My Happiest Day in China

Before I went to China, I studied Chinese. My teacher was a professor at Beijing Technical University. His name was Zhou Guang Yuan. He was one of the first international students from China to come to America, and he was a student of Dr. Richardson, my thesis adviser. When Dr. Richardson realized I was serious about going to “Dicken’s China” (as he characterized it) he introduced me to Zhou. I loved learning Chinese and I liked Zhou very much.

Ultimately, Zhou returned to Beijing. My ex and I met him in Hong Kong on his way to Beijing. That’s another story. It was our great fortune that the government gave Zhou permission to see us when we went to Beijing on our summer travel before we came “home.”

One of the places we went with Zhou was The Fragrant Hills. These are mountains near the Summer Palace that were used as a Buddhist convent, sanctuary and meditation garden by the emperors. The monuments and buildings throughout these hills are beautiful, mostly covered in colored tiles. When I was there, all the holy figures on the lower parts of these buildings had been cut off during the Cultural Revolution as part of Mao’s crusade to eradicate superstition.


We ate lunch at a beautiful hotel that had been designed by I. M. Pei.

Hotel designed by I. M. Pei

After lunch, we went wandering through the wooded hills to an art shop. There I met Ma Yue, an artist, calligrapher and seal carver, and his friend and colleague, also an artist whose name I don’t remember. He was an artist in the Classical Chinese tradition and did amazing paintings. These two men owned this little art shop deep in the maples of the Fragrant Hills.

They were Zhou’s friends.

I loved the shop, I enjoyed the men — they had both been with Chairman Mao on the Long March and so, when they retired, they pretty much had their pick of places to work and live. This shop had been their dream on the Long March and all the bitter years following. They were two of the happiest people I’ve met in my whole life.

Ma Yue and I have the same surname. In Chinese, my surname is Ma and my name is Ma Sa which really doesn’t mean anything special; it’s the sound, Martha. But the character for my Ma and his Ma is the same and that’s important. He spoke to me (through Zhou) as if I were his long lost sister. We talked about art, he told me about the Chinese zodiac, the history of Chinese characters — which he could write in the most archaic style.

Chinese zodiac painted by Ma Yue, characters by his colleague who had beautiful writing.
Chops carved by Ma Yue of ancient Chinese characters, explanatory calligraphy by his partner.

I didn’t know, but Zhou had arranged ahead of time for Ma Yue to carve chops for Jim and me. We had to pick them out. Zhou had already chosen for me a lion head like the Emperor’s seal. Jim chose a little Buddha (no, not Keanu Reeves). Before we left Beijing, Zhou gave them to us.

Chop carved by Ma Yue, my name in ancient Chinese characters

Ma Yue and I corresponded by mail and pictures for several years, then the correspondence died away. I had to have his letters translated and he had to have mine translated, but we answered each other. It was very special, a treasure.

Looking back on half a lifetime of experiences, I think this day is right up there in my top three happiest days ever.

10 thoughts on “My Happiest Day in China

  1. All the people with whom I was friends in Israel have left and gone back to wherever the came from. I have very intermittent touch with a couple of them. But I dream about it. I dreamed about it last night.

  2. Great to be at the beginning of your China diaries. I wish I’d bothered to learn Mandarin. My one attempt at learning it was interrupted because I had to go off for a meeting: to China! I took it up again after the interruption, but then didn’t go back to China for over a year. It’s horrifying how fast a new language disappears when you don’t practice it daily.

    People who have had a story like Ma Yue are now very thin on the ground. The generation which kept the arts and sciences alive during the cultural revolution is now going. I sat through a memorial meeting to one in November and learnt a lot about the history of those times: bad and good.

    • I just wrote about the Tianhe district when I lived there. 🙂

      I would love to have sat in on the Memorial meeting. So much was lost during the Cultural Revolution. I talked to my age-peers about that and was told, “You don’t understand. All that old stuff holds China back.” They firmly believed it.

      I feel privileged to have met Ma Yue and his partner. Really amazing men. And another person — The Old Mother — about whom I’ll write at some point, my friend’s mother, from Hainan, was a guerrilla fighter in the anti-Japanese war.

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