River of Turquoise


Deon Matzen

 
© Copyright 2018 by Deon Matzen


 

Photo of old houses in Fenghuang.

I stand in a river of turquoise, turquoise as bright and beautiful as the roofs of old temples in Tibet. I am in a mountain valley, narrow, quiet, and surrounded by azure mountains soaring behind the village which lines the banks of this blue-green river. There is the babble of people talking on the banks and the slapping sound of washing being beating against rocks.

The village is old, the wooden homes aged to almost the color of charcoal. They sit at drunken angles along the high riverbank supported by stilts in order to avoid falling into the waters. Most have carved, lacquered screens at the window openings, no glass. On the opposite side of the house from the river, in the back are small courtyards behind gated fences. In the courtyard, roses, orchids and bonsai grow. All the rooms of these homes open onto the courtyard and have high ceilings. The wood’s grain stands out in bas-relief from its age, in some cases hundreds of years old. Wooden homes are a rarity in China and this village is trying to seek historical status from UNESCO.

In the distance is a bend in the river and a bridge painted a rich golden tone, glowing in the morning sun, the golden of the emperor, it spans the river. It is not really a bridge, but an old house that has been built to “bridge” the river. It rises several stories above its arched supports giving it a fantastical appearance with its curved hip roof and mystical animals lined along the corners. It was once the home of an important official in this village.

There are no roads in this village, only cobbled pathways between the old houses. Everything must be carried in from the periphery on one’s back or in wooden wheelbarrows. “Street” sweepers carry brooms and strangely shaped woven bamboo baskets to keep the alleyways clean and tidy.

The sun is shining and reflecting off the clear waters of the river and penetrating to its depths where eel-like grass waves on its muddy floor. The warmth of the sun penetrates my body as I stand in the middle of this turquoise beauty. I stand on a concrete piling barely 6” above the surface of the water and centered in the middle of the river. Many of these posts or pilings create a pathway across the river with out impeding the flow of the water. In times of heavy rains and high waters, these are submerged and impassable; the footbridge several hundred meters up the river is the only passage from one side of town to the other.

Just beyond the bend in the river is a pagoda, white, tall and shining in the slanting morning sun. Dust motes, steam and the smoke from small coal fires create “rays” through the atmosphere.

A fleet of small, wooden, gondola-like boats made from butter colored wood sit at rest at one point on the shore and the babbling I hear in the morning silence is the boatswains awaiting travelers, they joke, smoke cigarettes and play cards to pass the time.

This is a place where time, like this small river, moves slowly. In the warmth of this morning, we can feel the lack of urgency of life. We can take our time, just like the old woman walking to buy some vegetables at the market, hands clasped behind her back and stopping to greet her neighbors along the way. She has a toothless smile and “Ni Hao!” for us when she passes. Dressed from head to toe in indigo blue with small black, felt shoes, she is in no hurry to complete the circuit she takes to the market and home. She is happy that the “tourists” are enjoying her village; they are a very, rare sight here.

We visit and drink tea with a family in their wooden home, peeling oranges, and chewing sugar cane they have offered. We do not speak the same words, but in the end, we speak the same language. They are happy to show us their home as I am the teacher of their grandson-in-law and now a respected “grandmother” of his through this process of education. Their family has lived in this home for over a hundred years. Though they were forced to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, they were returned later to one half of their original dwelling, which is still a large home by contemporary standards. Their young people have their own homes now so the space is more than enough for them and they have made it just as beautiful as it once was.

This setting is inspirational. Its beauty and serenity cannot help but produce a climate conducive to creativity. This town is known for its writers, philosophers, and painters, many who have attained worldwide reputations.

Someday in the future it will be “restored” which means this will all be replaced with contemporary materials to look like something from the past, but with a polish and finish that is definitely contemporary if not modern. Concrete walkways will replace the cobblestones. Concrete footbridges will replace these pilings which are my path today.

I stand here now but the image of the old city will remain in my mind forever. If this place becomes a tourist attraction, the serenity of this moment will never be matched as vendors will fight to sell me their wares calling out “hey, lady!” and disturbing the morning silence. Litter will spread its shabby confetti colors around the countryside, and plastic bags will be caught in the eel-like grass below the surface of this now turquoise river. Many people will be relocated to take the prime locations for tourist eyes. I know that it is important to share history with the world, but is the price worth it? Is there some other way we can share history without destroying its in situ artifacts?

China is growing like Topsy. It is embracing westernization as quickly as it can. I try to explain to my students here in China that China should accept the rest of the world for what it is and live peacefully with it, but it should not embrace it at the expense of loosing its unique identity. They think I am silly for wearing the old Chinese style clothing when they wear distressed jeans, tank tops and Nikes. The world can be a strange and glorious place.


In 2001 and 2002, I taught English at Beijing Foreign Studies University.  During the time between terms, I had a chance to travel.  This story takes place in Fenghuang in western, Hunan Province, PR China.

I decided I wanted to record my experiences while living in China and write a book about those days.  It is just about finished and am seeking a publisher in the near future.


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