The airliner touched down on the foggy, wet runway and
slowly taxied to a halt. It had arrived at the airport outside of
town at 6:50. A student of art history, it was my first trip to Xun
county in mainland China, a place famous for its ancient temples.
I looked out of the small cabin window at the props as they
slowly spun to a stop. It was early winter and the white floss of
the reed flowers was already gone. A large patch of straight and
barren stalks stood on the nearby riverbank.
“We ask for your patience as the ground crew readies the
stairway,” announced a stewardess in mandarin with a Beijing
accent. She was dressed in a white blouse and blue skirt, her
Winter in Pei Chern Village 北辰村之冬, woodcut by Chen Chi-Mao 陳其茂, 37 × 53 cm, 1973. Courtesy of Prof. Ting Chen-wan 丁貞婉.
hair in two shoulder-length braids.
I unfastened my seatbelt and took a deep breath. So close to
my destination, I should have felt relaxed, but I was in fact
I shouldered my bag that was filled with photo equipment
and, like the other passengers, made my way slowly down the
narrow aisle toward the exit.
I wondered if my father’s cousin, whom I had never met,
would be at the airport to meet me.
A gust of wind hit my face. I pulled my scarf tight and
turned up the collar of my overcoat and stepped out onto the iron
stairs stretching out before me.
Old Zhu, who was assigned by China Travel Service to
look after me, was a tall, thin man pushing fifty. He was dressed
in a blue people’s suit with white cuffs. His collar was opened, revealing a white shirt underneath. When he talked, his irregular,
yellowish front teeth bespoke a heavy smoker. But he was quite
frank and reminded me of a devoted Party secretary or a grassroots
unit cadre that I had read about.
When we arrived at the Liqun Hotel, it was not yet open for
business. Old Zhu rang the bell at the side door several times,
and a young man with closely cropped hair answered almost at
once. Seeing us, he hurriedly stepped forward and took the luggage
Old Zhu had been carrying for me.
“The County Commissioner’s office notified us yesterday,”
he said politely with a friendly smile.
Following him, we entered a small courtyard through the
side door. The honeysuckles, azaleas and Chinese cypresses
were all lush even in winter. Only the daylilies under the white
chalk wall had withered and yellowed. Through an arch shaped
like a plum blossom, and behind a row of pines, was a corridor
along which lay the rooms of the guest wing. In a regular order,
the wooden windows of gloomy reddish nanmu wood, carved in
a flower pattern, followed one upon the other.
When the hotel attendant, who was called Little Chen,
unlocked a room at the end of the wing, I half expected to see
purple-cloud gossamer and other traditional Chinese sandalwood
furniture of the sort that one reads about in classical novels.
Inside were a wooden bed and a desk, far simpler than I had
expected. But they did look a bit like what would have been
found in the home of a squire or public official a long time ago.
“Someone will bring you a thermos of hot water every
morning and evening, and three meals a day will be provided at
the dining hall. If you need anything, let me know,” said Old
Zhu frankly, showing his yellow teeth. “Time is tight, so grab
some rest. We’ll start the visits this afternoon.”
Standing in the doorway, he turned and shook my hand and
said, “Welcome back. Look around and you’ll see that great
progress has been made.”
His hand was quite strong and the additional pressure he
applied seemed to further affirm what he had just said.
The schedule was indeed very tight. Within three or four