Ritual & Rice

While my best friend Amber was visiting me in China, we took a gamble.

Qingcheng Shān (Qingcheng Mountain) is a well-known tourist destination in these parts. A quick consultation with Dr. Google will provide a bevy of beautiful photographs. But when I called to set up a trip with Mr. Lee, a local English-speaking tour guide, he warned us of the crowded commercialism that would be Qingcheng Shān on a Sunday. He encouraged us to try a different mountain instead.

He painted a pretty picture of Wáng Shān (King Mountain)–bamboo forest at the top, authentic, un-commercialized villages on the descent–so we said yes to the mystery tour. But as soon as I hopped off the phone, doubt swept in. What had we just signed up for?

As usual, my anxieties were unnecessary. Wáng Shān lacks Qingcheng‘s majestic beauty. But the sense that we had broken through the tourist gimmicks into the heart of old China made up for it by a mile.

The view from Wáng Shān summit, a panorama of ancient mountains stretching off into the mists, was soothing to the soul. The bamboo forests were a vibrant, living green, glowing like stained glass. Our glimpses into Chinese village life were unexpected, wondrous.

On our walk down the mountain, we passed garden plots of taro (yù tou) and Chinese sweet potato. We saw hóng jiāo–the red chillies so critical to Sichuan cooking–drying in baskets on house roofs. We stood in the courtyards of 100-year-old homes, where tiny, seemingly-fragile women remained the last bastions of traditional life, as their daughters married out and their sons departed for city universities.

Each of these tiny homes, slowly crumbling back into the mountain from which they’d sprung, came equipped with a loudly barking guard dog. After my husband’s panda bite, I think we were all a little leery. But these dogs were good omens, as they instantly drew the residents from their homes. Incredibly friendly, they were patient as Mr. Lee interpreted for us their commentary on the elements of their agricultural life: The hóng jiāo being dried for chili powder. The drying corn, whose kernels would go to the chickens and whose husks would feed cooking fires. The red banners that paid tribute to long-gone ancestors.

One of the women even invited us into her kitchen. I cannot express how humbled I felt, standing in this simple, dark space where sunlight barely penetrated and two gigantic, deep-bellied woks were the only cooking gadgets. Even typing this now, I think with embarrassment of the times I’ve lamented the lack of garbage disposal in my current apartment; what a petty point upon which to complain. This woman lived so simply, seemed so happy.

I yearned to snap a few photos for you, but couldn’t make myself do it. Somehow it seemed a cheapening of her unhesitating welcome into the heart of her home.

Our party walked on, past road guardian gods and small shrines, past bamboo dappled graves and emergency shelters built to house those made homeless by Sichuan’s devastating 2008 earthquake. We ambled through Xīn Chǎng (“New Market”, though it’s been a long while since this once new market was anything but old) and watched local Chinese people purchase everything from tea to “heavenly money” to be offered to ancestors. It was unbelievable, seeing the number of people who’d driven above an hour from surrounding cities to enjoy the local specialty dishes of whole fried duck and pig’s blood stir fry. Mr. Lee told us hundreds of ducks would be sold during one lunch rush alone.

But the peak of the trip (no pun intended) came for me before we’d even reached the mountain. Above all, I loved watching one village bring in its rice harvest. Perhaps sensing my interest, Mr. Lee made an impromptu stop so we could stroll out into the rice field.

Truly, I can’t articulate how it felt to stand there–like standing in an island of time at once historic and vitally present. I couldn’t believe that I, as a Westerner, was being permitted to step into this moment of critical ritual: the all-important rice harvest, a tradition that has tumbled down through thousands of years of China’s history.

The rice farmers used small sickle-shaped tools, still crafted by the village’s blacksmith. They still wore the bamboo fiber hats so stereotypical of Chinese laborers. The rice was still laid out to dry under the sun on broad bamboo-fiber pallets. Bags of soil and rice were still moved via hand-pulled cart and carrying pole. I had the strangest sense that if I’d stood at the same spot five hundred years earlier, I’d have witnessed just the same sight. It was staggering, the history packed into the ritual of rice.

But far more twilight-zone-like was this: the dueling sense that what I was seeing was simultaneously iconically Chinese (after all, what is more essential to Chinese culture than rice and bamboo?) and deeply yoked to my Texas childhood, as far around the world from Wáng Shān as you can get.

My paternal grandfather (AKA, Papa Mitch) was a rice farmer from central Texas (something that always delights Chinese folks when I share it). My childhood is peppered with my dad’s stories about chasing nutria (river rats) from rice fields and nighttimes spent gigging frogs (sometimes used to feed the pet alligator living in an abandoned washing machine.)

Papa Mitch was about as Texan as it gets. He was a hunter and fisher and the kind of cook who took wild game to gourmet heights. He bequeathed to my mom some of the recipes I hold in highest esteem from my younger years: deep-fried oysters and pan-fried venison. (Yep, that’s a theme you’re sensing.)

What I remember best about Papa Mitch are his elaborately told tales (to him, I attribute my story-telling addiction), his near deafness (the side-effect of a lifelong enjoyment of gun sports), and his big hands, so knotted with callouses, so wise in their own way. If Texas had a human incarnation, it just might be my Papa Mitch.

Standing in central China, I should have felt far, far away from him. But watching as a Chinese community labored to bring in their precious rice harvest, I couldn’t help thinking about my grandfather and father’s hard, honest work doing just the same.

And for a moment, at the base of Wáng Shān, I almost felt home.


One thought on “Ritual & Rice

  1. Oh my gosh. I feel like I was there with you! Thank you so much. The photos are wonderful
    too. Mostly I am impressed with the women and their life and work: more steel magnolias.


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