River of Turquoise
Copyright 2018 by Deon Matzen
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
Province, PR China.
decided I wanted to record my experiences while living in China and
write a book about those days. It is just about finished and
seeking a publisher in the near future.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher