My Trip to Asia, Part II: China

The actual trip was at the invitation of Future Affairs Administration, which publishes SF in China (and does a bunch of stuff, actually, but I was most familiar with their publishing because they’ve translated several of my stories into Chinese). It was also sponsored by Wanda Group, which I had not heard of prior to the invitation but which owns, among other things, AMC Theaters. There was a group of both Chinese and non-Chinese science fiction writers; we were taken around the Danzhai Tourist Village and in exchange, we’re each writing a story inspired by the trip.

A group of writers (some Chinese, some white) holding a sign and standing in front of a building with an "Office of the Mayor" sign on it.

I didn’t know who else was coming until I got there. The other western writers were me, Fran Wilde, Carolyn Ives Gilman, and Samantha Murray (who’s Australian). The Chinese writers were Han Song, Zhao Lei, Tang Fei, Liang Ling, and Su Wanwen. The organizers from FAA were Vera Sun and Emily Gu.

Waiting for my suitcase in the Guiyang airport, I saw a baggage sniffer dog. In the US they’re usually beagles, but this dog looked like a golden retriever, and like nearly all working dogs I have ever seen, he was ebulliently happy. I was somewhat startled to see him sit down next to a suitcase — was I about to see an arrest? I watched the suitcase as it snaked its way toward me. No one picked it up off the belt. When it passed me, I saw that its wheels were wrapped — it wasn’t anyone’s suitcase, it was a decoy that rode the belt around and around to give the dog something to react to. When it came out again and the dog sat again, I saw the handler give the dog a treat.

When I got to Immigration, the man asked me what I was coming to China for and I realized that “workshop for science fiction writers” was going to be extremely difficult to explain, so I handed over my official letter of invitation. His supervisor came over and they both read the letter carefully, then looked at me with a broad smile and said, “You are a writer?” “Yes,” I said, and he stamped my passport and waved me through.

Vera was waiting for me; she’d also flown in that day. After helping me hunt down a bathroom and a cash machine, we went out and met a driver from Wanda for the drive to Danzhai.

Guizhou is a very poor area of China, and the Wanda Danzhai Tourist village was built as a poverty alleviation project. The idea is to showcase the local ethnic cultures in a way that draws people in to spend money and learn more. The village looks old; it is actually extremely new.

Buildings along a river. They're wood and stone, and fairly traditional in style. In the far distance, you can see mountains, and also modern-style tall buildings.

The major ethnic group that’s being showcased in Danzhai is the Miao — or as we usually call this ethnic group in the US, the Hmong. (Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that.)

Three women holding drinking horns and wearing beautiful and elaborate clothing. Two of the women are wearing silver hats and silver necklaces that are almost breastplates. The other is wearing silver ornaments in her hair. All also have silver belts with lots of dangly bits.

When I arrived on Thursday afternoon, Sam Murray was there but Fran and Carolyn (and the Chinese writers) would be arriving later. Vera was supposed to let her colleagues in Beijing know what the weather was like in Danzhai. The day we arrived, it was extremely mild and pleasant. Vera had brought along a thick wool coat but didn’t need it. We all had dinner together and then Sam and I went to the spa next door, which had a hot spring.

Fran and Carolyn arrived extremely late at night, but were at breakfast when I got up the next morning. (The hotel had a buffet with a delightful mix of US/European breakfast staples like bacon and eggs, and Chinese breakfast staples like those amazing steamed buns. There was also coffee!) We got to know each other and explored the town a bit.  I think most of the Chinese writers had arrived by that evening.

Of the Chinese writers, the one who was clearly the best-known in China was Han Song — he’s of a similar stature there to Cixin Liu, but less well-known in the US because his work hasn’t been translated. Which is really too bad, because one of his books is called 2066: Red Star Over America and is about a Chinese-dominated post-American world, and don’t you want to read a Chinese SF writer’s take on that? Because I sure do. Tang Fei is probably the best known in the US, because her short fiction has been published here in Apex and Clarkesworld.

The next day started early and was long. We started out walking to the far end of the village, where Han Song was ceremonially made Deputy Mayor. (This is a thing. Anyone important who visits gets named Deputy Mayor. There’s a ceremony and an arm band.)

A cluster of people watching one who's sort of digging, sort of posing with a shovel.Then we all got on a small bus and went out to a tea farm run by Legend Tea, which is a local tea company, where Han Song (assisted by the rest of the group) ceremonially planted a tea bush, which I think is one of the duties of the deputy mayor (as the names by the bushes seemed to correspond to the names of the deputy mayors).

Then we sat down for cups of tea and a talk on local folklore. This was in Chinese. There were quite a few talks that were in Chinese. Translation was provided on an ad hoc basis by whoever was sitting next to us. As the workshop went on, the non-Chinese writers all got better at spacing ourselves out so that we each had a bilingual person sitting by us to tell us what was going on.

After that was lunch. Every item at lunch was made partly with tea or tea leaves, and everyone’s favorite item was the fish.

Oh, I wanted to tell this hilarious/embarrassing story. Right before I left for Taiwan, like literally while I was waiting for my second flight from San Francisco, I googled “important etiquette China.” (I think I did mention that I spent most of October and November not sure whether this trip would actually happen, and then I had a couple of days of frantic preparation during which reading up on etiquette was not a priority.) I ran across an article that gave ENTIRELY BAD ADVICE, including:

Don’t use your own chopsticks to take food from the dishes. Use the serving chopsticks or ladles provided.

I did not ever see serving chopsticks. People just grabbed with their own chopsticks. That was literally what everyone did. This article also admonishes you not to point at people with your chopsticks conversationally (…everyone also did this, I think).

A decorative basin filled with a red soup; you can see slices of tomatoes and chunks of fish in it.

Possibly if you went out to dinner with a bunch of business executives instead of a bunch of science fiction writers things would be different. I mean, if you were writing an etiquette guide for visitors to the US it would probably say “don’t eat with your fingers! Americans use silverware for everything!” and if you went out to eat with a bunch of writers you’d look around and think, “huh. Everyone with a sandwich is definitely picking it up with their fingers and no one is using a fork for their french fries and that person over there is eating her salad with her fingers and dipping her cherry tomatoes in the salad dressing….thanks for nothing, etiquette guide.”

Anyway. The food in Danzhai was amazing. One dish I had over and over and liked so much I tracked down a recipe for it when I got home was an eggplant dish with ground pork and a whole lot of spices. So good. We had fish several times — served up whole, like the fish at the tea farm, or bobbing in a tomato broth.

After lunch, we went back to Danzhai, where we saw a performance of a show depicting the local legend of the Golden Pheasant girl.

Performers on a stage. The stage is set up with multimedia screens so there's a lot of brightness and color.

I am not sure whether this is a strictly local legend. The story starts with the flight of the Miao from where they lived previously; they had to cross a large river to escape after a devastating loss in a war. They finally reached safety, but had no food to grow in their new home, so a few people set out to find a tree that bore the seeds of every plant in the world. They were told that in order to take the seeds, someone had to sacrifice themselves; one of the women did, and was transformed into a golden pheasant.

There are a lot of depictions of the pheasant, or the woman, around Danzhai, including a sculpture up on a hilltop and a statue outside the performance hall.

Women in very colorful embroidered jackets.

After the performance, we went back to the village, where a religious rite was in process. We watched for a while. If I correctly understood what I was told earlier in the day, the purpose of the rite was to allow one girl to contact her ancestors and ask them questions.

I forgot to mention this earlier, but the weather had turned. It was no longer balmy and mild; it was now chilly and damp. By this point, I was deeply regretting my decision not to put on long underwear when I dressed that morning, and maybe an additional layer on top.

Fran, I think, had turned to Vera and said something like, “if I don’t warm up soon I am going to die” because we were abruptly ushered away from the religious celebration and into the mayor’s office where we’d been earlier and given cups of hot tea to drink. We asked what the next thing on the agenda was, and it was more outside stuff but we weren’t leaving for another half hour, so I decided to run back to the hotel. Fran gave me her key so I could grab some warm stuff from her hotel room. I also put on long underwear and an additional top layer and I was a lot more comfortable the rest of the day.

The next item on the agenda: a mercury mine.

Two smokestacks and some very abandoned-looking buildings with mist-shrouded hills behind them.

This mine was in operation from some extremely distant point in the past (the Tang dynasty is what’s stuck in my head, though that may be incorrect) until the 1970s.

Then they loaded us back up and took us down to the mostly-abandoned town by the mine. If you wanted to film a Chinese reboot of The Hunger Games, this is the location you’d be looking for. (I think the reason they take people here — it wasn’t just because we were SF writers, lots of people get brought here, apparently — is because it would make such a fantastic movie set, like that Detroit train station that shows up in every apocalypse movie.)

Two abandoned buildings: to the right, an older style made of brick, and straight ahead, a very modern looking building with balconies. In between, a lot of very overgrown vegetation.

There were definitely still people living here; one of the first things we noticed was a clothesline with some shirts drying in the breeze, and we encountered someone’s pet dog.

A very rusted-out truck with a red placard on the front that says something in Chinese.There were also garden plots, dotted here and there — one of the things I noticed all over this part of China were little patches being used to grow greens (mostly, that time of year, the vegetable that in the US is called Chinese broccoli — we also had it at almost every meal).

The area was pretty thoroughly overgrown, though, and I got covered in burrs walking around. There were signs with old slogans that the Chinese writers found intriguingly old school (“long live Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong thought!” was on a lot of buildings). I took a picture of some Chinese text on the wall of the defunct auditorium that turned out to mean “Fires Strictly Forbidden; Pay Attention to Safety.”

After a while they loaded us all back up and took us through the mountain (I think it was the actual former mine) to the former prison next to the mine.

Han Song standing on a walkway outside the former prison cells. You can see the wall around the prison in the background.

(Pictured: Han Song.) Like the ghost town, people are living here. Also, the prison cells now house a large flock of chickens.

A disused cell block, but you can see a light on on the lower level, where the residents live.

I was really curious about the people living there — were they renters? Squatters? Vera told me that the government paid a caretaker to live there and keep it from completely falling apart, and he was allowed to let family members come live with him. And keep chickens.

When this prison was operating, there were 800 prisoners, living 10 to a cell. Han Song said they were mostly political prisoners.

There are former prisons in the US that you can tour, but Alcatraz is run by the National Parks Service and is a lot more cleaned up.

Anyway, we roamed this defunct prison basically until it got too dark to take pictures, at which point we went back to the bus and back to Danzhai for dinner.

An art classroom with the walls and ceiling hung with batiks, all using a blue dye about the color of denim.I think we had all been assuming that dinner would be the end of the day but it was not. After dinner we had a batiking class. We were given pieces of cloth, and a pencil to do a design with, and little crock pots of melted wax with tools to dab it onto the cloth.

I did an attempt at a phoenix design (the Golden Pheasant girl turned into a golden pheasant, not into a phoenix, but the depictions of her around Danzhai are heavily phoenix-like) and then headed back to the hotel. We’d talked about another trip to the spa but that did not happen, we were completely done in.

The next day we visited another rural town, where we heard a talk on the artistic traditions of the area and also the problems the region is struggling with. (People are leaving is a big one, especially young people.) He also talked about the teaching customs for traditional songs, which were elaborate, and the problem of traditional songs that were being lost because no one was learning them.

A rural landscape. Visible: fields where stuff is growing; a building that's the city hall; a red Chinese flag; terraced hills.

The person in that town who spoke with us was an artist who’d completed a carved-wood mural telling the story of the Miao.

A carved wood panel depicting a man swimming across a river and encouraging others to follow him.

(This is just a brief excerpt; the whole artwork was spread across a wall, like an unrolled scroll.)

A natural cave rising up over a water wheel.

Next up was paper making. First we visited a natural cave where paper has been made since time immemorial (once again they told us a dynasty but I didn’t write it down). The water is naturally alkaline, and that makes for stronger paper.

Then we moved on to another papermaking studio, this one run by an artist who made some really cool stuff. First, though, we had to greet his dog. He had this enormous, extremely shaggy, incredibly friendly dog. He looked like a husky if huskies were mellow. We stopped to pet him on our way in, and when we got ushered into a room to hear more about paper making, he trailed after us about five minutes later and made a circuit around the table, stopping so that everyone could properly pet and admire him

An artist standing next to a lamp made from handmade paper, which looks sort of like a glowing wasp's nest.

My favorite of the artist’s pieces were the ones that looked almost like wasp’s nests, especially the one that was a lamp, which you can see in the picture to the left.

We saw the equipment and some of it got demonstrated, and we browsed through the shop and bought notebooks that none of us were going to use, which was hilarious and one of the most Hi We Are All Writers moments of the trip. (We all had strong preferences about notebooks — size, weight, sturdiness, type of paper, etc. — and the beautiful, decorative notebooks of handmade paper did not fit any of our requirements but they were so pretty as to be irresistible anyway and also very inexpensive so we all bought several.) (For writing notebooks, I mostly use sketch diaries, usually smallish ones, because I like them to be spiral bound and unlined.)

Two people are admiring bowls made from handmade paper. There are also sheets of it on display in the background.

He had handmade paper bowls, sheets of paper that had been sculpted into nets, and a lot of other really interesting sculptural stuff.

One of the other traditional crafts of the area is birdcage-making, but the birdcage-maker had closed for the day when we got there, so we skipped that and went to dinner. Cockfighting is another bit of local culture, and it’s customary to eat the loser. That’s part of what we had for dinner. Afterwards there was music and dancing up on the main square.

Tang Fei drinking rice wine that's being poured out of a pitcher, that's being refilled by a higher pitcher, creating a sort of choreographed fountain of booze.

The next day, we had a meeting with another group of writers and artists from the area, followed by a lunch that featured a custom where you drank rice wine out of a bowl that was being replenished by a pitcher (that was being replenished by another pitcher and so on up the line of four pitchers forming a wine fountain). I did not attempt to drink all the rice wine they would have poured out for me — it was potent and I was also a bit worried I’d inhale it and choke.

You can see a video version of the fountain here. If I understood correctly, the song translates to something along the lines of “why do you have to leave? We don’t want you to leave! You should stay longer!” which is pretty apropos when it goes along with booze.

In the afternoon, we went to a tea shop where they’d arranged for the women in the group to try on the local ethnic dress, if we wanted. We were all pretty curious about the weight of those silver hats, and most of us wound up trying it on, taking turns and drinking lots of tea while we waited. The hat is actually fairly light, and well-padded around the band, but the fringe hung down in front of my eyes.

The next day we all went home — Samantha leaving at some ridiculously early hour, Fran and Carolyn and I following at 7 a.m., and the Chinese writers leaving later in the day.

It was a fascinating trip and I’m so grateful I got to go. I’m about 3,000 words into the contracted story.




2 thoughts on “My Trip to Asia, Part II: China

  1. I WANNA GO TO CHINA and look at the pretty landscapes and eat everything not spicy enough to give me indigestion. Except I feel like I need a senpai (or the Chinese equivalent of a senpai) especially because I might try to use Japanese as my “default to thing that fills foreign language slots in brain.” I’d like to learn enough Chinese to actually pronounce the names, but most of my resources are already sunk in trying to get my Japanese vocab beyond the toddler level.

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