Chinese Sacred Mountains

This is a chapter from my memoir about living and teaching in the People’s Republic of China, 1982/83. As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. The characters are my ex-husband, Jim, his mom, Frances, an amazing, resilient and humorous woman, and my best friend, Ann. Frances enjoyed China and took everything as it came. Ann really hated it but went back years later to make peace with it. 🙂 I’m posting this as a way to respond to the post of another blogger, Simon Waters, who today wrote about Emie Shan, another of China’s sacred mountains. He visited it in 1982 as a tourist in China — tourists at that time were very very very rare. His piece and this one almost seem like companions.


From Hangzhou, we planned a trip to Yellow Mountain, Huang Shan, one of the Chinese sacred mountains, a day’s bus trip away. Pictures of this mysterious and beautiful place had long filled Ann’s imagination. It was her China dream destination. The China Travel Service agent in our hotel told me where to get the bus and buy the tickets. Because I had a Chinese ID card, the representative sent me to the office where Chinese tourists would go. It was very simple. I bought four tickets and, early on the appointed morning we went to the terminal and boarded the bus. 

It was not a tourist bus. It was a Chinese regional bus with rattling windows and a rough-running engine. Frances spent the morning stuffing wads of tissue in the loose windows to keep them from rattling. I am not sure about Ann, but I suspect she was not happy. 

Lunch was part of our ticket and we reached a village bus station and restaurant at about 11 in the morning. We were the only remaining passengers. The bus driver joked with Frances when she returned to the bus to get her fork. By then Frances had learned to say “green bean” and “ice cream” in Putunghua, but she’d resisted using chopsticks. Not one to take such well-meaning mockery lightly, Frances did not retrieve her fork, and she did not use a fork again the rest of her time in China.

Lunch was tomato and pig-liver soup, braised steamed tofu, and scrambled eggs. Though Frances asked in perfect Putunghua, there were no green beans to be had. In that mountainous world, their season had not arrived.

After lunch, we returned to the bus. It started up and chugged its way out of the village, but not far. At the remains of an old city gate, the bus stopped running. The driver lifted the hood inside the bus to look at the transmission. Jim joined him. There was much scratching of heads and attempts to explain and help, but to no avail. The bus was broken. Someone would come out from the village to tow it back to the bus station, but we were stuck. 

I was used to being a precious Foreign Expert. I expected that something would happen and we would be fine. I knew the gossip system. Someone else would go through that town, stop at that restaurant bus stop, learn about our situation, and we would be rescued. I was so sure of this that I felt no anxiety. I was happy to be where I could see mist-draped mountains, terraced tea plantations, and clouds obscuring and revealing distant scenes in changing light. I was only interested in climbing up and seeing the view from the top of the ancient gate of what had once been a walled city.

The old city wall…

And if by some remote chance, no rescue came, I didn’t much care about that either. We had food, warm clothes, and water, but I didn’t think it would turn out like that. 

I was worried about Frances, but she wasn’t worried about herself. Meanwhile, I drove Ann crazy. 

It wasn’t long before a fancy Japanese tourist bus filled with Japanese tourists stopped to pick us up. I’m sure the people at the restaurant/bus stop knew this bus was on its way. I even suspected that, as we three were the only people riding the bus all the way to Huang Shan, our bus driver had faked a breakdown, knowing the Japanese bus was coming. 

The driver of the Japanese bus thought our situation was normal, even funny. The Japanese passengers were polite and made room. We ended up on the back seat of the bus, near the toilet, where no one wanted to sit anyway. Ann was fuming, but it was a much more comfortable ride.

“Sorry about that. I knew we wouldn’t be stuck there.”

“You didn’t know. You just don’t care.”

How could I ever have explained this? Everything that explained it was offensive. We were watched all the time. That “Big Brother” was our friend more often than our enemy was an idea that, I knew, was pretty hard to accept.


Huang Shan, one of China’s four sacred mountains, is in Anhui Province, which, at the time, was primarily agricultural with tea as the main crop. A mountainous province it was still suffering from a lack of transportation and occasional food shortages. While Huang Shan is now a well-developed tourist destination, in 1983 it was still remote. On the way, we passed many small villages with whitewashed houses, dramatic shingled roofs, and misty scenes against a dark green landscape. The most visible point of each village was a stage for propaganda shows above which sat the great red star of China. 

Once at the hotel, we had no problems checking in. Our rooms were ready…sort of. Unfortunately the toilet in Frances and Ann’s room had backed up earlier that day, and they had to sit in the lobby until the bathroom floor dried. Once they were in their room, we all saw that it was large and beautiful. Frances made us cups of Dragon Well Tea, I opened a can of Danish butter cookies, and we tried to put a good face on things. 

At dinnertime, we learned that, except for eggs, the hotel was out of food. I explained this to my guests and suggested a picnic in our room. I had my dependable stash of Foreigner Food I’d stocked up on when we picked up Frances and Ann in Hong Kong— the excellent Havarti and a tin of butter cookies from Denmark, crackers from England, great Chinese peanut butter, as well as a few tins of pineapple. Completely disgusted by China at that point, they refused, but after an hour, there was a gentle scratching on our door. 

It wasn’t a bad picnic, but our guests were still angry. I couldn’t blame them. We had come part way on a bus that broke down, hitched a ride on a Japanese bus only to arrive in a hotel room with a broken toilet, and then told there was no supper? I suspected the Japanese tourists got dinner, but I don’t know.

“Is THAT why you brought food? You KNEW this would happen?” demanded Ann.

I made a feeble remark about the Boy Scout code, said we always traveled with food, and shrugged. 

Independent tourism at that time in China was rare, and China didn’t have piles of “extra” anything with which to prepare for surprises. A lot of food was still rationed, and it was very possible that the hotel didn’t have enough food for four stray travelers.

A random search on Expedia tells me there are now more than two hundred hotels at Huang Shan. In July of 1983, there were three hotels in a chain up the mountain; one at the bottom, one in the middle, and one at the top. Our original plan was to spend two days climbing. The first day we would climb from the bottom hotel and spend the second night at the middle hotel. From the middle hotel we would go back down again. We knew we didn’t have time to climb the whole mountain, and Frances would be alone while we were gone. 

We were rained out the next morning. No chance of climbing anything, so we looked around the village. There was an antique store and a small market. Young people sat on steps selling hard-boiled eggs. In the antique store, I bought a cloisonné box and a carved wooden statue of a god riding a dog. 

It was in that village that Ann saw how food was carried to our hotel and to the hotel higher up the mountain. Skinny teenagers and old women who had arrived that morning on the train, hoisted heavy bamboo baskets filled with a dozen winter melons as big as watermelons, bitter melons, cabbages, scallions, and other vegetables, their baskets suspended from shoulder poles. They trotted rhythmically up the mountain’s steep stairways. Ann was horrified. “Communism is dehumanizing,” she said. 

“I don’t think this is Communism. It’s poverty.” 

“How can you defend it?” For Ann, communism caused the poverty. My jury was out on that question.

We rose early the next morning to make our “summit attempt.” It wasn’t long before we understood that there is nothing of the rugged individualist “conquering” the wilderness in a pilgrimage up a Chinese sacred mountain. Ahead of us were thousands of stone steps. The climb was tedious, boring, painful, and uninspiring. In front of us were more steps and the backs of our friends. Every meaningful moment or spectacular god-perceiving view was marked with a pavilion with seats from which we could look out on the mountain’s steep faces. On those magnificent granite faces, lines of poetry had been scrawled in enormous bright yellow characters. Those who had painted them had to have been fantastic mountaineers, but to us, Coloradans, these lines of poetry defaced the mountain. Maybe if we could have read them, we would have felt differently. At the halfway point, we turned back, for once all of one heart. We had grown to resent the steps and, while the scenery was spectacular, we felt we were visiting a “used” mountain.

The hotel had food that night. The next morning we were to leave on a bus that had been arranged by CTS and paid for. It also happened the next morning that the concierge (if you can call her that) of the hotel said, “We have a good breakfast for you today! We have coffee!”

Jim, Frances, and I were happy and hungry, but Ann didn’t even show up in the dining room. She was arranging with a private group for us to get a ride back to Hangzhou in their “mienbao.” We hurriedly finished our delicious breakfast and crammed ourselves into the Toyota van.

On the ride back to Hangzhou, Ann apologized to me. “I thought at first you were just showing off or something, but now I know. This doesn’t bother you.”

“True, it doesn’t. I guess after a year you get used to it.”

“I don’t think I could get used to it. I think you love China.”

I nodded. “I do.”

That night we had a lovely dinner in the hotel restaurant in Hangzhou, with Frances asking, now in a complete sentence in Putunghua, if they had green beans. Another guest, who’d been there when we took off for Huang Shan, asked us, “How was it? Did you make it to the top?”

“No,” I said. “I hated it.” 

“It’s good you went, even if you didn’t make it to the top. Everyone needs to know what a pain in the ass a Chinese mountain is.” I couldn’t have said it better. It had been a pain in the ass, legs, and back. You name it, there was pain, psychic and otherwise. In Colorado we like our mountains a little less regimented. 


As soon as we got back to Hangzhou, I arranged with China Travel Service for Ann to return to Hong Kong, then Denver. I tried to talk her out of leaving, saying Beijing was a big city and none of this would happen there, but she made the very plausible argument that Guangzhou was also a big city and she’d hated it. 

When the taxi stopped at the airport, Ann put a little old wine cup, a small bowl, in my hand. She’d bought the bowl from a street-vendor in Guangzhou who was selling black market antiques in a back alley. Once, probably, the little bowl had been white and blue, but it had aged to a pale green. The hand painted designs of blades of grass swaying in the current of a stream had faded to blue/gray. It was such an ordinary thing, the glaze blistered in a couple of places, a small crack on one side. The ideogram on the bottom of the bowl was simple and very elegantly written. 

The man selling it said the bowl was from the Ming Dynasty and was five hundred years old. I believed that to be true, having, by then, seen hundreds of old Chinese things. He wanted only 5 mao, fifty cents, but he wanted Waiwei qian. I told Ann it was a good deal even though the bowl was small and flawed, the rim chipped through time and use. As the man showed it to us, I wondered about all the lives the bowl had seen, the hands that had held it. Ann bought it.

“You should have this,” she said in the taxi. “You love China with all its ugliness. You don’t mind the political system, the dirt, the brokenness. You should have this cup. It’s not beautiful. It’s like China.” She’d also bought many new and beautiful things, something in carved jade from an exclusive shop in Guangzhou for her parents, something similar for herself. That was Ann’s China. She was right that the worn and chipped old bowl with its long lost stories was my China. 

We hugged each other goodbye, said we’d see each other soon in Denver, and she took what might have been her last flight on an Aeroflot. She returned to China years later, wanting to make peace with the country. She says, now, that she thinks of that miserable, frustrating, dispiriting, and hilarious journey as the greatest adventure of her life. 

We went on to Beijing the next day…

Hainan Island, Part Five, Mr. Shi and the Vietnam War

I was a kid when the Vietnam War started and it followed me into young adulthood. It was an insoluble problem which, as it happens, my dad was involved in solving. He was a wargamer with the Department of Defense which is why we lived in Nebraska for six years. His job was at Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base. Basically, my life was paid for by the Vietnam War. My dad hated the war, and as his job was using game theory to predict various outcomes, and none of the outcomes were good, he was constantly advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff (under JFK) that getting out was a good idea. Good idea, but not very “politic.” It was during JFK’s reign that the US became entrenched in a losing battle.

This went on for years and years and years. We moved to Colorado, dad went to work for NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) and I went to high school, joined speech club (which included debate) and, naturally the topic was whether the US should get out of Vietnam. It wasn’t just debate. There were protests everywhere against the war. Young men left the country to avoid the draft. Others came up with medical conditions to get out of it. Others were legitimate conscientious objectors. Many got a deferment by going to college. Some joined ROTC so they could be officers when they went. Others just joined up. Many more were drafted. The war split the country, alienated family members and changed the nation. Why do we have an all-volunteer military now? So no one can bitch about a war. That’s why.


After the opera we all went to Mr. Shi’s new house. The smoke holes flanking his front door were Chinese characters (featured image), two characters for each smoke hole. They said, “Self-Reliance.” I, of course, heard Ralph Waldo Emerson, but apparently he was quoting Chairman Mao. The explanation for this was very interesting and complicated. Mr. Shi was sending two messages with those smoke holes. One, “I am a good Chinese” the other “I don’t trust any of you. I will take care of myself.”

Mr. Shi was a Malaysian Chinese who’d come back with his family to Hainan when Chairman Mao sent out a call for overseas Chinese to return to rebuild the Fatherland. During the 50’s Mr. Shi worked hard to rebuild the village of All Beauty and worked as a teacher. He had a good education and he spoke English. While English wasn’t desirable at the time, there were times when it was good for the Party to have someone around who could speak and read it. Then came the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and anyone who spoke English or had an overseas background was suspect. Mr. Shi was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. His wife died.

A common story, but continually shocking to me how people spoke of it matter-of-factly because it was an experience shared by so many. “Yes, yes, those were hard times.”

Mr. Shi took us inside, lit the kerosene lamp and offered us coffee. Hainan Coffee is incredible, and I wanted it, but not at night. He made it anyway. Like Vietnamese coffee, it’s usually drunk with sweetened, condensed milk. I was already not sleeping because of the rat and my nausea, but OH WELL. I’m very happy now for each opportunity I had to drink Hainan Coffee. There are some good stories just about the coffee, and I wish I had some now.

We sat around the table and talked. Mr. Shi told us his story (which I’ve just related) and then the topic went to the problem of the Vietnam War.

China invaded some Vietnamese cities in 1979. The situation was incredibly complicated and even after doing some research into it, I can’t follow the players. It’s enough to say, I think, that it was partly a result of the split between Moscow and Beijing. It involved several Cambodian tribal factions and the Khmer Rouge with whom the Chinese were allies, a relationship that had at least to appear to have been abandoned when China decided to normalize relations with the United States. But for years following, there was a Chinese presence in Vietnam and deadly skirmishes on the border. (The linked article is excellent and says everything I didn’t know back in 1983)

It was also something no one was supposed to talk about. But we were on Hainan Island only a few hundred miles away from the border where the action was taking place.

I sat at Mr. Shi’s table in the lamp light and listened to the same arguments I’d heard growing up, in high school, on the news, from anti-war *peers and I thought, “What? I’ve traveled so far to hear THIS conversation?”

“What do you think, Ma Sa?”

“There’s no answer to Vietnam,” I said. “Except leaving them alone.”

My response was shrugged off as typically irrelevant foreigner non-comprehension, and I returned to appreciating the irony.

This song says it all…


*Since my dad was working for the DOD, and Vietnam had paid for my life, put food on my table, paid for my education, and because I believe humans are intrinsically belligerent and power hungry, I had no position on the war other than I believed that if a person was old enough to be forced to carry a gun in defense of whatever, that person should be able to vote. At this point in my life, I think the cleverest thing our government has done is make an all-volunteer military and market it as a “job.” It is no longer reasonable to protest a war since the people fighting it joined up on their own free will.

Hainan Island, Part Four, Opera

All Beauty had no electricity, but when the Hainan Opera came to the village for two nights, they brought a generator. The stage in the village (most villages had stages built for propaganda speeches and plays during Mao) was lit, decorated, transformed. Everyone brought chairs and stools from home. For five fen (cents) we bought funnel shaped paper filled with tiny, salted mussels (popcorn?).

As we settled down to watch, an older man with a crew cut, pulled his chair near ours and greeted our friends. He was an English teacher at the local school. Mr. Shi.

The Chinese audience for Chinese opera (or any concert) never gives the artists their full attention, and following this tradition, Zhu, Fu and Mr. Shi were soon engaged in a very animated conversation. The ex and I hopelessly tried to follow the story on the stage. I couldn’t begin to read the “captions” projected on the side of the stage, Chinese characters. I wasn’t fluent enough to keep up. (One of the wonderful aspects of Chinese is that though there are hundreds if not thousands of different languages spoken in China, everyone writes the same way.)

When I asked my friends what was going on in the opera, Zhu said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just an old culture thing.” Blessings on the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution for that. My friends knew as little as I did about the vivid cacophony on stage

Strangely, maybe, I really liked the opera. The beautiful costumes, the stylized movements punctuated by banging gongs and drums, the makeup, the masks — wondrous. When I came back to the United States I saw several as they traveled the country. My favorite — and the favorite of most Chinese children — is the Monkey King.

Painting of the Monkey King on a ceiling in Beijing

Next — A new angle the Vietnam War

Hainan Island, Part Three: “Ho Gai Da Mi!”

Jim, my ex-husband, likes kids and there were a lot of them in All Beauty. Jim got the idea of learning to say, “What is this?” in Hainanese then letting the kids take him around the village and teach him words.

Everyone was fascinated by his beard. Jim let the kids examine it and then asked them, “Ho gai da mi?”


This went on the our first day on All Beauty. “Ho gai da mi? Ho gai da mi? Ho gai da mi?”

Jim learned words for lots of things. Chest, book, tree, beds, baby, chicken. At dinner the little kids asked their mom/aunt, “They don’t have these things in America? The American doesn’t know what a tree is or a book or anything.”

Our friends told us later and taught Jim to say, “What do you call this?”

I don’t remember that phrase, unfortunately. We did learn a phrase that is absolutely profound and beautiful to express the sensation of having no clue at all about what’s going on, “Ah-kyak-a-looie.” It literally means, “As a baby duck listens to thunder.”

“What Did You Talk About for an Hour with the Old Mother?”

Four Generations

I had some good friends in China but now I know that my best Chinese friend was the old woman in this photo holding the little girl in blue on her lap. She was my friend Zhu’s mother-in-law, simply called, “the old mother.” She was born on Hainan Island, did not speak Mandarin, Cantonese or English. She lived with Zhu and Fu in their one room apartment. Luckily, when their baby was born they got a bigger place to live.

I cannot fully explain our friendship. We just liked each other. One evening I went over to find Zhu. She wasn’t home. I didn’t go back to my apartment, I stayed some time with the old mother looking at movie magazines (in Chinese) and arguing about female beauty as we looked at one movie star after another. I know we were joking. I said I liked every Caucasian actress and she told me all of them were ugly, but especially Ingrid Bergman. We howled laughing. I don’t know why or how, but it was funny in exactly the same way to both of us. All of these women — Asian and Western — were millions of miles away from us.

I liked spending time with her and my friend Zhu always said, “What do you talk about? You have no common language?” I think the truth is that we simply liked each other. I don’t think that’s always a rational thing, that we like someone “because of this and that.” I think sometimes heart speaks to heart.

We were invited to the Old Mother’s village on Hainan for Chinese New Years. The government gave us permission to go. We went on a ship down the Pearl River to the South China Sea, then across the Gulf of Tonkin to Hainan Island. We were in the bottom of the ship with other Chinese passengers. My bunk was 6 inches away from a florescent light that was on all night. When someone asked the old mother why she was traveling with foreigners she said, “What foreigners? This is my son,” she pointed to Jim, “they’ve been studying in America for a long time.”

The saga of that journey is for another post, perhaps, along with other stories about our time on Hainan. But for now know that we made it to the village of All Beauty, Fu’s ancestral village. We even got a rides all the way there (amazing). When we got off the lorry that was our last ride, we had a quarter mile walk to the village. The Old Mother was quite bent from arthritis in her spine caused by the unbelievably hard and colorful life she’d lived, including a stint as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese in WW II. A few yards from the village she stopped. She slowly forced her back to straighten. She took my hand in a gesture of affection, possession and support and forced herself to walk the rest of the way with her back nearly straight. She would not lose face in front of her relatives this way.

We stayed for a week, and the last night, after a delicious meal, the whole family sat in the main room. Everyone was tired from a week of festivities and conversation and showing the foreigners around. We sat in the dim light of a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. The old mother held my hand. I noticed that people were dozing. The little kids were already asleep. “Sleepy,” I said gesturing around the room. “Sleepy.”

The Old Mother looked around and understood me. “Hoile,” she said. Hainanese for “sleepy.”

“Hoile,” I repeated.

“Sleepy,” she said.

Squatter’s Rights in China

It was the normal way to sit in China without putting any body parts on the ground. Anyone in pants squatted beside the road, waiting for the bus. Women in skirts stood demurely. Kids squatted, playing marbles, in the shade of the trees. Men with cigarettes and pants rolled up squatted to play cards. People on their lunch break squatted along the sidewalk with chopsticks and a tin box that held what they’d brought from home or what was served at the canteen. 

It was a squatter’s world, and white people were shut out — too tall, too fat, too, well, white. Our two most effective diplomatic gestures in China of the early 80s were probably our abilities to pick up a single fried peanut with chopsticks and to squat in the shade of a tree enjoying a slice of watermelon. 

The featured photo is of a market in Guangzhou. The guy is washing and selling chicken feet from which he’d make the big Renminbi. Chicken feet are a Chinese delicacy. The rest of the leg? Most of the chicken I ate in China came whole (without feet).