food combines tastes and ingredients infinitely, the Cafeteria of Babel, but the Liyeungs took us to new summits. This included the seafood restaurant where dinner swam in terraces of bubbling tanks. You point to what you want, and waiters snatch it from the water and head for the kitchen. Dozens of species swim (their last) in this Galapagos. King and horseshoe crabs, oysters, clams, weird skinny crustaceans like giant waterbugs, and every species of fish including bass (or like it) the size of dufflebags (reserved for special feasts). I pointed to a bivalve that looked like a giant clam with an enormous tongue, I said, “What is that?” and Leo said, “You want some?” The next night, then, at the Liyeung extended family dinner, the big item was roast suckling pig. It’s the Chinese style to serve animals with their heads attached, as some eaters think these are the most delicious parts. So also with the pig, who lost his as the server cleavered rounds for each of us. The head stayed on the table, but at our table at least there were no takers. Morgan, by the way, was alerted to the pig in advance, and was out windowshopping for this part of the meal.
Now the New Year was two days away, and we flew to Nanchang, in the inland province of Jianxi, “Cradle of the Revolution,” full of Mao-slept-here sites. Nanchang is a city of about four million, not on the tourist list — our count of Westerners per day was around two.
Now we were part of the Li family, and again with every hello gifts were exchanged. Li Ying, Cheryl’s student, was our host and guide, but the center of the family was Ying’s grandmother, an 80-year old bundle of hugs and laughter, adored by our children and us too. She was a Hero of the Revolution, the highest honor, for those who fought with Mao before the establishment of the PRC in 1949. She was an entertainer, the MC at the shows for the troops at the front lines. The Party arranged for her marriage to a captain in the People’s Liberation Army. The ceremony consisted of bride and groom bringing their pillow and blanket together in public, and a toast to the Communist Party. Boom, married. In this case, happily and for more than 50 years, until the death of her husband, two years ago.
Again, food. Big restaurant feasts on the night we arrived, new year’s eve, new year’s day, and so forth, with snacks at Ying’s grandmother’s apartment in between. But now the backdrop was not Hong Kong skyscrapers but a mounting cacaphony of fireworks. Back in August, when we heard a string of firecrackers going off (to mark any auspicious new beginning), we raced with our cameras toward the sound. I really believed I might not get to see real Chinese fireworks if I didn’t catch one of these quick displays. The New Year is a beginning for everyone, and fireworks are mandatory. Any sidewalk affords the space required for the red carpets and for the aerials too. I have a video of a barrage of firecrackers in a stairwell. With Li Ying we bought some of our own, and took these to a large square in Nanchang, and fit right in with the general uproar. (The photo at the top of this entry is the morning after.)
Our week on the road was great, but I felt a little sad to have missed the event in Tianjin, which is now our home. I thought that by the third day of the new year people would get over their fireworks, but not so. The fifth day was marked with a continuous rumble and sometimes a few minutes of immediate din. And so the year began very auspiciously indeed.
The holiday ended yesterday with the Lantern Festival, set on the first full moon of the new year. I googled what I could find about it (the Google doodle commemorated it), and asked around about the customs and activities of the day. During the day, I went to a Temple Fair and luckily caught the midday performances at “Prince Zhuang’s mansion,” a mini version of the Forbidden City owned by a Qinq dynasty prince. It included a Festival custom of riddles, fluttering on banners under a trellis of lanterns, a clear pleasure for young and old. (I wondered how Watson would do with them.) Also, I finally saw a Lion Dance. The two lions were each two guys, a head man and the lion’s ass, in charge of the wiggles and shudders that make a standing animal look alive. They danced, fought, and jumped over each other to loud recorded music. Then the concubines (I guess) presented a stately dance, as did the eunuchs (really guessing now), and then all joined with the gong bearers and heralds for a procession. Like a lot of things Chinese, it was simultaneously profound and cheesy, deep myth and loud muzak. Cheryl is down south at a conference, so this was on my own, but after the kids came home we pushed through homework and set out for dinner and a walk. At dusk the people’s fireworks got started. Following our quick dinner, we walked in the Water Park, a beautiful park a few minutes south, which we had not visited since our second day here, back in August. We were suddenly struck, hey, we’ve lived here for six months! And from the oppressive heat and humidity we’ve swung to the opposite, a frigid park of stiff winds and frozen lakes. The Tianjiners didn’t seem to mind, and neither did we, because from lakeside you could see the skyline, which was alive. At the maximum, we counted eleven simultaneous displays of fireworks. Many of these shoot straight up in the canyons of highrises — we see blooming edges, sudden flashes illuminating facades, resonating booms in all directions.
We were getting cold, so we hopped a cab back to campus, weaving under half a dozen aerial displays. We felt like we had finally gotten the full new year’s ride, as only a city of ten million and ten megatons could provide. But I had also heard that a downtown tourist site, the “Ancient Culture Street,” down by the Haihe river, was a good place to go for lanterns, so the kids got out at home and I continued. As we got close, the traffic jammed, so I paid the cab and started to walk. I had imagined a street festooned with lanterns, an urban “lantern wall,” something pretty and colorful to walk through, especially with the crescendo of din. But as I rounded the last building between me and the river, I gasped as I realized how completely wrong I was.
In earlier postings I’ve commented on the Chinese view of nature, which is not distinguished from human works. As a sign near the path to “Lion’s Peak,” a beautiful rocky hill near Nanchang, says: “More civilized, more beautiful.” And so Lion’s Peak is climbed on stone stairs among big hand carved inscriptions (“The past and the present are one,” “Eagles do not fly as high as this,” “The heavens and the earth are one,” and “Take a break,” among others.) The scale of the Chinese rewriting of the landscape has been consistently breathtaking — the Great Wall, for example. But over the city last night, the people of Tianjin rewrote the sky. What I didn’t get about the lanterns is that every person had one, and that they fly. Each is a hot air balloon of tissue with a blazing lump of something at the base, about three feet tall and almost as wide. The night sky last night was a new galaxy altogether. Bright planets, new Mars and new Jupiters, scudded low overhead. Other beacons passed in front of darkened skyscrapers, and above that and out to the horizon myriad red stars, down to the tiniest pinpoint, twinkled in ever shifting constellations and nebulae, a strong breeze making a parade out to infinity. Tens of thousands were there, providing the second spectacle: the city of Tianjin walking on the river. I had been wondering if the ice was thick enough, and here was the answer. As far as I could see, people were launching lanterns (quite a delicate process), careening on little sit-up sleds pushed by sticks or friends (without brakes), dancing with sparklers, and setting off the aforementioned cubes of boom. I crossed a pedestrian bridge over the center of the river, so I could see miles in both directions, lantern launches in progress to my right and left, lanterns racing overhead and processing along and ever higher, eclipsing the full, distant moon, bombs and starbursts above, ahead and behind, over the river and along the built canyons in every direction, the sprawl of thousands celebrating on a wide river between the sleek modern facades. Just then I said to myself, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and like David’s daughter I admit I blinked back tears. It was so China, but before and above that it was simply overwhelming.
I didn’t think much over the hours following. I went down on the ice, ran out the memory and battery of my camera, crossed under and over bridges, got dragged into group photos, greeted children in puffball snowsuits (“Hello Ni hao!” — parents seem to really like the little English lesson), dodged bobsleds and tumbling hindenbergs, cheered to myself as each group of family, romance, and friendship got their lantern to fly (impossible to launch solo).
Finally at around 11 things slowed down and I began walking home, very cold. I hailed a scooter/rickshaw to get a little whitewater headlight terror to round out the evening. This is a little hard to describe: I felt turned inside out. The buildings, so darkly imposing over vast Tianjin, seemed to lose substance, to fade. Instead, the people thronged the river without things and stuff — just themselves and … fire. Traditionally the lanterns are inscribed with wishes for the year ahead. Once you get your lantern flying, your wish is dispatched to the universe, but it recedes only very slowly from your sight, in the presence of thousands of other wishes. Meanwhile, the fireworks strobe the world with dazzle and sudden shadows, and wonderful echoes. They provide lightning glances, quick takes of the mainly invisible world of matter. Being me, I thought of the mind. Through quick flashes, insights, glimpses, our thoughts make things, a staccato of fireworks like Chinese characters, creating — not discovering — the world. But among the instants linger wishes, desires, and memories, steady embers in the shifting constellations that orient the chaotic flashes toward something a little steady. So ultimately the people weren’t really there either, not for me and perhaps not for themselves either. It was a night of stunned awareness and abiding aspiration, all the particulars of one’s worried life burnt off and blown away. Instead, in fire symbols, Tianjin, and I, write our minds across the sky.