Sunday, May 1, 2011

Oceans and Mulberry Groves: A Hebei Middle School Girl's Tips for Dealing with Tragedy and Time

We are time's subjects, and time bids be gone.”
Henry IV Part Two

If you've been paying anything more than scant attention to China the past six months, you're probably aware that China's had a full plate of metaphorical problems of late (accompanied by metaphorical solutions to those problems): the proverbial dams bursting and the Han Brinker-type plugging of dykes; a pre-emptive cutting of (jasmine?) trees to save poorly defined forests; and plenty of (international and domestic) chickens coming home to roost. Of course, the particular resonance of any and all of the above idioms will depend on at least two factors: one, your own political ideology and, two, your understanding of what's actually happening “in China,” something I'd like to suggest that no one, Chinese or non-, can ever wholly grasp.

Of course, that's debatable, and I'm happy to debate it with anyone. Here's some provocative opening generalizations.
  1. Size Problems. China's simply too big and too complex.
  2. Media Problems. The media is either incapable of, or prevented from, publishing reports of consequence. Most reports of consequence aren't published, but supplied on a need-to-know basis.
  3. Bureaucracy Problems. People of need-to-know status are almost completely surrounded by yes-men and women who obfuscate information out of self-interest and/or a desire to please. People below the need-to-know-folks at the provincial, county, and village levels have no interest in letting anyone know what's actually happening on the ground.
  4. Sociological Problems. China's empirical tradition is not strong, and is complicated by the fact that most political/economic elites have little interest in real interaction with the vast majority of Chinese who dress/eat/live worse than they do. In short, well-entrenched stereotypes and prejudices regarding different regions and classes hinder true understanding.
  5. Interest Problems. And the kicker, most people just don't have time, energy or interest enough to care.
Of course, none of these stops anyone, including the author, from putting forward what may be wildly irresponsible claims, most centered on what “the left behind” population in China wants or needs. We're elitist populists, speaking for a population few of us know. This is dumb.  Most of the time, these opinions are based on careful reading of the media reports we deem to be the truth; “inside information” from people “in the know” who really aren't (again, also, our friends); and regional and class biases that make my Wisconsinite distaste for most (all?) things Illinois seem quite agapic.

The other “of course” here is the fact that one's opinions can always be less dumb, and it is with this hope that many of us make our own quixotic journeys west—a west packed with complicated assemblages of humanity and developmental problems, but also rife with portent, as the “west” now appears to be the hanging chad in the prolonged political referendum we call New China.

My Sancho Panza

Any quixotic journey requires a Sancho Panza, and I found mine in an unlikely place, Shangyi County's Third Middle School. Sancho in this epic is a teenage girl, Zhou Xiaomin. Her home, Shangyi (“Upholding Righteousness”) County, is in Hebei province, right on the border of Inner Mongolia. It is truly more north than west, but is certainly “west” in the sense that it has not profited much from China's boom. Xiaomin is a scholarship recipient in the West China Story program, a program that represents a great bit of Taiwanese altruism (link here). WCS provides scholarships to ensure that kids in poor regions have access to education. The scholarship doesn't come free though: scholarship recipients have to create a website/blog and post ten essays each year.

In the interest of my own personal “dumbing up,” I've been considering doing a week or so teaching stint in one of West China Story's schools, and went to their website to scope out my potential students. I expected to be charmed, or perhaps patronizingly inspired. I didn't expect to be moved, but that Little Zhou is quite a writer.


Zhou's story is entitled “Him.” Here's an abridged version. If you read Chinese, I'd suggest heading here.

It's a first-person narrator, we'll assume it's Zhou Xiaomin. She sees an older boy who's just come back home from time spent away doing migrant labor. He had been the bad kid in school, which in China means he “didn't love studying.” Like millions of teenagers around the country, he'd been forced to leave home to earn money for the family. He's come back “wearing fashionable clothes,” which, based on experience, I can only assume means it has some type of metallic flair attached to it, probably (preferably?) sequins.

He's standing in front of his house, but all the doors and windows have been boarded up. This is obviously a surprise to him, because he asks Little Zhou about it. She tells him, but doesn't tell us. All we know is that it's bad.

He replies, “Quatsch! What was I doing coming home? What was I doing?!” Again, we don't know what this means either and are left to guess. Did he not want to face these things? Does he feel guilt for coming home when he should still be out working?

Zhou tells him to store his bag at her house, and they'll then set off together to find his mother.

He doesn't talk much on the way. They hit a bunch of dead ends. They stop at a kiosk. He buys some smokes and “swallows clouds and spits out fog just like one would opium.”

They continue on. He “inadvertently” brings up his little brother, asking if he's still in school. He is, and seems to be in Zhou's school. The big brother “breathes out a satisfied breath,” then turns around and heads back to that same kiosk, buying some treats for his little brother.

[Millions of older brothers and sisters give up their own education for their younger siblings.]

It gets dark. After a number of wrong turns, they finally find the house where his mother and brother are staying. He calls out his brother's name in the darkness, 

“'Zhigao!” he called, with his rich, strong voice reverberating through the night sky, but it was also a voice echoing “oceans and mulberries.” [More on this later.]

“Who is it?”

“It's me. I've...I've come home.”

His younger brother comes running. They hug and make small talk for a bit. Zhigao stops for a second, then shrieks, “Older brother, what happened to your finger?”

It wasn't until then that the author noticed that half of his middle finger is missing, leaving a stump in its place.

“No worries. It got rolled over by a machine while I was working. At the time I thought it had just cut the skin, I never thought...” He smiles, and doesn't say anymore.

The author leaves and writes, wistfully, “As I walked on the road home, a host of thoughts floated in the air towards a distant place.”


There's plenty to talk about here, and I hope you can see why I would be attracted to this story. It is a first-hand account of new China as perceived by not-yet-new China. For many children in towns like Zhou's, outside of the TV, older brothers heading out of town and coming back home are their only connection to life outside their village.

But more than that, I loved reading about a person again. This past year I've been living in a world of reports and statistics about Chinese labor, about workplace accidents and strikes. But labor and its concomitant unrest have become so abstracted here, by all parties involved, it's as if we've boiled out all the humanity from the problem until “labor” becomes some malleable collection of facts, which, once properly molded and galvanized, can be used to bludgeon opponents both foreign and domestic.  (This isn't just some random thought.  Statistics can only do so much and normally only speak to a small segment of the population.  It's the stories and videos, the humanity, behind so much of the unrest that is eerily absent from most news.)

But to be honest, it's Zhou Weimin herself that really captivated me. She has an incredible consciousness, and proves it by what facts she reveals and when. She says much between the lines.  I was most intrigued by the phrase she used to describe the older brother's voice when he called out towards his family's new temporary housing:

“'Zhigao!'” he called, with his rich, strong voice reverberating through the night sky, but it was also a voice echoing oceans and mulberries.”

I had no idea what that meant, so I looked it up. It turns out that “oceans and mulberries” was a two-character shortened form of a four-character phrase “blue oceans and mulberry groves.” Big help. In either two- or four-character form, it's an ancient phrase that means “time brings great changes.”

Chinese is loaded with ancient idioms like this, called chengyu. Many of them are passages from great works of art and literature that have been subsumed into the common language, much like the bevy of Shakespeareanisms we have in English, but on a far larger scale. They are the bane of many a Chinese student's existence. (I've written about their banefulness here.) However, at least in my experience, one can normally at least guess at the meaning of most chengyus. “Oceans and mulberries” was one that allowed no opportunity for educated guessing. I had to look it up, humming the tune of “Incense and Peppermints” as I did.

How Oceans and Mulberries Became “Time Brings Great Changes”

Turns out that once upon a time, two immortals, Wang Yuan and Ma Gu, set a dinner date for 500 years into the future. When the day arrived, Wang Yuan arrived at the predetermined location first, but even though he spent half the day looking for Ma Gu, he couldn't find her, and no one else, mere mortals, knew anything about her whereabouts. He sent some Hermes-types out to locate her. They returned with a message: Ma Gu had been waylaid on Penglai Island (the Chinese Mt. Olympus), and would be with Wang Yuan in half a moment.

Ma Gu arrived with a flourish, with all the trappings you'd expect of an immortal Chinese woman. She was stunning, and didn't look a shade over nineteen.

As they were eating, Ma Gu commented to Wang Yuan, as if talking about the weather, “From the time I was born, I've already seen the East Sea retreat and turn into mulberry groves three times. This last time at Penglai Island, I noticed that the sea is already quite shallow, perhaps only half its normal depth. Could it be that it's going to turn into mulberry groves a fourth time?”

Wang Yuan sighed, “You're right. All the sages are saying that the waters are retreating. Before long, it's all going to be dust.”

After dinner, the two called their carriages, and ascended back up to the heavens.


Now I don't know what Zhao Weimin thinks of when she speaks of mulberries. I like to believe she is yet in that childhood reverie that requires she take the figurative in a literal sense, that she first pictures water and mulberry trees, perhaps teeming with silkworms, then she remembers Wang Yuan and Ma Gu's immortalized conversation, all before her mind clicks on “time brings great changes.” I don't know. I have no doubt that she, like most of us, will slowly start speaking words without reflecting on their origins.

I, on the other hand, was suffering from idiom envy. As soon as I read the story of oceans and mulberries, I started retroactively inserting it into my past.

I thought of Ephesus. The ancient city still stands, partially because the sea retreated and the people moved along with it, more tied to the sea than the city. I remember standing at the windy top of the amphitheater with my brother, the highest point of the old city, and I still couldn't see the Aegean that had long ago ceded ground, to the ground. I guess it would have been “oceans and olives groves” to the Greeks, at least until Justinian stole silkworms and mulberries from the Middle Kingdom.

I thought of my grandfather's pale blue eyes that had certainly seen oceans and mulberries.

I thought of the Korth Farm, or what used to be the Korth Farm. It had stood across the lake from my hometown but was now no more, the land reclaimed by the wild grasses that pre-date any of us. I thought of the pyramids that lie under the lake (seriously, we were almost on Unsolved Mysteries), perhaps built by someone with sense enough to build on what was once dry land but is no longer. And then there are the Indian mounds down Country Trunk B that contain all that's left of the Aztalans, the likely builders of said submerged pyramids. They were gone before any Europeans even arrived, their civilization reclaimed in means somewhat different than the Korth Farm, but reclaimed nonetheless.

In a sense, the beauty of oceans and mulberries isn't in the objects, but in the perspective.  Oceans won't move much in our lifetime, but they have in the life of this saying.  And it is through chengyu like this that Zhou Xiaomin can sound far older than her years.  That's good, because she's having to deal with experiences few of us had to deal with in middle school.    


There are seismic changes occurring here, in Shanghai as well as in Shangyi. There are few who are qualified to speak with authority on the full nature and breadth of those changes. But it certainly is a time when older brothers go out and come back with oceans and mulberries in their voices. For all that we don't know, this isn't lost on anyone, perhaps least of all Little Zhou.     


  1. I stopped believing everything you wrote after you basically trashed all FIBs. My affective filter killed it for me...

  2. Ha, typical Land of Lincoln behavior.

    Note that, comparatively speaking, our respective states are actually doing ok. Other regional disputes around the world are far more caustic, even if my lake does charge Illini five times more to launch their boats than it does locals.

  3. Great post. Reminds me of some essays by some girls I taught in Chongqing in 1998. Oceans and mulberries. I have looked up and translated cangsang quite a few times. But your rendition is very unique. Almost like Hinton's Long Bow. No, yours is much less contrived.

  4. Thanks dujuan, translation's a funny thing, and is always much harder than I think it's going to be. "Oceans and mulberries" worked for this post, I don't know if that's how I'd translate it out of this context.

    Do you still get back to Chongqing ever? I wander what the girls have been writing the past year or so.


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