Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The House of Intelligent

On Sunday my friend Pan Wen invited us to go to General Mountain, one of Nanjing's scenic spots. It's not very far out of the city, but I was still surprised by the feeling of relief that washed over me to see trees, hills and green space...and I've only been in the city for a little over a month! I can tell I'm going to have to plan little outings to the countryside now and then to keep my head straight...
General Mountain, like many scenic spots I've been to in China, is an interesting mix of the old and the new. A 12th-century Song Dynasty fort rises above a man-made pond on which you can paddle around in a plastic boat shaped like a duck. Or, as we did, hire a bamboo raft and a couple of poles. Will was a good sport; he and Pan Wen struggled to maneuver the raft around, sweating in the 90+ degree heat, while I sat like a queen under a "sunbrella" at the rear of the craft, holding Pan Wen's terrified six-year-old daughter. Good times.
The most interesting part of General Mountain was the House of Intelligent, an old farmhouse that was used as a re-education site during the Cultural Revolution. Students and young intellectuals were sent here to learn about the simple life (General Mountain was just a small village then--no plastic duck-boats yet). The house is tiny and austere, with a well for pumping water, some vegetable plots, and a large collection of propaganda paintings on the wall.
I find it really interesting that these revolution-era sites are the only places in China that I get a real visceral sense of human history. That sounds odd to write, because clearly China has one of the longest histories of so-called civilization, and I'm not sure how to really convey what I mean. When I see the older sites, I often feel like I'm in a museum, even when I'm standing in an actual courtyard mansion or ancient military fort. I don't get the goose-bumpy feeling that sometimes overcomes me at historical sites in other places--like a crumbling castle in Scotland or a civil war battlefield--that feeling as if I was walking among ghosts. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that so much of the ancient history here was systematically wiped out of the living memory. Or maybe it's just that ancient history here is so "foreign" to me that I can't experience any kind of emotional connection to it. But at these Cultural Revolution sites, I can feel it. And it's creepy! Getting goose-bumps just writing about it...
But creepiness aside, it was a lovely day among the cedars and the willow trees. The sky was blue(ish) and it was a much-appreciated afternoon of respite from the honking, roaring, beeping, snorting city.


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