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Crawling Inside Stories in China

by Lenore Look
July 11, 2013
My father is a great storyteller. When I was little, my brothers and I were completely spellbound by his tales of how he survived his childhood in his rural Chinese village. He would begin with, “When I was your age…” and immediately transport us to World War II China, when loud planes flew overhead and Japanese soldiers marched into their village in the mornings and stayed all day, eating their chickens and their rice and then marching away when nightfall came. My little boy dad and his baby brother and mom and grandma would then make their way home with the other villagers from the mountains where they had hidden in caves. Every day it was the same. Every night they would return home. And it was all a great adventure.

Then there’s the story of how my dad survived the floods that came into his village every year. He and his brother would take down the doors of their house and paddle around using their hands as oars.

“What about GninGnin and LoBak?” I asked, when I was old enough to feel a sense of alarm for my grandma and great-grandma.

“Oh, they were busy saving the chickens and the rice,” my dad said, as though he were only eight again, and happily recalling only the thrill and none of the danger.

p: tak.wing via photopin cc
It was fun for me to imagine feathers flying and rice getting out of hand while my dad was having the time of his life. Oh, how I loved this story! To me, it was much less frightening than hiding from soldiers carrying bayonets and rifles. But now that I think about it, being forced to save your food supply (over your children) when the river is surging and you’ve never had a swimming lesson was probably not an improvement over a dry cave.

My dad’s storytelling skills also include history dates and the lives of historical Chinese figures that loom large in the Chinese imagination. He can tell you about Sun Tzu, who wrote THE ART OF WAR, as though he were a commander trained by the general himself. Get him started on Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China (221 B.C.), who began the construction of the Great Wall and built an army of terra cotta soldiers to guard his tomb, and you’d think that my dad was a laborer forced to work on both of those grueling projects and is still bitter after more than 2,000 years.

Fed on a steady diet of stories like these, with each one getting more fantastical, and sometimes more hysterical, with each retelling, it’s no wonder I grew up to be a storyteller myself.

But unlike my dad, I didn’t have an exciting childhood. I also didn’t receive a Chinese education. I went to Princeton, which is rigorous enough by modern standards, but it is my dad, a high school graduate, who carries the hallmark of a much more powerful academic education. He was schooled in the backwaters three hours west of Guangzhou, in the small provincial capital of Toisan, where the only roads were made by oxen and owner walking repeatedly over the same path, and where he memorized classical Chinese texts by heart, and still has them memorized to this day. Useless rote memorization? Hardly. He can cite poetic references and drop interesting Chinese idioms into conversations faster than I can hit Google. He had also learned his history dates for thousands of years and hundreds of famous battles better than…ahem…I had learned mine.

If I had followed the advice “write what you know,” I would have written nothing. I don’t know that much. The Chinese would say, “Zhi xue pi mou”—“you’ve learned only skin and fur,” meaning you’ve scratched only the surface. It’s true. Even if I could get all my history dates straight for the 200 years of U.S. history, what is that compared to the more than 4,000 years of Chinese history, to say nothing of the Chinese prehistoric culture that dates back to 10,000 B.C.? And the Western equivalent of reciting ancient Chinese poetry? Well, I could start by memorizing hundreds of lines from the Greek and Roman classics.

So I write what I’m interested in. It’s a more compelling reason to write anyway. It means seeing with the eyes of a child. It means I’m still crawling around inside my dad’s stories, but I’m crawling into new ones too. Everything delights and surprises. I follow my curiosity. I take detours. I wander down one path and find myself on another. I never know what will interest me when I was simply interested in something else. Find a stick, and it could be a doll. Find two sticks, and it could be fire. Doing research is like that. Sparks of ideas fly all over the place. The entire process is a fire hazard. Find a spark, fan the flame with more research, and—poof!—it’s a raging inferno before you know it, and you’re completely consumed by it.

I was researching Chinese death superstitions, customs, and funerals for my book, ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO DEAD BODIES, when I came across Wu Daozi, China’s most famous painter, who was so great, they said, “He never died, he merely walked into his last painting and disappeared.” When I read that, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about him. WHO was this guy? WHAT did he do? HOW did he live? WHERE did he paint? WHY should we care?

My research took to me to the writings of artists and poets in T’ang Dynasty China, who knew that they were watching this amazing artist single-handedly change the course and development of art right before their eyes. It was the first time that people saw lines on flat surfaces pop out and resemble real life. Large crowds gathered to watch him work. It was extraordinary. We call it three-dimensional painting, they called it Divine.

Much was written about him then—he was an 8th-century media darling. But none of his paintings, most of which were frescoes on monastery walls, survived. All that is left of his work are a few stone engravings somewhere in China. Did I need to see them? Could I find them on the Internet? Yes, I did need to see them and, yes, I found some images on the Internet.

Luckily for me, I’d already been to the city of Xi’an, the former T’ang Dynasty capital, where Wu Daozi worked and where he had first been commissioned to give art lessons to a young prince. Eventually, the emperor gave Wu the highest commission of all—to paint an entire palace wall.

When I was in Xi’an in August 2001, I knew nothing of Wu Daozi, but what I saw and experienced there, I was able to use in my book about him. There were hordes of beggar children in the streets of the old city. A more modern city had grown up around the ancient capital, but the old city, with its Muslim quarter and calligraphy district and tea-drinking street, was still intact and completely surrounded by its impenetrable fortress wall. These children encircled my family and me the first night we stepped outside of our hotel to walk to dinner, and began clamoring for money, many of them thrusting their hands in our faces.

My mom immediately took out an American dollar bill and gave it to one of the children. Suddenly, children swarmed like ants to dropped candy, darkening the square that we were trying to cross, and making it nearly impossible for us to make any progress toward the restaurant that we saw across the way. When we finally got to our destination, the children plastered themselves against the windows to watch us eat. We ate, but all we tasted that night was guilt.

p: kanegen via photopin cc
I imagined that Wu Daozi had also been surrounded by beggar children, who perhaps forgot their hunger for a moment when he transported them with his art. In an earlier version of my manuscript for BRUSH OF THE GODS, I had the children plucking food from his paintings and eating it. Nourished by art and survival by the power of the imagination, right? But nowhere is it mentioned that Wu painted food. Chinese art at the time didn’t concern itself with quotidian needs like eating, nor did it include unsavory elements like poverty. So the food was cut (to accurately reflect historical content), but the children stayed (to accurately reflect historical context).

Last year, with BRUSH OF THE GODS already done, I went to China to research two other books. One of my stops was Qufu, the birth and burial place of Confucius, the 6th century B.C. philosopher whose teachings permeate Asian society and thought, much in the same way that Christianity has influenced the Western world. On the expansive grounds of the large Confucius Temple located next to the Confucius Family compound, I walked into a quiet, dusty building in the back, out of sight and off the beaten path of the throngs of tourists. And there—surprise, surprise—Wu Daozi was waiting for me. Hanging behind old glass, there was his most famous stone etching—a life-size portrait of Confucius. His robes moved. His head turned. The tassel on his hat swung with his gait. Indeed, he was about to step out of the stone! I nearly fell over in shock, but first I had to jump out of his way!

p: Charity Chen
I’ve gone to China three times now looking for stories. I’ve been to Concord, Massachusetts, which is hard to spell, countless times, also looking for stories. I hope that I’ll travel to many more places looking for stories and unearthing interesting stuff that I don’t now know. What do I hope to find? Well, I never know. And I hope I never do.

Lenore Look is the award-winning author of numerous children’s books including the popular Alvin Ho series and the Ruby Lu series. Her books have been translated into many languages. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and blogs at A GLOBBY BLOOGY.

© 2013 Lenore Look. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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