On the train to Hangzhou on Saturday morning, I found myself sitting next to a young man who saw me as a good opportunity to practice his English. He was on his way from Ningbo to Hangzhou in order to sit an exam for the Civil Service. It was, he told me, very competitive. He was surprised to see me reading The White-Boned Demon. "Why do you want to read about this bad woman?" he asked. "She almost destroyed China." He then explained to me that Jiang Ching was Mao's second wife. I told him that she was actually his fourth. He looked at me with the "mad foreigner" expression I've grown accustomed to in the People's Republic.
Hangzhou, he tells me, is "the most beautiful city in China". On arrival at the train station, it looks like every other Chinese city I've been to - concrete and haze. However, a short if hairy taxi ride takes you to the area around the West Lake, which is very pretty indeed, if shrouded by the omnipresent pollution-induced mist. This is one of China's ancient capitals, and the city where Zhou Yingtai and Liang Shanbo (the Butterfly Lovers whose Yueju story we use in Dis-Orientations) met and fell in love. It also has a very famous cuisine, with fish from the lake cooked in a sugar and vinegar sauce a speciality. I try this on Saturday night at the Louwailou restaurant on Gushan Island, with a photo of Zhou Enlai having the same meal in the same room over my head, which appeals. For Sunday lunch, I sampled Dongpo pork, which is unbelievably fatty, but tasty with it!
I sit by the lake with the video camera running, just in case I find we want to have a Hangzhou scene in Re-Orientations. That is, assuming it ever happens. The down side of this trip has been the way in which the bringing of the existing play to China has totally eclipsed the idea of making a new one, to the extent that I'm not sure we're even eligible for some of the funds we've applied for towards this. I feel a strong artistic need to make the third part - but it may be that it ends up being a separate piece again, which doesn't get performed as a full Trilogy. Wait and see.....
Although Chinese people seem to work a seven-day week, my schedule is actually quite light for this bit of the trip. Hangzhou really is just a bit of research and some sight-seeing. I take in the Lingyin Temple (a Zen Buddhist monastery) with its amazing ancient statues carved into the mountain beside it, known as the Peak Flying from Afar, because (intriguingly) the mountain, like the religion, was supposed to have been transported from India. These links between China and India are very interesting in view of Re-Orientations. Of course, the famous Journey to the West is all about a trip to collect Buddhist texts. There's an allusion to this in The White-Boned Demon: Jiang Ching once sent Mao a note of apology for one of her rages, which was a quotation from the book. Like Monkey, when the monk has left him to go to India, she writes "My body is in Water Curtain Cave, but my heart is following you."
I visit the National Tea Museum in Hangzhou, where I fall into conversation with a young Russian woman called Masha, in China for a year to learn Chinese so she can get better at her job (which seems to be something like a high-powered economic consultant to governments the world over). She's been reading Xinran's books, and tells me how much the accounts of the 50s and 60s in China remind her of her own family history in Stalinist Russia. Her grandparents were condemned and transported to Khazakstan (where she, no Borat, was born), because they had owned a couple of chickens and cows, which made them bourgeois. Failing to find a taxi, we take a bus together back into the city centre - the tea museum is set among tea plantations. Like many spaces in modern China, the bus has TV playing on it. This one is showing a Western documentary about medieval ideas, particularly Thomas Aquinas. Strangely enough, nobody seems to be watching.
I take the overnight train to Beijing, and am able to get online again! Last time I came to this city, I wrote in this blog about it being shrouded in perpetual haze. This time it's back with a vengeance, accompanied by snow. Visibility is very limited. I catch up on admin, then take the tube to the Confucian Temple in Dongcheng. In Ningbo, one of the staff, Brian Hilton, said that I should read up a bit on Confucius - since he was making the same points about dialogue as the means to the discovery of truth that I said I admired in Plato; and round about the same time as Plato too. Unlike the Buddhist Lama Temple and the Taoist Dongyue Temple which I visited two years ago, this one has virtually no religious use any more, since it was associated so intimately with the Imperial cult - although I do see one man fall to his knees for a furtive prayer, and there are some offerings in the main hall. But it's nothing compared to all the bowing, praying and incense burning I saw at Lingyin yesterday. The guide book explains that ceremonies ended in 1948 (pretty obvious why), but were brought back in 1989 "as a tourist programme".
This is also the area where you can still see Beijing's traditional hutongs; most of which have been flattened in the drive towards "modernization", and particularly to make way for next year's Olympics. I walk through the back streets, and peer into the courtyards of these traditional communal living spaces. People cycle up and down the lanes, cutting through the haze, and buy dumplings from the street vendor. If these hutongs go too, what will happen to these people?