The frontal lobes of my brain had prepared me for China’s modernity, but somewhere in the lower recesses I half-expected to see flickering shadows of a 3,000-year-old agrarian culture with intact village life, rice paddies, and peasants in pajamas toiling in the fields with oxen.
I hoped in China I would get a chance to at least see some countryside and make contact with something that would offer a hint of Pearl Buck’s rural landscape in The Good Earth.
About a week into the trip we went by bus to Hangzhou, a city of seven million south of Shanghai. Hangzhou is the hometown of a young assistant professor of Chinese at our college we call TZ.
It’s TZ’s first year on the faculty, and the trip was quite a perk. He got to visit China and introduce a group of eager new colleagues to his home.
As the first week of the trip unfolded I realized I had a great deal in common with TZ. Though we are of different generations and diverse cultures, TZ is a writer too. He has a PHD from Berkeley, but what he really wants, he told me as we left Fudan University, was to be “the most famous writer from Hangzhou.”
Forty miles out of Shanghai we finally began to see more of what TZ called “the rural side,” the equivalent of the countryside in the US. We passed a large country market set up under a highway overpass. It stretched on for a long distance under the raised highway. I was disappointed. So far the countryside looked more like a light industrial zone. There was nothing quaint or agrarian about a farmer’s market set up in the shadow of an overpass.
TZ sensed my disappointment, said, “No, the rural side drive is not like drive from Spartanburg to Atlanta.”
We rolled on further and finally what we passed became a more diverse agricultural landscape, a vineyard here, a small chicken farm there, four or five shallow ponds to farm fish, a five-acre fallow winter field, another two acres of small hot houses.
The agriculture is dense and public. The farmers’ houses are all packed together, all two or three story moderns. More like mini-apartment complexes and they still didn’t match my Romantic view of the countryside. I tried to articulate my disappointment. TZ explained the old villages like I wanted to see have been gone for 40 years. “This is a very rich area now with all the industry, so even the farmers live in nice houses.”
TZ has great love of his place of birth, particularly in its literary tradition. “Four of six best writers of the 20th Century come from my province,” TZ said with pride as we approached the city. He said that he writes mostly about Hangzhou and has published a few stories in US Chinese language magazines, but that what he really wants is to put together a book of short stories about contemporary Hangzhou “like Joyce, you know, Dubliners.’’ He said his favorite American writer of the 20th Century is Thomas Wolfe. “You can’t go home again,” he said. “This I know, this day.”
This return home was a big moment for TZ, his first visit back as a professional, not a student anymore. I asked him if his parents read what he writes. “Oh no, I would be afraid for my father to read my stories.”
As we approached Hangzhou we crossed a fairly large river. TZ said, “When I was a kid I always swam in that river.” He smiled a little as if to tell me that maybe it’s not the same now. “I was very liberal when I was young. But now I’m pretty conservative. I hate it that so many people come to my hometown. I can’t even speak my own dialect in my own town now.”
TZ stepped off the bus when we approached downtown. He would go see his parents like a good son. He disappeared down a crowded city street.
As we rolled on into Hangzhou I thought about how different two writers can be. I grew up in a Southern American town in the middle of what many called “the American Century.”
Iwas Thomas Wolf’s doppelganger. Go home? I couldn’t even successfully leave. I tried the Pacific Northwest, New England, the coast of Georgia, and I always came home. I’ve now been “home” for 23 years, teaching at a college that’s a stone’s throw away from where my great-grandparents were married at a textile village church almost a century ago.
TZ teaches half-way around the world from Hangzhou, writing stories about his hometown at the beginning of what some are already calling “the Chinese Century.” Maybe he will write about the great "economic take-off" as seen through the eyes of his own Sino version of Stephen Dedalus. Maybe he will capture the epiphany of swimming in that river in the brief moment just before the soul of China collides with the future.
“Oh lost!” Thomas Wolfe said, dreaming of the past, and longing for literary relief from the present and the future.