I Have Been To New China

excerptsAlthough if you observe it partially and with amusement the Chinese landscape may look like any other landscape, the fundamental impression is of being on another planet. The soil suggests here that the matter froze quickly while boiling and it stood still in dramatic shapes. The crust still gives the illusion of its movement from the Mongolian plateau towards the seas. Any mountain peak may be a volcano, under the green pasture you find a clog of stone. The rigid and hacked mountains that in the north of China are made of stone, sometimes speckled with red clay or with green steppe vegetation, mostly nude and which, tossing at the moment of solidification, appear when seen from a plane as the lobes of a sectioned brain, are remarkable for the fact that they seem and are, normally, tangible. The Alps appear from a distance solitary and inaccessible and you can imagine the precipices and steep walls on the way to their peaks. The upward path to the peaks isn't visible. Here, the view is different. The elements that make up the mountain ranges start from the minimum dimension up to the gigantic one without formal differences, just as Buddha is represented as a small stone puppet as bodhisattva and in the same way in gigantic proportions as Buddha revealed. Promontories of the same kind, pyramid-shaped, cone-shaped, cylindrical (these especially made out of sliced stone) or half spheres gather on the bottom of a plain going upwards towards the sky, starting with the smallest figures and ending in the background with the biggest. The passage from mountain to mountain and from peak to peak seems possible and sometimes in the foreground, even the passage through hills, set on the ground, at a distance, without any valley between them. The temples are built with thousands of steps of stone on the slopes of the mountains, they divide between themselves the courts and the sanctuaries with terraces stretching up to the peaks. In China you can climb the mountains on the stairs. In some parts of the country, the mountains, conic or spherical, are so amazingly clear and individually disseminated on the horizon that they appear ghostlike, like belfries and steeples set directly on the ground, hovering upon water when they come out of the lakes and of the sea as islands. Smoke covers, in bad weather, these protuberances (the Chinese used to worship the mountains because they believed they produced clouds), creating that atmosphere of ambiguity so often depicted by the artists in their silk scrolls. The sky is one with the earth, seeming a luminous lake, and you have the feeling that you are in the sky, which can be considered the first element of China. Another surprise is the yellow clay, the loess, sometimes bright red, rising upon the shores, producing bizarre narrow paths like the path through the Red Sea cut by Moses with his cane, or turning itself, in the rain, into a soft paste out of which hundreds of million of Chinese mould the rice fields. Sometimes, the colour of the clay is so bright that the soil from Canton, devoid of vegetation with the exception of a few small pines, seemed painted with red paint.The second element of the Chinese landscape is water. The main difference between a mountain stream, swamp, lake, river and sea is indistinguishable. The soil full of turbans seems to have come out of agitation, the waters are all placid. Towards Canton they gather into a rocky narrow path through dark reddish stone cylinders, resembling pagodas, a sort of Bistrita river with long rafts floating down it. But the water flows slowly like a river. The rivers, in their turn, are wide as the lakes. You can't tell the river apart from the lake at Hantseu. The bridges across the rivers have absurd lengths, they lose themselves in the whiteness of the aquatic horizon. At Nanking, the Blue River has the shape of a Canal Grande, considerably extended. The passage across it is made by ferry. The region may suffer from floods, the great river becomes a sea. At Tietsin, the border between the river side and the sea can be indicated only by the local people. The white river and the yellow sea are related when it comes to placidity. A so-called bar indicates the transition into the sea. China is crossed by such slow rivers, by lakes, canals, wide or narrow, over which fly graciously thousands of butterflies with big striated wings, ghostlike boats, with patched sails and which seem to be amphibious because you see them gliding on land sometimes, because of the invisibility of the canals. In the regions where there aren't canals derived from rivers, there are wells with the axe turned horizontally by drive animals and whose water is given to the fields. Last, there is the abundant rain, in the warm seasons, soaking everything. Every Chinese peasant has, because of this, a large umbrella, flat and speckled with flowers, surprisingly elegant, made out of waterproof paper, with which they go out in the field to see their rice. When the umbrella is red or yellow you may believe that a big tulip or a poppy appeared on the field.With the exception of some rocky regions, with the soil made out as if of hardened tar, on which only small vegetation grows, there isn't a "wild" landscape in all China. The country is a huge garden where all the land patches are sowed. You can't sit anywhere without flattening a field of rice or a tea bush. The buffalo grazes, with understanding care and philosophically, only the weed which comes out on the narrow margin that surrounds the field, without pulling out the straw that can be used for something else. Due to total upturning, you can't see forests for thousands of kilometres. Of course, there are in China a lot of essences, ciders, pines, fir trees, cypresses, white sandal, cinnamon trees, oaks.A piece of architecture one often finds in China, in the streets, at the entrance in the gardens, in graveyards, is the commemorative gate. It is schematically composed of four stone pillars, which form a wider central gate and two narrower side ones. In the upper part, the vertical parallels are closed with other two horizontal poles, the ones in the middle being set higher, but all of them lower than the end of the pillars, which appear as some iron bars. This scheme varies endlessly and according to the boundaries of the imagination, through wings in the upper part of the pillars, through embroideries, eaves, dragons and chimeras, carved socles. There are also gates with one entrance or with five entrances.The temple is mainly rectangular, and set on a great platform, it has a cloister of columns of wood dyed in red and which seem thin compared to the roof which is sometimes huge. The pillars are sometimes made of stone with carvings representing curling dragons. In the upper part the columns often have two very embroidered sides which, forming a system with the others, produce a sort of a breach-shaped arch. Over the beams that unite the pillars there is a grate, which at first sight is indescribable and cannot be analysed and which is probably a luxuriant paraphrase of the capitals. Everything forms a wooden honeycomb, where the swallows nestle, and this is why they are protected with a network of wire. The air comes through the cells of the masonry honeycomb, because the Chinese gladly let the air go under their eaves. Above the cloister they lay a first roof with upturned corners like the fir tree branches. Chinese architecture leaves the impression that it tries to hide the house among the trees, by imitating vegetation. In certain interpretations of the upturning, the corners are raised often like pheasant tails, or like horns. Then there is a second masonry honeycomb, and the roof proper, which is covered and ornamented in the most chimerical way, with scales or with rolls of animal-printed faience. The ancient Chinese were afraid of evil spirits, and to protect themselves against them they would put on the ribs of the roof all sorts of figurines made out of colourfully enameled faience, especially green, red, a dolphin on the top of the roof, lying on its belly and rising its tail up, dragons going down the peaks, or Buddha's dogs lined up to the eaves. They would also put in effigy anything that was able to protect their home, the god of war, a Buddhist priest riding a cock, Taoist saints, Buddha as ho-tei, the god of carelessness, Buddha as Kuanyin, even devils, which through homeopathy could chase away other demons. There is also a sense of humour alongside with a sense of ornamentation. At some big modern stores the entrance is ornamented with wings of the size of crocodiles, an attraction for the clients. It happens that the wood ornamentation, the honeycomb, the bamboo rafters are imitated in colourfully enameled faience, or even marble. At Peking and at Nanking I saw modern buildings in traditional style whose entire structure was made out of concrete. They complete the rest by filling in with thin brick walls, just as for the older buildings.A common façade of a house is, generally speaking, made out of three sections according to the baroque style (there is an obvious baroque style). The lateral parts are two quadrilaterals shorter than the middle part, so that the profile of the eaves is that of a crenel. Then the crenel sustains two upturned eaves, and the lower lateral ends support other eaves, too. The house is painted in red, green, yellow, blue, ornamented vertically with inscriptions, sometimes decorated with images of faience, porcelain, with stone railings or railings made of wood carved so minutely that it seems eaten by deathwatches. The lateral parts may be obliquely disposed, the upper rows may be of wood and of carved panels, and the eaves may become more complex turning into bizarre caps, set one upon the other, whose corners seem to be antennas of cockchafer, of stag beetle or of a fantastic crustacean.The pagodas are pyramidal conic towers, mostly hexagonal, octagonal, growing thinner towards the end. They have 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 floors, each one with a roof more or less upturned, so that the building resembles a pile of hats of cardinals, set one upon the other. Some of them have a circular balloon at each floor. The first floor is higher and represents a sort of socle, the others are narrower and narrower. In general, the pagodas are set on a higher ground. A spiral staircase leads to the last tower where the view overwhelms the soul (I have climbed several pagodas). Some of them are small and scattered in the fields, in the villages, more like obelisks, where a man doesn't fit. In Canton there were two of them, very old, made out of iron, once gilded in gold, and a conical pagoda made out of marble, in a temple resembling some turbans lined up on a stick. Around Pekin one can see some ornamental pagodas made out of marble, with the roofs thrust one upon the other and so embroidered that they seem filigree thimbles. Still in Pekin there is a pagoda of marble resembling an orthodox church, the Three Hierarchs for example. The stone walls of the quadrilateral building are divided into seven horizontal zones where hundreds of small bodhisattvas are carved. There are five steeples on the roof of this sanctuary set each on a porch, which are no more and no less than pyramidal pagodas with eleven and thirteen steps. The view is fabulous. Villages and Fields In the rocky region above Peking, the houses are surrounded with walls made of crumbled stone piled up without any plaster. The simplest houses lean against a side of the courtyard, having the shape of a parallelepiped set on its larger side, but the roof is in the most of the cases bent in a smooth curve. What gives originality to these houses are the windows, broad and sometimes occupying the whole upper side of the frontal wall like a bay window. The windows are made of a grate in the well-known Chinese style, that is of a web of concentrically disposed squares, linked with other radial lines. This drawing varies infinitely, becoming a mosaic or an intricate embroidery. When it's cold outside they stick on it translucent, oiled paper. The windows can be smaller, closed with a simple grate made of wood or with some trellis fastened with iron bars and sometimes with glass windows. In the bigger villages, the walls are made of bricks, plastered and painted, covered with ideographic inscriptions, and in the upper part even with a border of stone embroidery. A gate with eaves of upturned tiles, with one of several small dragons, leads to the inner court, where the rooms are set all around as in a monastery. A second interior court can be placed after that. The wall represents the basic element of the building, protecting the house against winds, and the house proper, made of wood, lies hidden behind it. In a village near Hantseu there was, around a house, a considerably thick and high wall cast in a sort of concrete, with much sand in it.Sometimes the villages lie in an open place, with country roads; in the mountainous regions they have sloping cobbled lanes, and they give the impression of villages from southern Europe. The inside of a bigger house near Peking is simple, but full of a certain refinement. A wing of one of them for instance, is divided into three parts, the one in the middle being used as common room, the others as bedrooms. The walls made of carved wooden panels separate the rooms. In the upper part, one can see the bamboo beams through the wall. The long table is surrounded by narrow sofas or by bamboo chairs. A large bed called kan covers half of the bedroom, and a masonry wall supports it. On this sofa there are folded counterpanes, a box or two with the clothes and a small table, because during the day the women sit with their legs crossed on the beds and sew. In general, this is the Chinese peasants' saloon; the hosts and guests gather in it, around the table, drinking tea, smoking and talking. A hearth from one room in the other corner is linked, under the floor, to the sofa that it heats from underneath, the smoke going out through a clay tube placed on the edge of the roof. The lid can be seen near the wall of the kan or inside it. A young man from the countryside told me that in other parts of the country the peasants sleep as we do, on the oven during the winter, but I think that he could only have meant the kan, which is in fact an oven, a primitive heater. One can also see at least a stove, which seems very elegant, because it has the shape of those made of black or red lacquer, widespread in Europe in the Chippendale period in the 18th century. On them you can see surprisingly beautiful porcelains with foliages and dragons made in sepia or cobalt, because current ceramics is always above the ordinary. A few stone slices with veins that represent (according to the view of Chinese painting) a landscape are hung on the wall, together with family photographs – the son in the army in the liberation war, the young parents. The vegetables, the seeds gathered in autumn are piled up on the porch in the inner yard or put in bags in a room and on a small chair to protect them from moisture. Outside hang corncobs out of which they make a white maize mush.In the lower parts of the country, in the clay regions, one can see houses made of clay, some well built, and painted huts, with a curved roof set on bamboo beams. Two of the windows on both sides of the door are locked with trellis. The simple shape varies with the introduction in the interior part of the façade of a porch supported in the middle by two pillars. The house is often closed within a courtyard with a high wall made of clay also. The effect of these huts is rather astonishing, on the airy vegetation which was let loose. Reddish wisterias are put on the wall or a few trees swing behind it. In fact, the houses, at least a part of them are not made of clay, but of painted brick, as I have seen at a close look, the bricks being hardly stuck together with clay, or even set one upon the other without being stuck, one being able to undo them at any time. Some of these houses are painted. The houses are gathered together in small hamlets with a leveled place in front of them; sometimes they are closed within embattled walls with gates and towers and, if they are on hills, with stairs. In the more compact and older villages, the roofs are made of one or two sloped surfaces, just as in our country but, naturally, they are then ornamented with coloured tiles, horns and dragons, and edged with crenels. As you go towards the south of the country you encounter a rural architecture, if not essentially changed, at least modified with respect to the materials used. The wooden structure is predominant. Some of the houses have a second floor and are painted in yellow, orange, resembling to the country houses from the centre and south of Italy. The main porch, when there is one, is two storeys high, showing at the same time a certain frailty. The windows are almost always with trellis. ESPLA, 1955

by George Călinescu