This lengthy article, by Ken Kesey, originally appeared in Running magazine (Jan./Feb. 1982, vol. 7 No. 1). With the 1981 Beijing Marathon as the focal point, expect a fascinating look at China as it was opening its doors to the rest of the world after years of secrecy and seclusion, a consequence of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution…”
Reproduced with Permissions by Ken Kesey
Running Into the Great Wall
by Ken Kesey
Yang was a minority boy from an outlying
province in China when a mysterious invitation to
represent his country in the Beijing Marathon ran
him into the alien world of travel, international
competition, free-wheeling American
journalists and more.
Scraps of verse appearing here are snatched from various translations of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. This most venerable of all Chinese classics gave impetus to dozens of different philosophies and movements over scores of centuries, the most recent probably being the Beat movement of the fifties, inspiring Snyder, Ginsberg, Kerouac, etc. An older contemporary of Confucius (55-479 B.C.), Lao Tzu was the historian in charge of archives in the province of Chou in Western China. He wrote nothing of his own but taught by example and parable. Myth and tradition have it that, as the famous sage was at last departing his homeland for the mountains of his end, the keeper of the mountain pass detained him, begging: Master, my duties as sentry of this remote outpost have made it impossible for me to visit your teachings. As you are about to leave the world behind, could you not also leave behind a few words of wisdom for my sake?
Whereupon the Lao Tzu sat down and filled two small books with 81 short verses, less than some 5,000 characters, and then departed. No one ever heard where he went.
There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void,
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of giving birth to the world.
I know not its name
So I style it ‘the way …
Man models himself on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.
The dark was already pressing down out of the eastern sky when Yang at last swung off the main road from the village and opened up for his finishing sprint down the canal path. A hundred and thirty meters away, at the end of the row of low mud and brick houses crouching along both sides of the dirt lane, his uncle’s dwelling was tucked back beneath two huge acacias. A large estate compared to the other 10-by-10 yards with huts, the building housed his uncle’s denture-and-cycle-repair service, as well as his uncle’s wife and their four children, his uncle’s wife’s ancient father, who was Yang’s grandfather and an inveterate pipe-smoker and wind-breaker and giggler, also Yang’s mother and Yang’s three sisters, and usually a client or two staying over on one of the thin woven mats to await the repair of their transportation or recuperate from the repair of their molars.
Yang could not see the house as he ran toward the looming acacias, but he could easily visualize the scene. The light would already have been moved from above the evening meal to the dishwashing, and the family would have moved to the television in the shop room, trying to find places among the packing crates of dental molds and the benches strewn with greasy tools. The only light would be the blue flutter of the tiny black and white screen, softly beating at the dark like the wings of a moth. Yang knew just how they would look, cramped in the clutter of the room, faces fluttering as they silently watched the broadcast. His uncle would be in the dentist chair, cranked and tilted and swiveled to the position of optimum comfort, a cigarette cupped in his stubby hand, his shirt front open. His wife would be perched beside him on her nurse’s stool. On the floor in half lotus, Grandfather would be leaned forward, giggling, his long pipe only inches from the electric face on the screen. Farther back his four cousins and his two youngest sisters would be positioned about the paraphernalia on the floor, trying to sit straight and appear interested in the reports of flood victims along the Yangtze and how the disaster might affect the rice and wheat quotas. Along the rear wall, at the raised cot, his oldest sister would be preparing the infants for the night, wrapping their bottoms and wiping their noses then sliding them, one after the other, onto the pad beneath the cot. The bird would be hung near the door, covered against evening drafts.
“The dark was already pressing down
out of the eastern sky when Yang at last
swung off the main road from the
village and opened up for his finishing
sprint down the canal path.
In the other room his mother would be cleaning the dishes, as quietly as possible.
His uncle would be angry that Yang was late again, but nothing would be said. A quick scowl turned from the television. No reprimand. No questions. They would all know where he had been. They knew the only dalliance he could afford besides his athletics, was the public library. For one-half fen a reader could rent two hours on a wooden bench, and there enjoy silence and the kind of privacy a library creates, even when the benches were packed, reader to reader. Then he could take a book home after.
Yang had hoped to borrow one of the new editions of Lu Hsun, issued and widely distributed in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the great writer’s birth but all the publicity had excited many other fans and the books were already on loan. Yang was reduced to choosing from older works. He had chosen Wang Shih-fu’s Romance of the Western Chamber. It was his father’s favorite and his father had continued to teach it during all the criticism of the “slave-ridden classics.” While it was no longer branded counterrevolutionary, such works were still shunned by teachers and students alike. Indeed, the last loan date on Western Chamber was almost three years ago. The last borrower was his father.
Without slackening his stride, Yang pushed the book into his trouser tops and buttoned his Chou En-lai jacket over it. Not that the uncle would not know it was there, of course. He almost certainly would. Therefore it was not that he was concealing it, Yang told himself. He carried it in his belt, under his shirt, to have both hands free, for his balance. For his sprint.
Fists clenched, he pumped hard against the descending gloom, trusting the memory of his feet to avoid the rocks and ruts in the dark path. He could have run it -blindfolded, he felt, and never tripped, and even calculated his position by the sounds and smells-Gao Jian’s machine sewing there to the left; Xiong-and-son’s honey wagons parked in reeking rows, ready for the next day’s collections; half-wit Wi snoring with his sows … He ran harder.
He was small for his 19 years, with narrow sloping shoulders and hips, and thin, long ankles and wrists. But his thighs were thick and blocky and his upper arms very strong from the weight work at wrestling. Beneath the book his belly was as hard as a slab of carved oak. He was in good shape. He had been running home from school every night for almost four years.
With a final burst of speed he ducked beneath the curtain of acacia and into the yard of his uncle’s shop. He stumbled to a stop in wide-eyed wonderment. Everything was still lit! The whole house! He gaped in surprise. Even the bulb above the false teeth-still lit! A sudden, sharp cramp spurred him into a dash again. Something had happened to his mother! Or one of his sisters! He didn’t go to the gate but hurdled the mudhedge and rattled across the brick pile in a strangle of anxiety. He charged through the door and the empty front room, and stopped at last at the curtain across the kitchen. Shaking, he pulled aside the dingy batik and peered inside. Everyone was still at the dinner table, the chopsticks clean beside the best plates, the vegetables and rice still steaming in the platters. Yang blinked. Every head was already turned to him, smiling. His uncle stood, a tiny glass of clear liquid in each hand. He offered one to Yang and lifted his in toast:
“To our little Yang,” his uncle declared, the big mouth beaming porcelain pride, “Ganbei!”
Everyone except Yang tossed the swallow of liquid into their mouths. He could only stand blinking as the girls tittered and the boys grinned. His mother came around the table, her eyes shining.
“Yang … son, forgive us. We have opened your letter.”
She handed him an elaborately inscribed paper with the official seal of the People’s Republic embossed at the bottom.
“You have been invited to go to Beijing and race. Against runners from all over the world . . . ”
Before Yang could look at his letter his uncle had refilled his own empty glass with the last of an extravagant bottle of Mao tai and was touching its rim to Yang’s. “It is going to be televised by the Japanese. It will be seen all over the world and China. By millions and millions. “Ganbei!”
Yang started to drink then lowered the glass. “What kind of race?”
“The greatest kind. The longest kind-”
That must be a marathon, Yang realized. A marathon. He swallowed the strong rice liquor and felt it blaze its way past his lungs to his stomach. He had never ran a marathon, not even half a marathon. How had they picked him?
“All over the world,” his uncle was saying. “‘By millions and millions-!”
“Your father would have been so proud,” his mother added.
Then Yang understood. The provincial chairman of sports had been a friend and colleague of his father; an old friend, and a man of honor and loyalty, if not too much courage. It was surely he that had recommended young Yang. A kind of compensation, a clean-up for things that had happened.
“He would have gone to the square and played his violin for the citizens, Yang. He would have been that proud.”
Yang didn’t say so but he thought that it would certainly take more than a televised footrace.
When the best student hears about
He practices it assiduously;
When the average student hears about the way
It seems to him one moment there and gone the next;
When the worst student hears about the way
He laughs out loud.
If he did not laugh
It would not be worthy of being the way.
“The building housed his uncle’s
denture-and-cycle repair service, as
well as his uncle’s wife and their four
children, his uncle’s wife’s ancient
father, and Yang’s mother
and three sisters.”
“For decades, China has been so
shielded, so secretive, that the rest of
the world has not been able to find a
foible or flaw to hook a joke on.”
The American journalists sipped their free drinks in the high rent, too low, bent double, nearly gagging, deep throat divans of the Pan American Clipper Club room, an exclusive lounge located above the lesser travelers of the San Francisco International Airport terminal Exclusive indeed. Not only did one need to know of its esteemed existence and whereabouts, one needed as well to produce evidence of acceptable prestige before gaining entry. While the journalists were not exactly first class, they were in the company of those who were. This was enough to get them to the secret door, past the doorman and into the free booze, deep divans and business chat.
“How do you visualize,” a business chatter insisted on knowing, “hanging this gig on a hook? … so it is not just another report of another dumb road race? I mean to ask what are you looking for?”
The chatter was a ranking businessman in the business that was backing the magazine that was paying for this journalistic jaunt to China, so everyone acknowledged his right to be a trifle insistent.
“The hook I have in mind,” answered the first of the journalists, a large, athletic type who sported a neat beard and was the editor of said mag as well as originator of the’ jaunt and felt, therefore, obliged; “is sport as d’et’ente. Remember, it wasn’t really Nixon or Kissinger who initially broke through the bamboo curtain; it was the Ping-Pong ball. Who can distrust a Ping-Pong ball? This race, I believe, is intended to be an even bigger display of d’et’ente; the first international sporting event in China since before World War 11. To me, that has real meaning …
Meaning, he really had no idea at all what to hang it on. Something had to be said, though, and while the ranking executive did have a right to ask, the right to actually know was something else.
The editor was reminded of a statement of Arthur Miller’s he had read in preparation for this trip; after an extensive examination of current Chinese thought and climate and demographics, the great American playwright had concluded, “Anyone who thinks he understands China is a fool.”
The second journalist, even larger than the first, allowed that he thought his angle on the event would be-he stopped, muscled his brow and lifted his eyes in a Brandoesque attitude of heavy consideration.
“Let me think a minute,” he begged. He turned to the third man. “What about you, Brian? You’re the photog of the team; you must have an angle in mind?”
The third American journalist was the largest of all-absolutely enormous, with big hips and big shoulders and big blue eyes, and an even more monstrous camera hanging over his belly. The device had a bulky automatic film roller on the bottom and an automatic light meter on the top that resembled an airscoop on the hood of a souped-up four-barrel Chevy drag wagon. The lens looked like something Hitler had ordered built to shell the British across the channel.
“Of course I can’t really take any point pictures until my editor and writer come up with something to make a point with, can IT’ was the way the third journalist avoided the question. “I can tell you this, though: I will not be a quote tourist unquote. There have been enough shots of pagodas and temples and lotus ponds to paper the Great Wall. I plan to avoid that. I want to get right into the kernel of the people and their everyday lives. Who they are, what they feel, where they shit and how they shave. The Chinese nitty glitty, that’s what I’m looking for.”
The eyes turned back to the second journalist; his limbered brow indicated he might be ready with his response.
“Have you noticed,” was the way he started circling around to it, “how many good ethnic jokes are making the rounds lately? Not just Polish jokes, and not just cheapshot slurs, but good clean bullseyes at a variety of deserving targets?”
“Probably a side effect of the resurgence of racism,” was the businessman’s impatient analysis.
“No, no, no,” number two journalist protested. “It isn’t that. Let me show you what I mean . . . ”
He scooted forward out of the collapse of the divan and took a long pull from his free gin-and-tonic, preparing his lungs and throat for a topic that obviously fascinated him.
“I believe-and I got this from a black buddy, Arzinia, a good ol’ bass player and bullshooter- that there are only two races. The Men and The Women. Everything else is tribal-Jews, Texans, loggers and so forth. So when you tell a sexist joke, you are really being a racist, and vice versa. Now racist jokes are dull and dumb, and tell you more about the teller than the butt. For example: What do you get when you put a black in a blender? Answer: a nig-nog. Now see that says nothing at all about the joke’s target. About the dimwit behind’the trigger, however, it tells you a great deal. Not only is he dull, dumb and probably paranoid, he is as undiscerning a marksman as he is a jokester. He’s flock shooting, blowing B.B.’s in as broad a pattern as his scattergun will blast, to be sure of hitting something.”
Everybody had to nod at this and take a solemn sip in tribute to the notion, whatever it was, and let it roll on:
“A good, ethnic joke, on the other hand, needs a clear head, a keen eye and a certain talent for wing shooting. It must relate directly and perceptively to the tribe of its butt at the time of the joke’s telling-all honorable targets are moving, targets-or the joke becomes a joke on the jokester. Example from the past: ‘Good gawd Mort, you look terrible! I thought that hunting trip to California woulda perked you up. Didn’t you bag no trophies?’
“‘I did, Doc. That’s the trouble. I shot and slew a creature so strange and vile and upsetting that I left it where it lay and come straight home with the shakes.’
… What’d it look like, Mort?’
… Wal it was shortish, and hairy, with a big runny nose and great long toenails, and it smelt like hell. . .’
. “‘Good gawd, boy; you kilt an Oakie!'”
No response. Except a blink from the businessman, who had once been a coach at Oklahoma State and currently had a son and daughter enrolled there in business and pre-med; he moved up out of the deep crump of the divan to get a better look at this journalist about ready to represent his company’s publication. He hoped they hadn’t hired another Hunter S. Thompson…
“See?” said the journalist, “Nothing. Worked in the thirties, maybe, when the grapes were in wrath. In the eighties, nothing.” Taking the businessman’s edge-of-the- seat attention for admiration, he directed his next example at him:
“Now here’s a good ethnic joke from last year: What do they call a first offender in Iran?”
“I give up,” the businessman had to reply; “What?”
“Lefty. And here’s an example of last season’s Polish joke now no longer relevant: What’s the motto of the Polish Union?”
“I give up, what?”
“Every man for himself. Doesn’t work so good this season, does it, because of Solidarity’s stance against the Russians? Okay, here’s an example of this season’s good Polish shot with a little combination bank off the Italians.” He directed this one at the stewardess, whose interest seemed to be wandering. “You hear the Pope got shot again?”
“Mother of God, no! What happened?”
“The Vatican hired the Polish Secret Police to re-enact the crime.”
Laughter, finally, from the businessman. The stewardess, clutching her crucifix, didn’t think it was that funny.
“I didn’t think that was funny.”
He kept after her. “Here’s this season’s hottest Irish joke: What do you do if an Irishman throws a pin at you?”
“I give up,” the girl answered through a wary smile, “What?”
“Run. He’s probably still got the grenade in his mouth.”
This time she laughed along. The journalist concluded she wasn’t an Irish Catholic after all and re-holstered his wit, many Irish bullets still unfired.
“Anyway. The successful ethnic joke must work out of mutually shared information pool, is my point, and the pool must be relatively fresh. All three participants, joke-teller, tellee and butt, should be able to appreciate the humor.” He bored on toward his conclusion. “It is for this reason, as far as I have been able to conclude, that there are no Chinese jokes! Think about it? Anybody know any Mao jokes? Any Gang of Four jokes?”
Everybody thought about it. Nobody knew any.
“For decades the place has been so shielded, so secretive, that the rest of the world has not been able to find a foible or flaw to hook a joke on. Nor will a graft take. Take this joke for example: What’s Jewish foreplay consist of? Thirty minutes of begging. Now substitute ‘Chinese’ for ‘Jewish’. See? Meaningless, thus unfunny.”
His point secure, he took another swallow and slid back into the divan.
“That’s one of the things about a curtain of bamboo: It gets so thick so quick. A few short years, you can’t see a thing through it. No characteristic idiosyncrasies. No quirks. No rotten spots. No way to get in a good zinger because no soft ethnic underbelly has been exposed, yellow or otherwise.”
“Until now?” asked the editor, relieved at the way his man had wiggled through a sticky situation.
“Right. Until now. Maybe. Now they are sponsoring this big prestigious marathon with top runners from all over the globe, even though the best Chinese marathoner is slower by many minutes than the times of the most mediocre from the rest of the racing world. This may be the crack in the curtain the jokester has been waiting for. Remember what your secretary gave as a possible reason for their poor times? That maybe it was because they had to take a lot more steps than normal runners.”
“Not much of a joke,” the editor judged.
“Nope. Not a great joke for man, perhaps, but it could be the first little step for a whole hell of a lot of mankind.. .”
The speaker over the bar crackled. “Pan Am’s Clipper flight for Beijing now available for boarding,” a soft, Georgia Peach drawl advised; “Y’all have a nice trip.” The journalists rushed to finish their drinks.
“Calm yourself, guys,” the stewardess informed the trio, herself calmly unfolding from her seat and straightening her skirt. “You get free booze in business class, too.”
In his every movement a man of
Follows the way and the way only.
As a thing the way is
Shadowy, indistinct. Indistinct and shadowy,
Yet within it is an image;
Shadowy and indistinct,
Yet within it is a substance, Dim and dark,
Yet within it is an essence,
And this is something that can be tested.
From the present back to antiquity
Its name never deserted it.
It serves as a means for inspecting the
fathers of the multitude
How do I know what the fathers of the
multitude are like?
By means of this.
In the dew-laden dawn outside of one of Tanzania’s 8000 ujamaa villages, tall, handsome Agapius Mason (best time: 2:20:46) sat beside the road on his wicker suitcase. He was waiting for the local bus that would take him to the central station in Dar es Salaam where he was to meet his coach for the ride to the airport. The so-called Dawn Express Local was already tardy by nearly 40 minutes of daylight and Agapius would not be surprised if it became later by twice that time, and twice again, before the bus arrived. His coach and trainer would then be forced to proceed on to China without their athlete, with no certainty of another flight until after the race.
How so like the Tanzania of recent, he thought forlornly; with such a teetering bureaucracy that everybody gets in on the race but the runner. Even the most avid supporters of President Nyerere’s socialistic progress were beginning to admit that the nation’s economic strife was caused by more than increased oil prices and recent droughts and floods. Oil prices had increased for all nations; droughts and floods had always been. And if sweeping socialist reform had brought clean tap water to half of the villages and increased life-expectancy by 20 percent in a decade, it still took often as long as two years to install the few connecting pipes that would bring that pure water to the kitchen sinks; and what was the joy in a longer life when the warm traditional tribal amenities and respect toward the aged was as rare as the old stylized drum-dances?
As much as the race itself, Agapius was looking forward to visiting the People’s Republic of China. If the dream were to live, reaffirmation must be found there, in the mightiest stronghold of the Third World experiment. Everybody knew there was no juice in Russia any more, no kuntu as the Bantu put it. No baraka, as the Arabs would say. And the boat loads hysterical to escape Cuba and Haiti for the capitalistic coasts of Florida did not speak well of Castro’s collective. But China… ahh, China… surviving Mao’s madness as well as Brezhnev’s belligerence if great China could not accomplish it, perhaps it could not be accomplished.
He heard a motor and stood to wave at the approaching headlights. It was not the bus. It was a loaded sisal truck that had encountered the bus miles back, stuck crossways in the middle of the tiny road, front wheels in one ditch, backwheels in the other. The bus had been turning around to return to pick up the week’s mail for the village that the driver had forgotten.
One of the truck’s drivers boosted Agapius’ luggage to the top of the load of fiber and invited him to join it for the ride on to the city. They would have invited him into the cab but, in the nation’s battle against rampant unemployment, there were now three drivers required in every vehicle of transport, whether they could drive or not.
Agapius thanked them and climbed the heap of fibers. How particularly Tanzanian-three men in a clean cab in filthy work aprons; one on top in the blowing white fluff in the only suit the family owned, black …
In Lowell, Massachusetts, Bobby Hodge (P.R. 2:10:59) decided to pack his doggy copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, after all. He knew he wouldn’t read it-except on the plane a little, perhaps-but he liked the idea of taking Jack to China, as a favor from one old Lowell athlete to another….
In their house outside Yi Sichuan, Yang was idly studying mathematics. He had less than a week before the trip to Beijing and his instructors at school had decided he could best prepare for his absence by staying home and studying on his own. From the other room came the whir of his uncle’s motorcycle motor as he drilled away at the days collection of cavities. The motor blanketed the occasional groans his patients sometimes made in spite of the bristle of anesthetic needles in the neck and arms.
Yang was seated on a box at the table near the window. If the sun had been out it would have fallen across his high-boned face and bare shoulders, but it was overcast. It had been overcast for days. Weeks. Since before the floods.
His sister came in from the rear door carrying a fan of green leaves and dumped them in a large kettle of cold water, singing as she went elaborately from task to task. Yang recalled the stanza she was singing. It was from a skit all the girls in his sister’s primary had learned and performed for National Day a year ago. The girls had learned the song from a play that was mailed out to all the primaries, a short musical dramatization emphasizing the value of early warning and treatment of stomach cancer, China’s number one killer. His sister had stopped attending school after that year, speaking of plans to join the People’s Liberation Army and journey with the service. Now she washed and dried cabbage leaves and stacked them beside her aunt’s wok-delicately, with the extravagance of fantasy play, as though arranging expensive silks-while she sang:
Esophageal cancer must be thoroughly
The pernicious influence of the Gang
of Four must be wiped out.
Putting prevention first is very important
Thus we prevent and treat cancer for
How very fine, Yang agreed without raising his head from the New Math worktext; how commendable. But please explain if possible how one uses the principles of Prevention First when dealing with the diseases of the revolution itself? Wouldn’t the very cure be dangerously counterrevolutionary?
He closed the big paperback on his finger and turned to watch his sister sing beneath the bird hanging caged above her. She was long turned 15 and rounding out rapidly. Soon, someone-one of the women, his mother or his aunt or the bus mistress who also served as the unit leader-would have to accompany the girl to their communal market for her first undergarment. This would be a heavy cotton binding, designed not so much for support as to forestall decadent fancies among the men of the village and, incidently, slow population growth. In five years the binding would’ have been so permanent that Yang would not be able to pick her from a dozen her same age if they were lined up 30 steps away-the same white shirt, the same black pants, the same pigtails … perhaps that was why she wanted to join the PLA; if the uniforms were always ill-fitting and baggy they at least were less uniform than what all the other girls her age would be wearing.
Now his sister sung and swayed in unfettered innocence, still flushing with the red glow of patriotism. Yang could recall the sensation, a vibrating, a thrill to be part of something vast and exciting. He could remember feeling that his blood was beating in cadence with everyone in the village and town, to a great shared rhythm. When he was nine, he remembered, there had come a dreadful plague of flies throughout all the land. To deal with the problem their mighty chairman had done a mighty and yet simple thing. Mao had launched an edict proclaiming that while it was not required it would be a very good thing if all the schoolchildren in all the schools in all the land should bring to their schoolteachers every morning 10 dead flies. Yang remembered how he had dedicated himself to the chore with all the fervor of a warrior of old serving his emperor. He spent hours each afternoon stalking the pestiferous foe with a rolled newspaper. slaying scores past 10. Hundreds-thousands!-poured each morning from his paper cone into the teacher’s waiting tray. And everywhere other boys were turning in comparable kills, not out of competition or desire for recognition, but out of cooperation! In less than a month the flies were gone, everywhere, all across China. Each school room was sent an official red silk pennant to hang in the window and Yang had been filled with the sort of pride and wonder that made national songs rise to the throat.
Then he learned from the biology teacher in pre-middle that the year preceding the Great Fly Kill had been the year of the Great Sparrow Kill. Mao had learned from his advisors that there were such-and-so many wild birds in China and, during a year’s life, each bird could be calculated to eat at least this-and-that much grain. Which came to a whole lot. So Mao had edicted that all the kids should go out beneath all the trees where all the birds roosted, and beat clappers all night every night until they roosted no more. After three nights the birds were all dead from exhaustion and irritation. All across China! How very impressive and commendable. Except that, in the seasons after the birdless year, there were all those flies …
No, the slogan songs no longer brought the old beat of pride to Yang’s blood. Though he still enjoyed hearing it ring in his sister’s clear, high voice, he feared it was gone from him forever, that pride, cold and gone.
But not the wonder, he was glad to say. Not that. For instance, what had all those school teachers in all those classrooms all across China done with all those dead flies?
He who is fearless in being bold will
meet with his death;
He who is fearless in being timid will
Of the two, one leads to good, the
other to harm.
Heaven hates what it hates,
Who knows the reason why?
It would be his last workout. The special trainer assigned him by the academy had advised him to keep his customary fervor in check. But, as always, when he reached this feeble cotton field with its nine grassy pyramids, Yang veered off the packed red ruts and went hurdling through the ragged rows. He headed for the tallest of the mounds. He didn’t know the name of the huge escarpment, only that it was a feng, one of a multitude of false tombs built across his province centuries ago by sly emperors hoping to thwart desecration by thieves, or excavation by the perfidious future.
It must have either been a successful ruse-Yang had never seen one of the ancient mounds disturbed-or a futile folly; leaks from the surviving royal court could have led grave robbers directly to the true tomb.
He did not look behind him. He knew the rest of the team was far back, out of sight past the turn at the canal, still jogging in and out of the swaying buses and honking taxis and 10-ton trucks filled with soldiers; and the horse and donkey carts carting bokchoi and corn from the fields to the town and fertilizer from the town’s honey pools back to the fields; and the little trailers pulled by compact two-wheeled walking tractors that unhitched to become cultivators; and the 12 cylinder diesel tractors pulling the big trailers groaning under loads of the dark red earth assigned to relocation; and the bicycles.
The bicycles, bicycles, bicycles.
All left behind, with the rest of the team, back on the main road. The way Yang liked it. The only runner out ahead of him was his friend Zhoa Chengchun. Zhoa and Yang had pulled quickly away from the others back on the highway, but at the canal turn Yang had slackened his stride to allow Zhoa to run on: ahead.
“Chi oh!” he had urged his friend, pretending to pant with exhaustion. “Chi oh. ” Pour on the gas.
To have kept up would not have been respectful. Zhoa was nearly four years his senior and already a member of the academy. Zhoa was the hometown hero and the provincial marathon champion. His time of 2:19 was second only to the 2:13 of Chinese record-holder, Xu Liang. Yang felt he could have matched Zhoa’s pace for many more kilometers, but he did not wish to show a discourtesy. He let him run on.
Besides, Yang liked to have this part of his workout to himself.
His sprint took him past the gaggle of young girls working to salvage some of the season’s rain-ravaged cotton, then along the dirt dike to the irrigation ditch. Without slowing he long-jumped across the shallow, coffee-brown stream, his feet churning the air. His landing startled a small hare from the brush along the bank. Yang called after the zigzagging animal “Chi oh you too, long ears,” and he heard the girls laugh behind him.
He sprinted on to the steep path at the corner of the feng, then slowed cautiously. It had drizzled again that morning and the worn dirt would be slick. Shortening his stride, he sought out clumps of ribbonweed and purple daisies for traction. The last thing he wanted to do before tomorrow’s trip was slip and fall on the red mud. Not that he was concerned about injury-he had never been hurt, in any of his sports-but to soil the brand new, light blue, French made warm-ups sent him by his sponsors in Beijing, that would have been more than discourteous. That would have been close to traitorous.
The climb made his heart quicken in his ears and brought a light beadwork of sweat to his lower lip. That was good. He did not perspire easily, even in this French suit of artificial fibers, and he needed a sweat to flush the poisons and rinse his head. He ran harder.
When he at last achieved the flattened 10 meter square at the peak of the dirt pyramid, he was sweating hard and his panting was no longer feigned. Still, he did not rest. To keep the juices steaming, he went immediately into his taijiquan routine. He did all the traditional maneuvers plus some his father had created-“Stand By to Kick Monkey Nuts” and “Feed the Dog That Bites You”-then moved on to the new national routine, the one that had been instituted since the fall of the Gang. Much like football warm-ups – jumping jacks, toe touches, neck twists. After these exercises he commenced scurrying around the little earth square in a hunching crouch, shadow-wrestling. He was a good wrestler. The summer before he had placed third in the Torch Festival in his age/weight, and for a time his instructors at middle school wished him to concentrate on that sport, leave distance running to those with longer legs. He demurred but kept in wrestling shape. When there was a wedding in the village he was the one called on by the bride’s family for the traditional bout with the bridegroom’s supporters. The families knew he could make a good showing against the surrogate suitors and, more important, when pitted against the groom himself, Yang could be counted on to lose.
“He didn’t know the name of the huge
escarpment, only that it was a feng, one
of a multitude of false tombs built
across his province centuries ago.”
He finished off his workout with 40 fast push-ups from his fingertips, the way his instructors had made him learn, then 40 fast sit-ups, hammering his stomach muscles as he finished.
He forced his mind to calm as he pounded the familiar knots from his abdomen. What was to worry? No one expected victory. No one threatened reprisal. Only continuity was required. Run from here to there and back. Who could not achieve, having been called?
His fists finally drove out the embolism and at last he fell back, the clean clothes forgotten, and sent his breathing up into the sky. It was all one color. There had been no sign of the sun all day. There would be no stars again all night. For- months now the sky had shut them out, the air itself pressing like a heavy pewter lid on a shallow pot. It gave him no pleasure, this sky.
He rolled over and sat up so he was looking out over the eastern face of the mound. He gazed past the other eight fengs, over the checkerboard grid of cotton and cabbage and corn, in the direction Zhoa had informed him that they would fly tomorrow to reach Beijing, thousands of miles away.
Yang could not conceive of such a distance. Neither could he imagine that there were vast stretches between, of towering mountains and terrible gorges, huge regions, Zhoa had claimed, where no one lived. No green fields crawling with work units like aphids on a rose leaf; no smoky jam of noisy huts; no roads, no bicycles, no people. Just lifeless space, the way it was on the rare winter evenings when the clouds were driven south by the cold and the long flank of the night between his bed window and the stars was laid naked.
Where no one lives, Yang marvelled; such a thought! Even here, seated in dim solitude at the top of the feng, Yang did not feel that he was truly alone. The noise of civilization reached him on the conducting damp air from every direction, near and distant. The far off hum and honk of the town, the nearby prattle of the girls in the cotton-it was all one to him. Evidence of human effort in every direction.
He heard the girls laugh again and stretched to see over the weeds. The other runners were approaching at last along the road, meeting Zhoa on his way back from the turn-around. The girls laughed at the way the puffing stragglers grabbed at Zhoa’s belly to make him smile. Everyone like to tease Zhoa so they could see his smile. It was spectacular. He had been blessed with an extra tooth, diamond-shaped, right between his two regular front teeth. Healthy, too, his uncle had said of the phenomenon. Healthy and bright; it made his smile seem doubly wide. Yang could see it flash even from his distant seat.
The giggling suddenly ceased and Zhoa’s smile fled. Looking back up the road, Yang saw the reason: three rough looking young men coming down the ruts behind the team, laughing. They were carrying shotguns and examining footprints, pretending that they were on the trail of the runners. A joke, certainly, but no one except the three with guns laughed. Zhoa ran past the three faces without looking at them.
These were not ordinary hunters. Their unkept hair and loud swagger revealed that they were what were called labor-toughs, a growing cadre of semidelinquents who had eschewed education for the fields or the factories, and the hidden fantan cellers. Red red-necks. Their attitude toward the pampered students was well known. Especially sport students. There had been skirmishes and the toughs had promised more. Pampered people loping nowhere was contrary to the spirit of the true Revolution, was their claim, as well as a thorn in the side of honest workers. Competitive track was just another sign of Western decadence creeping into Revolutionary China in the garb of physical education! Let comrades seeking exercise take up the shovel, and let the capitalist pigs have their pig races against each other. That is what the Chairman would have said, and that is what the Chairman would have done!
Only in the last few years had competition become acceptable enough to come out into the open. It was like the hidden pets. Bird owners could be seen again, walking their singing cages through the parks. And just this morning his sister had told Yang that she had seen a woman who worked at the Friendship Hotel carrying a cat. It was still unacceptable to purchase a pet, but his sister said the animal had been shipped as a gift to the hotel by a recent guest from London, so the unit leader had told the staff they could keep it.
“Can you imagine?” his sister had wondered, “A live cat from a foreign land, sent to you free?”
Only with difficulty, Yang thought, trying to reconcile in his mind such ironies as loud young reactionaries and free foreign cats and ancient false tombs. For example, it had always been an irony to him that these fengs, the forced effort of Thousands of slaves thousands of years ago afforded him the loftiest feelings of Freedom he had ever known.
Except for, of course, running. If you ran far enough you could get away. For a while. So, it almost seemed that freedom came as a result of forced effort, as though the brain needed the minions of the legs and lungs and heart to find the way of separation, of solitude. Yes, only with some amount of difficulty could one reconcile that way, so meandering and obtuse and contradictory, with the straight Party Line.
Suddenly his reverie was shattered by an explosion, then two more, then a final blast. “He was on his feet, scanning the rows and ditches below. Early National Day firecrackers? The backfire of a tractor working late?
He saw the three hunters, running along the base of his feng, laughing and shouting and waving their guns. The leader, the one with the longest locks and the biggest gun, bent to the cotton rows and lifted his prize high by the ears. The hindquarters were blown entirely away but the animal still lived, uttering long thin whistles and pawing the air to the delight of the hunters. The girls turned in horror down to the scant cotton, and Yang sat back … to wait for the men to leave so he could come down from his mound and return to the village. He wrapped his arms around his stomach, shivering.
It was all extremely difficult to reconcile.
During their long layover in Tokyo’s Narita Airport, the three men watched each other guardedly over the plastic cups of Japanese beer, the way old gunfighters must have watched and recognized and silently sized up potential opponents.- The two tall men were Sweden’s and Norway’s sole marathon entries, blond, grim Kjell Erikstahl (2:13:44) and dark-eyed Inge Simonsen (2:11:48) (2:11:48) from Norwav. Each had heard of the other and each suspected that he was who they were sharing a beer and a bar rail with. It took the third man, Australia’s Chris Wardlaw (2:11:55), short-legged and curly-bearded, his tan face gullied by age and the cutback elements, to break the ice:
“It wouldn’t likely be you chaps are footracers, now would it?”
In the packed streets of Hong Kong the whole Japanese team (seven in all, dressed sharp for the night, with not-great times from 2:14:00 to 2:16:18) went tumbling and laughing from sidewalk to sidewalk. They had been in China a week already, visiting dozens of famous places, having good times-even if they didn’t have great times. They were as young and frisky as a troupe of traveling otters, and they all had flashy new cameras around their necks, and they were tumbling through life abroad as a team, looking for a whorehouse or an opium den or a hatchet murder. They knew how to stick together and enjoy a trip …
In the customs terminal of the Beijing Airport, the American journalists fidgeted nervously through the forms and waited for their bags to be examined, feeling that sudden gulp of realization that Yanks always get with their first breaths of communist atmosphere, that “They-can-getcha-and-keep-ya!” gulp wondering and worrying about the copy of Oriental Hustler among the shirts, the stashed gold Krugerrands and methedrine in the shaving bag … when out of nowhere, to their rescue and relief, came an ominous Chinese drugstore cowboy with a tight smile and a wallet full of official cards. He introduced himself as Wun Mude, from China Sports Service, and gave them each a stiff handshake and a sheath of diplomatic documents. He rattled a few phrases in Chinese to the brown-suited Red Guards, and the bags were snapped shut and the three journalists whisked past the long line and the immigration officer, and they were outside.
“Always good to know somebody in city hall,” journalist number one observed. Mude merely smiled and motioned toward a waiting van.
“If you please.”
And the atmosphere outside, the Americans all then noticed, was as darkly oppressive, as it had been inside the terminal. Like a lid. . .
In his tiny double room at the compound for Chinese entries, Yang lay exhausted and sleepless after the day’s flight in the old Russian turboprop. It had not been the lofty joyride he had expected, this first trip off the earth. The old airplane hag been noisy and drafty, the seats uncomfortably confining and the windows too small. At first he had been thrilled by the great mountains, so steep and forbidding and wild-looking. But when he examined the range through the field glasses passed him by his father’s old colleague, he saw that the terrible slopes were carved into hundred’s of descending steppes, horizontal earth held by vertical walls, agricultural terraces, chiseled into the mightiest of the peaks even, all for the sake of a little more arable area, for another precious ton of corn or trailer load of cabbage.
Now, tossing in his narrow bed, he wished he had never looked. Everytime he looked away from the dim transom light and closed his eyes to try to sleep, he saw those terraced mountainsides, each few inches of soil and few feet of retaining wall the result of so many hard hands and years …
A large state is the lower
reaches of a river –
The place where all the streams
of the world unite.
In the union of the world
The Receptive always gets the
better of the Creative
Being still, she takes the
Hence the large state, by
taking the lower
position annexes the
And the small state, by taking
the lower position
annexes the large state.
It had always been a peculiar thing to Wtu, his first name. His father had called him Ling, after his father, the stone mason, and his mother had called him Bill, after her father, the missionary. So his name had never really been William.
But from his first day of school in Pittsburgh he had been called William by his sixth grade teacher. By his classmates, Willy, Willywu, as though it were all one word – Willywoo! – making it sound like as American Indian word perhaps, certainly not half-Irish half-Chinesean Indian name for a wind, an uncertain wind.
Then, when he wearied of the University of Pittsburgh classrooms, and Yankee gookwars abroad and the leftwing American breastbeating at home, and returned to China to enroll at the University of Beijing in the school of International Law, h is teachers had called him Bee. Bee Ling Wu. Because he had used the letter B as his first initial on his application. This name had in turn become, to the members of his track team, Bee Wing Lou, thanks largely to the persistence of the only other English-speaking member of the rag-tag squad, a girl from Sydney with a teasing grin and a 2:30 marathon time (almost a half-hour faster than his or any of the other Beijing runners’ record) and the typical Australian love of wordplay.
“Bee Wing Louie, as yer such a dashing little black-eyed bug,” she had explained. “More the sprint sort, from flower to flower it looks to me, than a long-runner. ”
Indeed, his position on the Pittsburgh team had been in the 100 and the 200arbund-the-bend. No world-beater there, either. He had moved to ‘ the distances as age and embarrassment forced him out of the dashes. Besides, he had found a whole new track career in China. Yankee know-how in the form of vitamins, modern running shoes and proper training techniques had made him the top 1500-meter man in all of the eastern provinces. Times that would have been barely mediocre in the States won him in China ribbons and respect. From all but the saucy Aussie.
“Go it!” she would shout at him around the last turn of the 1500 waving her watch in the air; “Yer pressin’ Mary Decker’s time. Go my little Bee Winger, go it!”
And now, the American journalists, after he had been introduced to them as Mr. B. Ling, were calling him Bling.
“Have your droll yucks,” he admonished the trio. “Wait till I tip them you’re all KGB agents. ”
The photographer shook his head. “Nobody’ll go for it, Bling. Mude has already told us we have the unmistakable overlord look of American capitalists.”
“You mean overweight, don’t you?” Bling was glad his Pittsburgh-learned street-sass was still sharp.
“Actually I mean overwrought. What’s with this dude Mude? Why’s he so uptight about stopping the bus for a picture of a lame guy pulling a loaded cart?”
“Comrade Mude has, I’m sure, been assigned to you round-eye reporters to be sure you put the best foot of China forward. That old peasant back there was not the best foot of China.”
“I’ll sure give it that! You could smell it right through those dirty bandages. ”
–so Mude would have in a sense been disobeying doctrine to order the bus driver to stop.”
Mude was the official host and interpreter appointed to’the duty of aiding the American press in its coverage of the upcoming spectacle. He was 40 and fastidious, with an impeccable Western hairstyle atop an inscrutable Eastern expression. And an outfit as absurd as both. For the same reasons that the famous pictures of Marx and Engels were to be taken down from Tien An Men square the day of the race, Mude had been advised that it would be acceptable to wear something besides the customary costume of baggy party line pajamas-something less jarring to the eye of an American public accustomed to connecting the simple and practical grey garb to Maoism, and the Red Menace, and the Yellow Peril. Something Western. So Mr. Mude had journeyed to Hong Kong to have tailored a powder blue Western outfit, replete with embroidered white longhorns across the back and sewn seams down the pant legs in the front. High gloss Taiwan-made artificial leather boot toes glittered pure white from beneath the blue cuffs. A bolo tie with a silver steerhead slide gleamed at the throat of his pearl button shirt. Without the Stetson (even the versatile Taiwanese had been unable to duplicate this hallowed headpiece) the outfit was a trifle unfinished. Still, he would not have looked out-of-place on Hee Haw, probably even provoked a good laugh.
In the customs terminal at the Beijing Airport, however, there had been nothing funny about his attire. If anything it made him somehow all the more ominous. His stiff posture and unbending smile had left little doubt about his position and his power – especially when he had waltzed them right past the customs line and the bowing guard with just one word. “Diplomatic.”
It had been clear from the first that he did not like English. He had acquired his stiff mastery of it not out of love or interest; he had been assigned the odious language. But he knew that some test or study must have indicated aptitude; therefore, he reasoned he must be qualified; thus he had conquered it. Hence he could translate-after a stiff fashion – but could not communicate. He couldn’t chat. He couldn’t joke. He could only smile and say “No” or “One cannot” or “I am very sorry but I fear that such is not possible.”
So the journalists had been relieved indeed to come across Bling in the lounge of the Hotel Peking, reading a Spiderman comic and listening to a tiny tape machine play Whip It Good by Devo. The journalists had skidded to a gaping stop. The young man was wearing a pair of tattered Air Soles, skinny blue shades and a Nuke The Gay Whales T-shirt. His free campus crewcut had grown back out until it stuck up in random twisted quills; it looked as though it were being snapped to attention by the very sound cracking from his cassette player. The journalists were impressed.
“Now ain’t this a splendid surprise?”‘ they applauded. “A Peking punk.”
“Far out,” he responded. “A pack of Yankee Dogs, escaped from the pound.”
They pulled up chairs and sat down. “Speaking of which,” a journalist mused, “I haven’t seen pup one since we got to Peking. Is it possible the Pekingese are no more?”
“Haven’t you heard of Mao’s big best seller from a couple years back?” Bling asked. “101 Ways To Wok Your Dog?”
“At last! Our Chinese joke.”
-N6t really. It’s an old ‘Nam joke, actually, about the Khmere Rouge. Sorry. But do have a seat since you’re seated. I can see you are about to buy a poor student a drink. . . .
After repeated rounds of gin and tonic and idealogical argument they enlisted him as a go-between, with an offer of free running shoes and a promise not to reveal his true identity in their story. “Have no worry, ” they assured him; “no one will ever know that you are really Bling Clawsby in Oriental drag.”
Mude didn’t care for this New Wave addition to the retinue – it had to cause some loss of linguist face beneath that stiff smile-but he tried to accommodate and utilize Bling’s assistance. In a way, Bling afforded Mr. Mude the opportunity to be even more inscrutable. He found he could relegate random questions to Bling: How does the sports academy select students? Who conceived of the Beijing marathon? Is there legal recourse in China if, say, this crazy bus driver runs over a bicycle? Mude could pass these difficult inquiries on with a curt nod –
“Mr. Wu will explain.”
– yet still retain enough control to react to requests that fell within his domain. If one of the journalists requested permission to, say, deviate from the requisite route and jeopardize the schedule to stop for a photograph of a crippled peasant tugging a ton of fodder, Mr. Mude could respond with certainty:
“No. I am very sorry. It is not possible. ”
Bling had become not only their interpreter’s interpreter, he was their commentator as well. And if he could not countermand Mude’s negative responses, he could editorialize on them with sarcastic vitality.
“Explain me this, then, Mr. Bling,” number two journalist begged. “If China wants to put her best foot forward then why this marathon? The Chinese entries are going to get creamed by the rest of the world, and broadcast the defeat. Now, to show the wor Id on the one hand the slow foot, so to speak, and on the other hand not show the lame…. Doesn’t this strike you as getting the party lines crossed?”
Bling leaned across the aisle of the rocking bus to answer. Not to keep Mucle from overhearing (he had concluded that Mr. Mude thought there were two American Tongues, the Proper English American that he had been taught at the Language Bureau, and which he reasoned must be the tongue for official transactions, direction, edicts, etc., and the vulgar American for small talk, gossip, sports and so forth) but because it was a subject Bling was himself greatly interested in:
“Contradiction, you have to understand, means something different to the brains. Lenin claimed that ‘Dialectics is the study of contradiction in the very essences of objects.’ Engels said, ‘Motion itself is a contradiction.’ And Mao maintained that revolution and development arise out of contradiction, and out of contradiction only-the inherent inequities between producer and profit; land labor and landlords; the classic class struggle, etc. He saw the traditional Taoist philosophy that ‘Heaven changeth not likewise the Tao changeth not’ as a prop that the decadent feudal ruling classes supported mainly because it supported them. So the so-called ‘way’ was therefore a form of what he termed Mechanical Materialism, or Vulgar Evolutionism, which he considered to constitute a contradiction within the very fabric of the transcendent, metaphysical Taoism of the past! Dig! This was Mao’s real genius, the real power of his early years. He did not judge the old ways, he merely stoked the contradictions existing within them. ‘Contradictoriness,’ was how he laid it down, ‘is the fundamental cause of development.'”
“Covered himself fore and aft, didn’t he?”
“In a way. In another way, he s the sequence that was bound to be his undoing. Contradiction may create revolution, but when the revolutionary takes control he tries to eliminate the very thing that brought him to power – dissent, dissatisfaction, distrust of big government. Revolution is the dragon that rose to the top position by eating his daddy. He has a natural mistrust, see?, of his own issue … as well as any other fire breathers roaming the rice paddies.”
“Sounds to me like it was this dragon’s old lady that swallowed him…”
“You mean Widow Huang and her Gangbang of Four. Naw, she’s neither dragon nor demon. Just a foolish old broad, inheriting the reins. Not enough class or courage or just plain smarts to pull off a conspiracy against old Mao, even on his most senile doddering day. No, what it was, was Mao did some bad shit to stay on top of the dragon pile; and, just as Mao claimed that the cause of movement comes from within-not from external influences like earthquakes or angels or fate-, I claim that he was brought down by wars in his own private hell. Imagine the ghosts of his night; all those people he had to liquidate to grease the works of the fucking Cultural Revolution . .. all those comrades, colleagues, professors and poets. The poor old fucker, all those poets ……
“Bling, I thought this guy Mao was what you left Pittsburgh for? You said he was your main man. You’re talking now like he was your typical totalitarian.”
“Contradiction,” Bling answered, turning from the aisle to look out the window at the endless parade of black bicycles, “has become the New Way for a lot of us.”
“Is that why you like Devo?” journalist number two asked. He thought Bling with his funny crewcut and ragged Tshirt had said New Wave. Bling gave him a curious glance and turned back to the window. He could see the curving iron fence of the sports arena ahead, and the busload of Japanese runners jogging up the steps. It was a good time to stop the discussion.
“I don’t like Devo. I listen to Devo for the same reason I run.” He patted his pockets looking for his comb. “Because it hurts.”
The original intention of the meeting was to let the doctors and the press examine the seventy-some participants who would be running in tomorrow’s race. But what can a doctor know about a marathon man that the athlete doesn’t already know about himself? What can a heart specialist say about a 35 year old Phys-Ed fanatic with a 35-beats-per-minute heartbeat and heels calloused thick as hardballs? An ordinary man with such symptoms would be rushed to emergency for adrenaline therapy and Dr. Scholl’s corn plasters. But a marathon man? What prognostician is able to interpret conditions beyond the norm, let alone comprehend the fanatical dedication that forged such conditioning?
So the physical examination was waived and spiritual exhaltation submitted in its place. The runners in their official running color issues and the press in their writing togs were occasioned to sit in a roomful of folding chairs in the sports arena and listen to statements of policy and intent from a dais of dignitaries in drab Maoutfits. Minister in Charge of Physical Culture and Sports, Mr. Li Menghua, bald and shiny as a stone statue of Buddha, welcomed the athletes and wished them all a good run. Zhong Shitong, President of the Chinese Olympic Committee, took the occasion to fervently hope the event would help promote friendship between sportsmen from all over the world. The microphone was then passed to Li Wenyao, the President of the Chinese Athletic Association and Chairman of the Organizing Comrruttee for the 1981 Beijing International Marathon. Li Wenyao stood up behind the table and surveyed the room through thick lenses. He was clearly the honcho and this spectacle had obviously been his brainchild from the beginning and heartswork for many months. When he at length addressed the crowded room he spoke with a cadence of confidence, knowing just when to pause to let the interpreter translate and just when to resume his speech:
“Our standard is not good. This we know. The race will give our runners a chance. To learn from their superiors. We hope China’s friends abroad. Watching the satellite. Will learn also something. Beijing was selected for its splendor. Millions of citizens will watch. Millions of satellite viewers will watch. The splendor of the route. The healthy faces of the spectators. Will make for the People’s Republic of Socialist China. Very good propaganda.”
You had to like him, with his hornrims and his plodding, blunt naivete. Of course it was propaganda! Of course he was unabashedly admitting it! Why should one conceal what is good? He continued, awkward and shy and slick and certain all at once, as charming as a shy young lovely stepping out in her first bikini:
“The course has been accurately measured. With the most modern of electronic device. In such event of a world record. We would very much like a record. We do not expect it though by China. There has been a prediction of rain-”
Here a number of runners gave polite whispered cheers, and for a moment Li Wenyao was confused and a little shaken; how could he, a parade-planner, understand that runners of experience yearned for the colder temperatures and cleaner air furnished by a nice rain?
–but we pray to God otherwise. Now the regulations. Drinks from race organizers on white tables. Private drinks on red tables. Take when you want. Officials will not assign drinks into your hand. Private drinks must be handed in before eight tonight. For examination and analysis.
Chuck Hattersly from Eugene, Oregon, (2:15:17) leaned over to whisper to Bobby Hodge, “I get it, now. They’re trying to steal our formula for Gatorade!”
“To avoid delaying the traffic and spectators. There will be cut-off points for the slow-”
Here the shuffling murmur of the room stilled. Cut-off points? No one had ever heard of cut-off points. In a marathon, as long as you could put one foot in front of the other, you could run; it was part of the deal …
“Those who have not reached 25 kilometers. In the time of 1:40. Will be removed from the race.”
Sitting amidst 60 other Chinese runners all in light blue, Yang felt his face go hot and the knots start tying in his stomach. He had no idea of his time for 25 kilometers. No notion, even, how far it was. From the village to the school? Half that? Twice?
“If you have not reached the 35 kilometer point. In 2:40, you will be removed.”
For a moment Yang was cramped with panic. If he were removed he could never return home. Better not to start than not to finish! Then it occurred to him that all he had to do was expend his total force to reach that 35 km mark in 2:40in deep oxygen debt if necessary-then his completion would be assured. If he could run the 35 km in that time, he could crawl the remaining distance, even if it took him all day. That was the way to look at it. He felt a strong, warm resolve begin to drive the cold from his middle.
“We also suggest. If you begin to feel uncomfortable. That you volunteer to drop out.”
“Uncomfortable?” Chris Wardlaw muttered in his curly beard; “The bleeding hell does he think we run for?”
“One important thing further. The water in the sponges is for wiping the face. We suggest you do not drink it. There will be plenty of drink at the tables. If you thirst. But do not swallow water from the sponges. Is our deepest suggestion that you ingest no water from the sponges. Now. I wish you all once again good luck. And look forward to seeing you this evening. For the Welcome Banquet. At the Great Hall of’ the People. Which I am certain. Everyone will thoroughly enjoy. Thank you for your attention.” . .
It had been a peculiar event. And if its thrust and purpose had been somewhat vague, to say the least, no one wanted to prolong it by asking questions. As the runners were queueing up for their buses, one of our American journalists, notebook and pen in hand, corralled Jeff Foster (2:14:04) and inquired reporter-fasion what in his opinion was the upshot, the kernel of the long conference.
“Don’t,” was Foster’s immediate summary, “suck the sponges.”
When the way of the way declined
Doctrines of righteousness arose.
When knowledge and wisdom occurred
There emerged great hypocrisy.
When the six family relationships
are not in harmony
There follows filial piety and
deep love of children.
When a country is in disorder,
There will be praise of loyal ministers.
After lunch there awaited, according to Mr. Mude, a plethora of palaces and pagodas deemed almost mandatory for a first-time visitor to Beijing. The journalists wanted to know if they might go instead to the compound assigned to the Chinese runners. Mude said this afternoon was prescribed rest for the Chinese entries. Then they asked to see Democracy Wall. Mude explained that Democracy Wall no longer existed. Quill-headed, free-lunched little Bee Wing Bling, feeling looser by the minute among his countrymen, explained that the wall in fact still existed, but was covered now with billboards bragging about recent manufacturing accomplishments, kitchen ranges and air conditioners and refrigerators with egg trays, instead of last season’s homemade posters of dissent and protest. Mude felt obliged to further explain that those foolish posters had only caused confusion among the people:
“Besides, if one has comment, one can write the government bureaus direct.”
“Right,” Bling agreed. “It’s better to cause confusion among the bureaucrats. They’re trained.”
Mude swiveled his smile back to the journalists. “Ah. You are all okay? Perhaps you will like to stop at the Friendship Store for Coca-Cola before continuing to Forbidden City?”
The journalists would have preferred to scout off on their own and let the well-known newsman’s nose lead them to ripe epiphanies, but one got the feeling that Mude already had the day delineated, that he would have directed the driver through the whole preset tour even if the bus had been deserted, and logged a very critical report at the end of his day. And since the journalists were pressuring Mude to try to get permission to follow tomorrow’s race in a taxi, instead of sitting on their thumbs for two hours at the start/finish with the rest of the press, they had decided to follow the plan and try to keep on Mude’s good
If he did not have a good one, to at least stav off his bad.
One sensed that beneath that Western suit and patient, Eastern smile an understandable irritability was beginning to bubble, Though Mr. Mude never said so, it was obvious to all that whatever affection he had ever held for Mr. Bling was now in a rapid decline. Whenever he acquired tickets for a tourist attraction with his Government Card, he now no longer included the scraggly little student. Bling had to fork over his own fen to get in the Forbidden Cities and Summer Palaces. When Bling was finally fenless the journalists forked over for him. This made Mr. Mude twitch and fidget in his unfamiliar cowboy clothes. He began to smoke cigarettes, as though his stiff smile, like his Dearlbutton shirt, was in growing need of re-starching.
The tour had taken a turn not to Mr. Mude’s liking: too many Yankee guffaws at Bling’s sardonic commentary on the Beijing scene; too much talk from which he felt excluded, especially track talk.
“You are also a runner, Mr. Wu?”
They were leaving picturesque Beihai Park, with its white dome, its lovely lake gently cupping manicured gardens and paths, and its holiday throngs of colorfully clothed school kids scampering about like escaped flowers. Mude had been mentioning the park’s renowned reputation for centuries of quiet beauty; Bling had been filling in with notes of more recent interest that Mr. Mude had neglected to mention. Until two years ago, Bling had told them, the park had been closed completely to the, general public, the lovely quiet of the lake undisturbed bv rented rowboats the massive gates barred and guarded. No one was allowed in except Mao’s wife and her personal guests. And, of course, the palace caretakers and gardeners. Bling had been explaining what a grand turn-on it had been for him after only a few months’ jogging past the prohibited paradise to suddenly, one day, out of the blue, have the doors swung wide and be allowed to jog inside the damn thingwhen Mr. Mude interupted with his question about running.
“Until two years ago, the park had
been closed completely to the general
public, the lovely quiet of the lake
undisturbed by rented rowboats, the
massive gates barred and guarded.”
“Sure,” Bling answered. “I’m one of your hometown heroes. Three years varsity, Beijing U. Come to a meet sometime. So, what I was saying-” He turned back to his subject and his American audience. “-is can you imagine the thrill of the millions of citizens who had been going past that off-limits Eden all their lives … all the while knowing it had been common people’s hands that had hauled that dirt out to make the lake, and piled it up to make the mountain for the emperor to have a little vieupoint, and built that big white temple on topdoesn’t it remind you of a gigantic dollop of Dairy Queen vanilla?-and that it was still the goddamn common people gardening and tending it, after 10 centuries, only now it was for a Communist Empress-then, one day, pop, you can go inside, just like Kings and comn-dssars! Can you imagine?”
“A runner of distance?”
“Huh? I’ve done fives and tens, yeah.
I hold the school record in 1,500. Which must gall the piss out of the Bureau of Programs and Propaganda, having to print U. S. A. after my name . . . ”
“Then you must be entered in tomorrow’s heroic event?”
“Sorry. Tomorrow’s heroes will have to bust their balls without Bee Wing Lou’s courageous company.”
“Surely you must have applied?-a running enthusiast residing in Beijing as you do?”
“It’s an invitational, Mr. Mude … remember?”
“Ah, true,” Mude recalled. “I had forgotten. Too bad for you, Mr. Wu. ”
Bling pulled down his blue shades to study Mude’s face; it was impossible to tell if the mind behind that – guarded smile were conniving, condescending, or merely making conversation,
“Talk them into a 1, 500 around the Tien An Men – like the Fifth Avenue mile in New York – then you’ll see me out there busting my little yellow balls.”
“That would be very enjoyable.
To get Bling off the hook number one journalist editor asked if it might be possible to take a drive out to the campus to look over the sports scene in a major Chinese University, maybe catch a track practice. This time it was Bling who was reluctant. He fidgeted. He looked at his watch, then out at the troubled sky.
“Might not be a practice this afternoon, if it starts sprinkling … Besides I bet Mr. Mude has other thrills scheduled.”
And this time it was Mude who was suddenly permissive. True, he admitted, he did have preparations to make, for the banquet, but saw no reason why they could not drop him off at his appointment and continue on with Mr. Wu to his track practice. Everyone was left stunned by the sudden turn about, and a trifle uneasy. And when they dropped Mude off at the stark brick building he had directed the driver to, Bling became downright disconsolate. ‘
“That was the Bureau of Immigration Records,” Bling informed his new friends as the little bus pulled away.
“Wonder whose name he’s looking up?” a journalist wondered.
“I – can’t say for certain but I’ll bet you all a buck,” Bling said unhappily, “that the name turns out to be Mud.”
Nobody would cover the bet, and the bus ride the rest of the way to the campus was somber and quiet except, of course, for the driver’s usual honking and radio-twiddling and gear grinding.
In spite of the bright bustle of students, campus was still as grim and grey as the metal sky sitting heavy on top of it. One expects lawns on a campus, but most of the grounds were the same bald, packed dirt that surrounded the rest of the city’s dwellings, only not as well swept. The rows of grey-green gum trees only made the walks and ways dimmer, and lent the filthy air an ominous undersea cast. The sullen looks of the workers did not help, and Bling told them that there had been lately a lot of strife between the students and the common laborers, who also lived on the sprawling campus grounds along with the faculty and student body. Bicycle tires slashed. Rapes. Gang fights between workers who consider the students arrogant and lazy and students who see the workers as the same, only less educated. Without police protection the students would have been in sorry straits sometimes, Bling admitted, because, out of a live-in population of about 40,000, less than 8,000 are students.
“So the clods have the scholars unfairly outnumbered … ?”
“In China,” Bling moped, “T’was ever thus.”
There was no drizzle but there was no track practice, either. Three Chinese runners and the Australian girl were prowling the bleak cement gymnasium looking for someone with a key so they
“could get into the track room. Bling told them how to jimmy the lock and said he thought he’d skip the workout. The sports mag. editor asked if they might take a look anyway, get some pictures. Reluctantly Bling led them down a dim concrete stairwell to a cracked wooden door in the cellar. The girl was gouging at the keyhole with a chopstick. Bling took over and finally drug the door open and turned on a light. The room was a windowless cement box with a cot and a tiny desk. An iron rod stuck in the door frame was draped with a dozen tattered sweatsuits.
“Our locker room,” Bling said. “Ritzy digs, right? And, here-” He pulled a cardboard box from beneath the cot. “our equipment room.” The box was piled with shabby, mismatched spikes, four bamboo batons, a shot and a discus.
“The javelin is stabbed there, airing those sweatsuits,” the girl told the journalists. “Till our thrower gets over his hyperextension.”
Back outside, the editor shook his head in disbelief. “I wish Dellinger could have seen that. It would blow his mind.”
“How about if those three Chinese guys could see Oregon’s facilities? It would blow minds at both ends.” Bling put his blue glasses on and started walking back the way they had come. “Anyway, it gives you some idea why China doesn’t have such great times, doesn’t it?”
When they got back to the campus gate their familiar bus was gone. In its place was one of the huge black Russianmade limos called Red Flags. It looked like a cross between a Packard and a Panzer. The dour middle-aged driver stepped out and bowed and handed
them a note and four embossed invitations.
“It’s from Mude. He says the bus was required for other tasks, that this diplomatic limousine will take us back to the hotel to dress, then bring us to the Banquet at the Great Hall. The fourth invitation is for Mr. Wu and he suggests we advise him that a place has been re-, served for him at our table.”
“Oh, shit, ” said Bling. “Oh, shit.
Thirty spokes gather around the
hub to make a wheel,
But it is on the circle that the
utility of the wheel depends.
Clay is molded to form a utensil,
But it is on its emptiness that the
utility of the vessel depends.
Doors and windows are cut to make
But it is on floor space that the
utility of the room depends.
Therefore turn being into advantage,
and turn non-being into utility.
It might possibly be the most beautiful dining hall in the world, certainly the biggest. A Canadian football game could be played comfortably in one of its rooms with space left aplenty on all sides for bleachers and bathrooms – except for the high hangtime punts that might endanger the array of lights on the ceiling.
During the day there is always a small crowd outside, gaping at the Great Hall’s mammoth magnificence, hoping for an event. Tonight, a very large crowd was gathered because two monumental events were occurring: the Banquet for the Beijing Marathon, and the State Formal Dinner for President Gnassigne Dema of Togoland. In a land without M.A.S.H. reruns or singles bars or Asteroids in every supermarket, this was big potatoes.
So the crowd of Chinese rubbernecks stretched on tiptoes in typical obedience behind the line, hoping to catch a glimpse of a famous athlete’s fancy footwear, perhaps, or the cold, alien glint of a real African potentate’s eye … possibly even the rare flash of female thigh as the French diplomat helps his young wife from the limo. Certainly they had to be disappointed by the first passenger they beheld exiting from the big black sedan they had just allowed through-a spiny-headed little Chinese in plain brown wrapper. The next appearance was more exotic, a big occidental Stranger with the bearded face of a worried Pan, and the next stranger was stranger yet, bigger, and in a white suit, white tie, white rattan shoes, and a bright blue vest – a cross between Sydney Greenstreet and Uncle Sam. Then, the last apparition rising out of the dark upholstered depths of the Russian limo, why he was enough to stretch even the most curious rubberneck to its limits of awe. The man was beyond size, beyond measure, and he carried an optical arsenal of the most convincing proportions criss-crossed across his girth, like bandoliers on one of the bandit-giants of old. And look! the little Chinese is putting on slanty blue glasses! The crowd fell back in tribute. They watched the four mount the steps with the same rapt reverence one would expect to be afforded John Wayne, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford and Bruce Lee. Many of the onlookers went home immediately after. They were sufficed. They would not have to come for a recharge again for months, perhaps years.
Our foursome was late. The feast had begun. The sound of ‘ it could be heard down the marble corridors, drawing them on like the seductive roar of a waterfall. When they at last reached the two mammoth marble urns at the door, and were passed by the armed guard, they were as dazzled by the sight they beheld as the crowd had been by the sight of them on the steps outside. A room big as a blimp hangar, with thousands of people chattering and eating at hundreds of round tables, each table manned by dozens of bustling attendants refilling glasses, removing platters, producing an endless assortment of, delights that seemed to appear out of the vast air above their heads.
“There could be heard all across the room an audible insucking of covetous acclaim.
They were very classy prizes.”
An usher led them to the table assigned by their invitation, where they found the six other diners all still waiting politely for their arrival-three gentle men in drab Chou En-lai, a beautiful Chinese woman and two young Chinese runners. All stood when they approached and shook hands while the woman translated. Two of the men were from China Sports, a limp, but essential, little sports rap printed in English. The other was a college coach. The magazine men were seedy, bespectacled and bemused, with that disarming slouch that would have identified them as old-time-ink-in-the-veins journalists in whatever national dress they wore. The coach was handsome and slick, with the posture of a sharp young officer in China’s equivalent of the Marines. The woman was so warm and springy that the three journalists had to drop their eyes to keep their saps from rising.
The two young runners were from the same village in a distant province, their faces subtly different from the other Beijing faces-flatter, darker, with something almost gypsy fluttering impish about the eyes. The eldest of the pair responded to introductions with a dental display that had to rank right up there with the rest of the day’s wondrous sights. He had an extra tooth, right in the middle, between his two bicuspids, and was not at all backward about showing it off. The smaller runner was as shy as his friend was forward, frequently dropping long lashes over his black eyes and buttoning and unbuttoning the voluminous old leather-elbowed sportscoat he was wearing.
After the initial “ganbei” of introduction they all sat down for the first course of a meal that would prove to be a marathon in its own right. While they were stabbing at the lead-off delicacies with their sticks, the prizes for tomorrow’s winners were unveiled on a table in front of the raised dais-10 fine looking vases, each bigger than the last, and a solid silver trophy that would return to Beijing each year for the new winner. There could be heard all across the room an audible insucking of covetous acclaim. They were very classy prizes.
The speeches then commenced to drone from the dais. They saw Mude had a seat very near the podium. He had changed from his Western Western to Eastern Western-a preppy dark blue blazer with coat-of-arms and pants-offwhite. He was introduced and stood to speak. The writer realized this should be recorded. Bling’s shoulder bag was hanging from the back of his chair. The writer lifted out the cassette without drawing Bling’s attention. He punched the record button and sat it on the table to pick up Mude’s talk. Everybody sincerely tried to listen, but it soon became obvious that no Chinaman or Gringo could understand a word, and the multitudinous roar of small talk rose again from the tables. Mude didn’t seem to notice.
The American editor began to interview his Chinese magazine colleagues and the coach. The photographer changed lenses. And the journalist number two, the writer, busied himself with tasting the exotic dishes as they arrived and whispering descriptions of each into the recorder … If this marathon thing didn’t float he might get a snazzy little cookbook out of it.
This is the transcript of that tape.
Running-Great Hall – night before race (much noise of dining; unintelligible speech over loudspeaker, Chinese conversation back and forth)
Whisper near Mike: -tiny tomatoes pickled and arranged in delicate fan; gingered eel; lotus root in oyster sauce; duck neck; scalloped carrots and radishes carved to look like little roses …
Running Mag: Whose idea was this race tomorrow?
(Chinese translation back and forth)
Female Voice: He says it started as a mass movement, the idea. In New China all ideas come from the masses.
Running: Do they have road races the rest of the year or is this a one-time-a-year event?
Female Voice: He says there are too many road races. Even in the villages, they run. They do all kinds of sports because it is advised. But this is first Beijing Marathon.
Running: Why don’t they have better times? Ask him that.
Female Voice: I do not understand.
Running: To get into world competition you’ve got to have 2:15 or so.
Female Voice: You mean two hours and 30 minutes is not a good record?
Running: It won’t take many prizes in the rest of the world. Ask him.
Female Voice: He says their fastest runner is two hours and 13 minutes. You will meet him tonight. He is from a minority in Hunan Province.
Running: What is a minority?
Female Voice: Well, in China there are many! These two boys are minorities. From some provinces they even speak different languages!
Young Male Voice (Bling): Those stars you see on the Chinese flag? They are each for minorities. Not exactly like minorities in the states, you see. It’s without prejudice. No, that’s not true, either. . .
Whisper: Egg. Boiled eggs; pickled eggs; eggs soaked in tea; and one fossilized egg for each table, like translucent black jelly with a solid black yolk; a century old, they swear …
Running: Do they emphasize competition as well as conditioning?
Female Voice: He said you cannot separate these two things. But it is more for your good health instead of competition. So, in their opinion it is not competition at all. It’s just good health.
Running: Will you ask if China is ready to devote the time and the specialization it takes to become world class in sports and, if so, what are they doing toward that end?
Female Voice: He says, absolutely.
Running: Was he an athlete himself?
Female Voice: He loves track and field. He uh, threw.
Running: What did he throw? Discus?
Female Voice: Yes, discus.
Running: Did he ever have hopes himself of going to the Olympics?
Female Voice: When he was 20 he had great hopes. That was 30 years ago, at a time of great turmoil in China.
Whisper: I’ll bet! … beans peanuts, pickled walnuts, fish stomac~s and celeryflamb6 …
Male Chinese Voice: Ganbei!
Female Voice: He toasts, “To the good health of your country.”
Running: He sure doesn’t look 50 to me! Ask him if he is training athletes for international competition. That’s what I’m interested in.
Female Voice: He says he is teaching them to be teachers. But, of course, would like to cultivate a few Olympic winners.
Running: Has he been responsible for much of the organization of the Peking Marathon?
Female Voice: Responsible? A responsible person?
Running: A promoter.
Female Voice: He says they asked some outstanding instructors in the P.E. education field to participate in the planning of the Peking Marathon.
Running: In the course of planning, did he travel to any other country to see how fast they were running their marathons?
Female Voice: He mentioned two cities, two-I don’t know how to translate those two cities-in Japan. For seeing their marathon training.
Running: If one shows particular athletic talent in this country, is he given special dispensation by the government?
Female Voice: He says, yes.
Bling: Yes, indeedy!
Running: Do they mind if I take a picture at this table?
Female Voice: I couldn’t get a very specific answer but the answer I think is yes. Also he says not all sportsmen get dispensation. In some cases, yes; in some’ cases, no. He must show talent. And I asked does he get better food because, I said, it is important to provide the nutrition, is it not? He said yes. That the person with particular talent will get better food.
Bling: That’s why the basketball team has those giants. One eight-foot- eight mother! That’s quite lofty …
Running: Does he get a free apartment?
Female Voice: He said no.
Running: Is there a national philosophy of fitness … or what’s the party line on physical fitness?
Female Voice: He says the party line on national fitness is to become healthy and friendship first and then competition.
Running: Friendship between competitors …
Female Voice: Yeah, you can win. The other gentleman says yes, we want to win. But we do not want to use other people’s tricks or force to win.
Running: I knew there had to be a party line on fitness…. So why, ask him, did they never address the issue of fitness before? Because
Bling: They did address it! Mao made a big point of it. He was a goddamn nut on the
Running: I mean was Mao aware of the fitness of the nation?
(Long Chinese conversation back and forth)
Female Voice: In 1953 Chairman Mao made it a special issue because he noticed during the liberation China’s living standard was so low and the health standard was also so low because there was disease and poverty at that time. So after liberation, Chairman Mao decided to make it a special issue.
Running: Do they have any national health statistics on heart attacks, cancer, old age … ?
Female Voice: This topic does not belong to the topics of fitness. It’s a medical record.
Running: No, but it does pertain to…. Okay, explain to him that in the U.S. running is used to cure heart attacks. Can you explain that to him?
Female Voice: He says we do not have statistics. But, obviously, in China it’s a medical record and they haven’t really, people, started thinking along the level of a cure of a heart attack. Okay? They haven’t put the connection together.
Whisper: … pickled cherries; pressed duck; shredded ham; mashed mollusks; dugong dumplings; ganbeied goose –
Chinese Male Voice. Ganbei!
Female Voice: He says, “To the sportsmen of China and the U.S.”
Running: In China, is there any medical study designed for –
(tape turned over at this point; some conversation lost)
“Hello! Good god, what’s this?”
Running-Great Hall- side two
Female Voice in Progress: -yet the injuries increased and when you sent them to a regular doctor’s office the problem could not be solved. Therefore, this research center was created.
Running: Can he explain the modality that a doctor uses to treat a sports injury? In the U.S. if an athlete is hurt, injured, the first thing they prescribe for the sports injury is rest and then they prescribe stretching for it and light exercise.
Bling: And sometimes they cut the sucker open and work on it.
Running: Yeah-and DMSO. Can you ask them what they prescribe to an athlete who’s injured? Do they use acupuncture?
Female Voice: He says those medical treatments he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know how they treat it, how the injured athletes were treated. I asked if acupuncture was applied. He said, “Yes.
Whisper: … fig croissants; baked carp with mushroom; tofu and gopher …
Male Voice: Can I take another picture?
Whisper: Brian’s still smarting. They wouldn’t let him shoot the archaeological digs in Man.
Male Voice: No shoot in Xian!
Running: Can he give me any specifics of athletes he knows who had acupuncture used on them.
Female Voice: He says he can only give personal experience. He can give you a fact. He was injured once and treated with acupuncture and cured. Of course, there were other treatments applied, but acupuncture was the thing that …
Bling: You know what the most recent national study proves? That acupuncture works according to just how fucking uneducated you are. Ganbei to the ignorant!
Male Voice: Better watch that stuff, Bling, that’s rice dynamite.
Bling: Know why its called Mao tai? Mao had it invented when he couldn’t get a good mai tai.
Whisper: Bling’s fortifying himself for the heartfelt Thank You he’s going to give Mr. Mude when he sees him, for this free meal and booze …
“11:05. Right on the nose, a gunshot.
They’re off. No shout. No cheer.”
Running: So. What did he say the injury was?
Female Voice: His waist, the back.
Running: From throwing the discus?
Female voice: Over 20 times, in 20 points, the acupuncture was applied. And not just acupuncture. It’s a wax treatment; you use hot wax.
Running: Can you explain that? I’ve never heard of wax.
Female Voice: Wax? The extract from oil, from petroleum? It is a very soft …
Whisper: … Moon cake; glutinous rice; soup; hello! Good god what’s this?
Running: Do injured runners, injured athletes here ever have to go … (inaudible)
Voice: Good god, look what I found in my soup!
Other Running: Christ. Hold it. This I gotta shoot –
(Laughter, Chinese talk)
Bling: You better keep it. That’s the only head you’re gonna get in China.
Voice: We’ll see.
Running: He’s going into the soup again, folks. Look out!
Voice: Well, here’s your basic pullybone.
Running: He’s working his way down, folks.
Voice: This is far enough. Here, Saber Tooth; win a wish.
Female Voice: He won’t know that. Chinese people don’t know the wishbone thing. Unless well educated …
Bling: She’s right. I’ve never seen a wishbone pulled anywhere but the States.
Voice: What do you mean? Look there. His buddy knows. Okay buddy, pull…
All: He wins.
Voice: You win. Ask him what his name is again.
Female: He says his name is Yang, is all he said. Yang.
Voice: Ask him what his time is.
Female: He says-oh, he is very embarrassed; look; we’ve made him flush-he says that he has no time. Running: No time? Hasn’t he ever run a marathon before?
Female Voice: No.
Running: I thought all the participants –
Female Voice: The older fellow says he is a very good runner though … Yang.
Running: Why was he invited?
Female Voice: His friend says because he, Yang, has very good wins in 5,000.
Bling: Yeah? Ask him what was his time in 5,000? What the hell am I doing? I speak Chinese …
Female Voice: He says he does not know his time. No times were taken.
Voice: Ask him, ask him about his family, what kind of scene he has.
Female Voice: He says he lives with his aunt and uncle in Yi Shuyan. And his mother. He says his father is dead.
Voice: An orphan! Here’s our story. The Cinderella orphan marathoner! A minority from Mongolia, unknown, shy, personable, sensitive, eyes lika tender maid … out of Outer Mongolia, he comes, a nobody, sails past the pack and takes the gold. How’s that?
Running: Very nice. But he was the one that got the wish.
Voice: Maybe that’s what he wished for.
Chinese: (something in Chinese) Ganbei!
Female Voice: They toast, “To the Long March!”
Running: To the Long Run!
Bling: To the MX missile system!
Running: Now you’ve stepped in it Bling. Here comes Our Dude Mude.
(Chinese talk and laughter)
“The run will take the runners past
many points of interest, but mainly
past the most predominant sight,
millions and millions of people.”
Female Voice: The gentleman of the press says that is Mr. Xu Liang coming with Mr. Mude. Our fastest runner. He has run in two hours 13 something.
Running: Two-thirteen! That isn’t loafing. That could win it.
Voice: Especially in this pollution. He knows the turf he’s breathing. Mude: Good evening. I would like to introduce you to our Chinese Champion, Mr. Xu Liang.
Voice: He tosses’em, the champ does.
Bling: And this don’t look like the champ’s first table hop, either. Hey, Xu Liang! To the Pittsburgh Pirates!
Mude: By the way, Mr. Wu; I have something for you.
Bling: Uh-oh, what?
Mude: Be so kind.
Bling: What is it?
Mude: Your official packet-your passes and name card and instructions. Your number. You have been invited to participate tomorrow, Mr. Wu. To run.
Bling: Oh shit.
Running: Bling? To run tomorrow?
Female Voice: He says, “To all of tomorrow’s heroes.”
Mude: Gentlemen and ladies, I must take Mr. Xu Liang to other parties. Goodbye.
Running: Goodbye. All: Ganbei!
Bling: Ohhh, shit …
Whisper: … and the glasses are immediately refilled, Mao tai in the tiny one, wine in the middle size, beer in the big … and now the desserts; almond noodles in mandarin orange sweet syrup; glazed carameled apples that are dropped hot in cold water to harden the glaze; no fortune cookies-never any Chinese fortune cookies in China …
The bells at Tien An Men had just tolled the hour of four o’clock Sunday morning. But Li Wenyao knew that was not what had awakened him. He had long ceased to be disturbed from his official sleep by the sounds of the Beijing night. The random scream of brakes, the clopping of milk horses allowed on the streets after midnight, the early honking of the first bustle of bureaucrats off to assignment-these intrusions from the dark world beyond his suite had been long tamed by his strong mind.
So this new sound left him shaken and frightened. It moaned through his room like a terrible note blown across the mouthpiece of an ancient stone flute, or the rising wail of a modern 747-right through his room! And even after he had controlled his momentary confusion and assigned the sound an explanation-a wind, slicing through his open window and on out the swinging door of his bedroom, wah-wahhing its wail, only a first wind of the season, out of the Miaogeng Mountains-he still continued to shake. Might this wind be bringing a cold torrent down on his parade? The runners had claimed they would not mind a little rain, and certainly the populace would line the streets and choke the square by the millions to view the event, come wind, rain or earthquake-but what would a serious storm do to the Japanese Television in the open trucks and on the towers? He should have assigned crews to be ready with covers. Tarpaulins and bamboo, and more scaffolding nearby. And ropes, for the wail was indeed rising. Long, strong ropes, or that satellite could be broadcasting worldwide the disastrous toppling of a 70-foot scaffolding, TV crew and all, right on the inter-, national athletes slogging past, not to mention numerous spectators. Tarpaulins and bamboo. This could still be accomplished.
Shivering, he rolled from beneath his silk coverlet and slipped his feet into his house thongs. He was tying his robe about his waist on his way to the telephone when the first drops flew swirling through the latticed window.
It was raining on his parade after all.
Hannu Aitalaadso of Finland (Personal Best 2:40) woke in his dorm at the University of Peking and smelled the sweet cool moisture and felt pleasantly homeside.
Chnistopher Kipugat of Kenya (2:14:25) pulled the heavy hotel blanket over himself for the first time since his arrival many nights ago.
Bobby Hodge grinned in the dark and stroked his long Lowell nose affectionately. Hear that, ol’ Snork? The Chinese laundry is scrubbing the air. Just for you.
Grizzly old Aussie veteran Chris Wardlaw stirred not a stitch from his down-under dreams; he’d seen too many climates, in too many countries, in too many marathons for a bit of a blow to break his stride.
In the Chinese compound Yang rolled from his cot and tiptoed around his snoring roommate and closed the window. The wind had not wakened him. He had not been asleep. Nor was he cold. He still wore the light-blue warmups. He looked down at the street stretching dimly below his hotel window. The start at Tien An Men Square some 10 kilometers to his right, the turn around some 20 to his left. He did not think about the finish, only about the two cut-off points. He had no idea how fast he had to run, so he must stay close to Zhoa, who had accomplished this 20km time before, then he must keep going that fast to the 35krn mark, even if he collapsed 10 paces after. Then he could get up and go on, at a walk if he chose, He could return to the square, even if he were an hour behind the 10 winners, If the million spectators had all gone home, all the better. He did not run for crowds.
The American photographer was at his window at dawn. Yes, it had washed it clear. For a brief day at least, the sky had been scoured of the dust and exhaust and black coal smoke from big industrial chimneys and the dun smoke from the small chimneys heating the water for a million cups of tea, and the yellow smoke from the People’s Crematorium. Through his big 300 millimeter lens he could clearly see 10 blocks-20! 30!-and beyond the edge of the city, mountains! There were ragged ranges of purple mountains tinging the city! So it wasn’t endlessly flat and drab at all. There was gonna be vista! Backdrop! Contrast! Even color! He removed the arsenal of Ektachrome from his bag and replaced the rolls with fresh rounds of Kodachrome and trooped out into the dripping dawn. He wanted to shoot the phenomenon of the early morning exercises again, with this new light. Of all the sights in China, this had impressed him the most-the thousands of people of all sizes and ages, girls and boys, men and women 50 and 60 and 80! Out before dawn, going through routines ancient and modern-all in fantastic physical shape, Lean but not hungry. Lean and lithe. You had to hand it to this Mao, he mused as he maneuvered his girth into the elevator. He’s got’em all in good damn shape, a lot better shape than we are. Especially our citizens over 30. Those old women with the wooden swords could run circles around the ordinary American slob. You had to hand it to’em …
well-shut door needs no bolts,
yet it cannot be opened.
well-tied knot needs no rope,
yet none can untie it.
good runner leaves no trail.
September 27, 1981. Tien An Men Square, Beijing, China. Race scheduled to begin at 11:05 a.m.
10:00. Sky clear, blue, bright. Air sweet and chilled. Crowds already packing the curbs, obedient, quiet. P.L.A. and police everywhere nevertheless.
10:15. The motorcycle brigade is ranked and ready, resplendent in their white tunics and blue trousers, alabaster helmets and China chalk-white Hondas.
10:25. Last of the traffic allowed past before closure, buses jammed with expectant spectators, honking taxis…
10:26. All stop. Quiet. Such a quietness from so many! What attention! What power! And what fidgeting uncertainty as well, in the face of its own power! Men coughing and spitting into the sidewalk spittoons (the national anthem of Beijing folk sounds); women with towels pressed over their mouths to forestall the shock of the first breath of clean air all year …
10:28. The participants jog across the vast square toward the starting line, nervous and colorful in their various outfits, Ike so many kites rattling in the breeze before launch …
10:35. A regiment of P.L.A. double times past (they no longer like being referred to as “The Red Guard”), resembling ill-fitted mannequins wound too tight …
10:54. Balloon-and-banner lifts off, falls back, waggles in the wind, lifts again, flapping a long red tail of welcome. Everywhere in China there is this awkward wig-wag of welcome, sincere and sweet …
11:00. A sound truck goes by advising everybody to remain calm and stay behind the lines indicated. So many and so quiet …
11:05. Right on the nose, a gunshot. They’re off! No shout, no cheer. One of the blunt khaki jeeps stenciled PRCC precedes the runners along the curb, honking and actually veering into the throng. The American writer~ jogs to a vantage point and unfolds his chair. Here they come, the Korean in the lead. In the middle of the square the balloon is at last aloft.
Behind all the other runners, the Chinese come by in a pack. The young boy, Yang, is at the very rear. After the banquet the night before, the journalists had been shaking hands goodbye, and when it came turn for the writer to shake hands with the boy, Yang had extended-not his open palm-he held up the crooked little finger of his right hand, wishbone fashion. The writer had grinned and hooked pinkies. Now the writer lifts his crooked finger and Yang, running last, returns the salute.
The next turn around Yang has worked hit way up into the pack of Chinese, and it is little Bling who is bringing up the rear, looking as wry and dishev
eled as ever in a U. of Beijing track singlet and his number on upside down.
“How much farther?” he puffs.
“Only about 24 miles,” they called back.
Twenty kilometers straight west out Fu Xing Avenue to the bamboo scaffold erected at the turn-around at Gu Cheng HUI and 20 kilometers back, then once more around the square to finish. The run will take the runners past many points of interest-the Forbidden City, the Beijing Long Distance Telephone Office, the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution, the Fu Xing Hotel, where the press and foreign runners were being housed (the hotel was in the process of changing its name from Fu Xing to the Yan Jing, because of the consternation caused among some Western guests by its current name) and the People’s Crematorium, with its sinister plume of yellow smoke … and, mainly, past the most predominant sight, millions and millions of people, each face alive and singular and transmitting its singular signal, like tape across a playback head, until all the faces would forever be imprinted with a single billowing black-eyed image: the Face of China. This the runners will-see. No one else will truly see this face.
And this face falls when it sees how far back the Chinese athletes are running, drops even more when the public address truck informs them that their champion and favorite, Xu Liang, is not among the runners. He had taken ill after his evening at the Great Hall, and has withdrawn from the competition. Xu’s withdrawal had worked a great change on Yang’s friend Zhoa. Zhoa held the second-best Chinese time. He is expected to take over when the favorite falters. The responsibility weighs heavy on him, Yang can see as they string out down the avenue past the huge portrait of Mao; affecting his concentration and, in turn, his stride. Yang sees that Zhoa’s head is bobbing. Too much up-and-down, this early … this is not like Zhoa. Also there is lateral movement of the arms. Inefficient, inefficient. Yang feels bad for his friend but stays courteously behind him as he always has.
When the runners are out of sight there is nothing left for the crowds to gawk at but the journalists, and vice versa. In spite of all their stroking of Mude, they had not been allowed to follow the race, not even on the Japanese press bus. They were informed they could watch the run quite adequately on television on the parked press bus, just like the rest of the world’s journalists.
The bus is packed to the door. The American editor stays to argue; the photographer stalks off in a mountainous fit of pique-first no picture in Man, now this crap! They should have sent Hunter Thompson after all; he could have covered the goddamn rotten business from the TV in his hotel room as usual! -and the writer wanders about the square carrying his chair and seeking inspiration. He finds instead a cluster of Chinese people Watching a cardboard box sitting on a folding table. Inside the box is a color TV with a bouncing picture of the front runners. He unfolds his chair and joins the cluster. The beautiful woman from last night’s dinner comes to share his seat and translate the TV announcer for him. He takes his Thermos of gin and tonic from his bag and pours a cup. This is more like it! Inspiration might yet occur. If he only had a little doobie …
11:35. It’s Mike Pinocci from the U.S. (P.R. 2:16:00) followed by Bobby Hodge, Inge Simonsen and Agapius Masong. Mike snags a bottle from a drink table, drains half and passes the rest to the tall Tanzanian.
In the midst of the Chinese runners, Yang watches his friend’s neck. Too stiff, too tense, poor Zhoa…
20km it’s Pinocci and Simonsen and the other Korean.
25km it’s still Pinocci, looking good, then Simonsen, struggling a little, then the lanky Swede, Erikstahl.
Nearing 30km a motorcycle cop swerves to drive a spectator back toward on the curb, and Simonsen swerves to avoid the bike and clips Pinocci’s heel with his foot. The American trips, rolls across his hip and over his shoulder, comes back up still running, now third behind the Korean, Go Chu-Sen. He sticks with the front runners, but his wide eyes reveal the hairline fracture in his concentration.
The crowd back at the square is finally showing signs of restlessness. A drumming can be heard-a banging of fists on empty metal, relentless and rhythmless. A military wagon bores through the throng to check it out…
The wind tries to stir up some relief, swirling shreds of paper across the enforced emptiness of the square, teasing them after the balloon’s banner. The wagon comes driving back, a half dozen scuffed teenagers in custody, one with a bloody ear. All stare stoically ahead, the catchers and the caught.
35km Pinocci is falling back, favoring his hip, leaving Simonsen, the Korean and Erikstahl to fight for the front. In the Chinese pack at the rear, Yang realizes he has passed the 35km cut-off point. He will be allowed to finish. He feels fine. He begins to open up-why not? As he passes his laboring friend, Zhoa exhorts him to go on, Yang. Chi oh.
Far, far back Bling is panting oh shit,shit, shit. He sees he’ll never make the 35 km cut-off. That smug mother Mude! Will he ever be delighted to hear Mr. wise-ass Wu was not even capable of finishing.
The Japanese TV crew is disappointed with the crowd action. They’re dead as stumps, these Chinamen! A sound man walks to the middle of the street with a bullhorn and tries to get something worked up. At first the crowd is puzzled. Yell? They have nothing to yell to foreigners.
“Twenty kilometers straight out Fu
Xing Avenue and 20 kilometers back.”
1:21. Kjell Erikstahl breaks the tape. Two hours, 15 minutes, 20 seconds. Far from outstanding, but considering the locale, the rigors, the air, it’s enough. Close on his heels is Norwegian Simonsen (2:15:51) and third is Li Jong Hyon of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (2:15:52). Li is followed by his Korean compatriot Go Chu-Sen, then Chuck Hattersly of Eugene, Oregon in fifth, the only Yank to take home one of the race’s trophies.
Part 9 – Running Into the Great Wall by Ken Kesey (continued) Part 8
Yang is suddenly free and flying, passing runner after runner to the crowd’s amazement and delight. Now they have something to cheer about. The Japanese sound man gets them goingChi oh! Chi oh!-causing the police to gather in worried, fidgeting packs. Crowds should keep calm. When Yang passes two Italians and two Japanese right in front of them they really get into the idea: CHI! OH! CHI! OH! CHI! OH!
Yang is not the first Chinese to finish. At 18th he is many seconds behind 15 finisher Peng Jiazheng’s 2:26:03. But Peng had looked shot at the finish, green and gasping-whereas little Yang finishes in a full sprint, arms pumping, looking good, his Gypsy eyes flashing.
“He’s beautiful,” says the photog. “Let’s take him home with us. We’ll make a fortune with him pushing designer jeans.”
The crowd breaks through at Yang’s finish, pours across the line to raise him on their shoulders.
Beijing, heroes don’t necessarily always finish first.
Later, at the 35krn cut-off, three officials ran into the street with a little red flat to stop Bling. He opened up when hesaw them. “Clear the track, you yellow pigs!” He dodged through them, quickening his stride. To the crowd’s great pleasure, the officials gave pursuit. They began to cheer for this plucky laggard. 4D Chi oh indeed, and indeed Bling poured it on, yelling back at the receding officials. “Nghaaa, you’ll never take BeeWing Lou alive.” Luckily, they gave up after a block and Bling could coast on home.
After he finished he apologized to all concerned, swore he was sorry that he had held up traffic for nearly an extra hour and, no, he didn’t really know why he had done it –
“Maybe I was motivated by that Red Flag.”
The next day was another rest day for the runners, another mandatory tour for the press. This time, the journalists were told, to the rural countryside to see marvels even more ancient! The little bus had stopped on the statue-lined road to Ming’s thumb to allow the photographer out for pictures. The writer also dismounted; he was picking up deep rumblings about a Yellow Peril attack in his innards. He trotted across the road and back into a pear orchard about five rows, to consult with his colon.
Hunkered among the fallen pears and the waving weeds, he tried to think about the assignment. The team was getting plenty pics and much info, but no story. That’s the trouble with the new China Policy of the open Bamboo Curtain-now there’s too damn much info, too much to get a unifying hook into. And that Chinese joke angle had led nowhere. What was needed to hang this all on was a good old Pearl Buck plot, he was telling himself, or a fresh inspiration, when he looked at the handful of leaves he’d torn from the weeds. Holy Shit, there it was all around him! Bushels, acres of it, bushy green heads waving wild and happy and free. Minga-wanna!
He returned to the bus blazing with excitement. He could hardly wait to get through the echoing tombs and chilly temples and back to his private hotel room. It burned in his pockets like money wanting spending. Naturally there are no Zig Zags in Beijing but plenty pipes, sold alongside carved jade coke bottles, mementoes of the Opium War days dealt now to Christian tour groups ignorant of their use- “And one of those for Aunt Irma, to keep her snoose in.”
In his room he crammed seeds and all in the new pipe bowl and fit up. He sighed a grateful cloud. Wal, the old Grass God has made it into China even if the Wishbone Fairy hasn’t.
By the time his colleagues called at his door to tell him the bus was waiting to take them to the farewell ceremonies at the.Peking Hotel, a plot had been conceived, fertilized and, if he said so himself, well laid. All that was needed now was the hatching.
His colleagues were at first understandably opposed:
“You’re crazy. Worse. You’re high. What do you think, they’re just gonna let us fly out of here with him in a barrel like a souvenir coolie?”
“C’mon, quit being so negative about this plot, Paul. Think of the terrific publicity, the headlines: Shoe Company Smuggles Track Defector Out of Red China. I mean think of it. A couple years at Oregon under Dellinger he’ll win the Boston Marathon! Everybody’ll know him. He’ll be on Donahue, sell a zillion damn shoes! I saw the stats. He went from 2:06 at 35km to 2:29 at the finish. That’s a 4:53 a mile for the last leg of a marathon, a world-record pace. The kid’s a treasure, I’m telling you, a diamond that will never be cut without the proper training. Consider it. It’s in the kid’s best interests . . .”
The colleagues nodded, considering it, especially the zillion shoes and the dawning Oriental market.
“But you saw the paper work at that airport. Even if the kid goes for it, how would we get him out? What’s he gonna use for a passport?”
“Just one Goddamn minute-!”
‘With Bling’s passport, and a scarf around his throat. ‘He can’t talk, comrade; that long run … laryngitis … you understand.”‘
“Just a minute, what makes you think that little Bee Wing Lou just hands over his passport so some-”
“And the mag pays Bling to keep quiet, put on the nice Chinese warm-ups with the nice hood, and catch the milk plane to Yi Shuyan.
“Pays Bling how much?” Bling wanted to know.
“I’d say a thousand Yankee bucks would cover the flight and expenses.”
Now the editor wants to wait just one goddamn minute. Bling was getting behind it, though-“With another say 500 for the flight back?” and the photog was already laying out a mental edition of the Register- Guard -press conference at Valley River Inn; shot of kid meeting Bowerman at Hayward Field; shaking hands with Hatfield at Salem, the golden pioneer gleaming in the background …
“Let’s have a look at your passport, Bling.”
“I’ll do it for no less than 3000 Chinese yuan. That’s a reasonable compromise, not much more than a thousand bucks!”
“A Chinese Communist Pittsburgh Shylock! Let’s see the passport. . . ”
“Also, we can’t make the pitch tonight at the banquet. We’ve got to get him off from his coaches. They may not be Bill Dellingers, but they can recognize a valuable gem as well as any round-eye. ”
“We’ll get him to come on our Great Wall tour tomorrow!” cried the photographer, adding another page to his mental paste-up. What do you think, Mr. Editor?”
“Well for starters, Bling doesn’t look a thing like him,” the editor observed, his voice clouded with practical concern. “The eyes are different. The noses. Unless you disguised the kid, a customs officer would no more-”
He stopped, gawking into the *open passport for a silent moment as the car swung into the hotel lot. A cornered look came into his worried expression. Then the Pan of him burst through the practical cloud in a helpless yelp of laughter.
“How did you get them to go for a passport photo with those goofy glasses, Bling?”
“They’re prescription,” Bling explained.
When they saw the kid in the banquet hall, they veered to his table and congratulated him again, all giving him the pinky handclasp of their growing conspiracy. Bling translated their invitation about the trip to the Great Wall. The boy blinked and blushed and looked at his coach for advice. The coach explained that it would not be possible; all the Chinese runners were scheduled to visit the National Agricultural Exhibition Centre tomorrow. But thank you for the kind thought.
By the time they got to their table Bling and the writer had cooked up a number of alternative meets-Bling would follow him to the bathroom. .. Bling would tell him there was a phone call in the lobby-but it was that master of surprises Mr. Mude who came forward to further their fantasy.
“I heard of your thoughtful invitation to our little minority friend,” Mude said as he stopped at their table on his rounds. Tonight he was wearing a very informal sports jacket, no tie. “I talked to Mr. Wenyao and Mr. Qian about it and we all think it would make very good media for both our nations. Also., we are told our little Yang has never seen the Great Wall. China owes a young hero a look at our greatest wonder, don’t you think?”
“Oh shit,” moaned the editor. “Oh shit.”
Mude’s mood was still cheerful the next day, his outfit more informal yet-a jogging jacket and Levis. He stopped the bus whenever the photographer asked. He laughed at Bling’s acrid observations on roadside China. He felt good. He knew his assignment had been successful. No bad incidents had happened and he had learned a good deal more about Yankee ways. He was “getting with it, ” as they say. So, after their stroll back down from the Great Wall, when Bling asked if it would be all right if he and Mr. Yang took a little run together before they got in the bus for the long ride back to Beijing-“to loosen the knots”-Mude responded cheerfully with his most with it words, a phrase he’d been saving for just such a time:
“All right, man. Do your thing.”
Bling was still laughing as he and Yang jogged around the bend out of sight.
The journalists played with the swarms of schoolkids in the bus lot. Mr. Mude smoked with the bus driver. The tourists teemed. And the Great Wall writhed across the rugged terrain like some ambitious stone dragon, bigger than the sandworms of Dune, heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Not greater, though. Not nearly. As a World Class Wonder the Great Wall is really more awe-inspiring than uplifting. One feels that it had to take some kind of all-prevailing, ill-proportioned paranoia to drive that stone snake across 3,000 miles and 30 centuries. The Great Pyramid says, I rise to the sky. The Great Wall says, I keep out the louts. China says, The twentieth century must be allowed to enter! The Wall says, Louts will be everywhere -shooting beer commercials; buying Coca-Cola cavities; strutting their ugly stuff. The Twentieth Century says, I’m coming in, louts and all, wall or no … I’m coming in because Time can’t just walk off and leave behind one-fourth of all the people in the world, can it now?
It was almost half an hour before the two runners came back into sight, walking. And Bling was no longer laughing. When his eyes met the writer’s he nodded and mouthed “He’ll do it.” Morosely. Somehow the kick had gone out of the conspiracy. Bling put on his glasses and climbed in to look out the bus window. Yang took a seat on the other side of the bus, looking at the other side of the road.
The ride back, Mude finally’decided, was silent and solemn because everybody would – be leaving tomorrow. It must make the heart very solemn, leaving Beijing after such short weeks. He embraced them all tenderly when he left then for the final time in the hotel lot. He told them if they ever got fed up with capitalistic landlord mentality to contact their friend Wun Mude in Beijing. He would see that China took them in.
Part 10 – Running Into the Great Wall by Ken Kesey (conclusion) Part 9
Bling kept quiet up the steps and across the hotel lobby. In the elevator the journalists finally demanded in unison ‘Well?”
“I’m to pick him up in a taxi when he goes out for his run tomorrow morning. He’ll have his papers on him.”
“Far out. The Prince and the Pauper do Peking.”
“What did he say? When you asked … ?”
“He told me a story … How his father died.”
“. . . well?”
“A few years ago there was a thing-a fad, practically-started by members of the intelligentsia who had taken all the shit they could take. Doctors and lawyers and teachers. journalists, too. They would be found guilty of some crime against the Cultural Revolution and paraded around town with nothing on but a strip of paper hanging from their neck. Their crime would be written on the paper. People, their neighbors, their families-would come out and insult them, throw dirt, piss on the poor dudes, piss on them! We Chinese are fucking barbarians, you know? We aren’t really disciplined or obedient. We’ve just never had any damn freedom! If we could suddenly go down to our local Beijing sporting goods store and buy guns like in the states, man, there would be lead flying and blood flowing all over town!”
“Bling! What about the kid!”
“In Beijing it was doctors, doctors being hassled. The doctors were catching a lot of crap for catering to the landlord element. Treating bourgeoisie heart attacks and so forth. Finally, 20 top physicians, the cream of the nation’s doctors, man, got together and offed each other with swords.”
“Yeah. The kid’s father was a professor of poetry out west. He was condemned to humiliation for teaching some damn out-of-favor tome or other. After enough insults he walked into the provincial university gymnasium in the middle of a Ping-Pong tournament, with a dozen colleagues … they walked in, lined up, took out their knives … and staged a protest.”
“Like … dominoes?”
Bling nodded. The man at the end of the line had to do double duty.”
“Jesus. And that’s why the kid went for our plot.”
“That, and, of course, the stipend of 3000 yuan … that may have had some influence. ”
They waited for their Prince and Pauper as long as they dared the next morning. The photographer fiddled with his aluminum camera cases. The writer checked his pockets again to be sure he’d flushed all the wild wanna. The editor paid the phone bill.
They finally ordered a cab.
“I begin to suspect that we’ve seen the last of Bling, Yang and your thousand clams.”
The editor nodded glumly, the lid now very tight on his irresponsible Pan. “I wonder if the kid gets a cut?”
“I wonder if the kid even got the pitch. Bling may have put a hummer on all of us. Who can tell with these inscrutable pricks. ”
“Not I,- said the writer. “My dad taught me, Son, don’t try to unscrew the unscrutable. ”
The plane was delayed for two hours-emergency work for the flood victims-and they were drinking Chinese beer on the terminal mezzanine when they saw the taxi:
“Here he by god comes!”
“So he by god does,” the editor admitted, not much relieved. “And, by god, with those glasses and that cap-he does look like Bling.”
The photographer lowered his long range lens. “That’s because it is Bling. ”
They couldn’t get seats together until after the take-off.
“You did what with my money?”
“You heard me. Your three Chinese grand went into young Yang’s travel fund to fly him to next year’s Nike marathon in Eugene. ”
“Wait’ll bookkeeping comes across that.”
“Cheer up. He can still defect when he gets to Oregon. I hope the weather’s good. ”
“Listen, Bling. Be straight with us. Did you even ask him?”
“I will not be tempted by doubt,” Bling sniffed. He pushed the recliner button and leaned back, fingers laced behind his neck. “Besides, you’ll get your money’s worth.”
“A thousand bucks for a 30-year-old Peking Punk? With times most high school girls can beat?”
“Not just that. Also good house boy, me. Wash missy’s underdrawers. I’ve got … your Chinese joke!”
“I thought you were our Chinese joke.”
“Through the damp air he could see the
fengs, and his grandfather contorting
through his ancient
“I heard it when I went to the compound this morning–~’
“So why didn’t he come?”
“How should I know? Maybe he’s gotta heart-love back home; maybe he’s got responsibilities. Who knows? Anyway, this guy and his wife were fighting-a minority couple, naturally-and she bit her old man’s nose off! So the government prosecutors charged her with Dangerous Malice and put her on trial to make an example-this is a true story, too, listen-but the guy and his wife are back together by this time-they don’t want her sentenced to a work camp in Mongolia someplace-so they get an old lawyer to defend her, an old leftover lawyer-and he says ‘MY client and her spouse have both stated that she categorically did not bite her husband’s nose off. “Then how did it get bitten off? “My client says he bit it off, himself.’ ‘That is not possible. His nose is far above his mouth. How could he possibly bite his own nose off?” Perhaps,’ the old lawyer says, ‘He stood on a chair.”‘
Yang did not wait for the bus from the Yi Shuyan airport. He left his bag and his coat with Zhoa. He would get them later at school.
He loped off down the puddled runway, east, in the direction of his village. The sweepers smiled at him. The workers he met in the fields smiled and waved to him. Perhaps that was the difference: in Beijing there had been no smile of greeting on the streets. People moved past people, eyes forward to avoid contact. Perhaps it was merely the eternal difference between country life and city life, not between one government and another, or between different races.
Perhaps there were only two races, city and country.
He rattled over the plank bridge crossing the canal and leapt the hedge of brush. Through the damp air he could see the fengs, rising against the descending twilight, and his grandfather there on the dirt road, contorting through his ancient, traditional exercises.
Lofty station is, like one’s body.
a source of great trouble.
The reason one has great trouble is that
he has a body. When he no longer
has a body, what trouble will he have?
Thus: he who values his body more
than dominion over the empire
Can be entrusted with the empire.
And he who loves his body more than
dominion over the empire
Can be given custody of the empire.
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parking meters …
Subterranean Homesick Blues