‘Nanjing has bad Feng Shui’, she said, when I mentioned I was heading in that direction.
‘How so?’ I asked.
‘Oh, you know’, she said. ‘The way the water is with the mountains, the slopes and sun. The problem is that no government has lasted long when it has been based in Nanjing’.
‘So it’s a political Feng Shui’, I said.
‘Maybe’, she said. ‘The south (Nan) capital (Jing) is simply not a good capital. On paper, everything seems good – the navigable Chang Jiang River, the way nature assists fortifications, the location close to the seaports of Shanghai, the openness to the inland’.
‘So what’s the problem?’ I said.
‘The river’, she said. ‘It lets power seep away to the east’.
‘That’s why governments never last in Nanjing’, I said.
‘Yes’, she said. ‘The Eastern Wu in the Three Kingdoms Period of the third century CE, the Southern Dynasties in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Southern Tang in the tenth century, The Ming in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Southern Ming in the seventeenth, the Taiping Revolutionaries in the nineteenth, and the Guomindang in the twentieth – you see the list is long indeed of those who tried and failed to make Nanjing the capital’.
‘Only the Southern Dynasties of 1500 years ago managed to last for a while’, I said.
‘And that was only because of the chaos and conflict between different states’, she said.
‘Otherwise they came to a swift and usually brutal end’, I said.
‘Power simply wouldn’t say in Nanjing’, she said. ‘It is great as a second city, or maybe southern capital, but not as the capital itself’.
‘That must mean layers and layers of history’, I said.
‘Oh yes’, she laughed. ‘The city has been destroyed plenty of times and its people have suffered and been massacred so often – most recently at the hands of the Japanese. But each time something is preserved – ancient walls, homes, tombs, palaces’.
‘I must go’, I said.
‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘You may lose something – not just power. The Feng Shui flows out of the place’.
Go to Nanjing I did, by my preferred mode – train. It was a sleek, smooth affair that managed the more than 300 kilometres from Shanghai in barely over an hour. I had been invited by an intriguing woman – all smiles and ‘welcome to Nanjing’ were on her lips. But it was to be a professional visit, since she lectures at a university there.
Or was it?
She greeted me at the station with a smile and a flower in her jacket. If I had entertained any thoughts of a reflective, intellectual visit, they were soon dispensed. She drew me immediately to the old city wall, where we walked, talked, and posed for silly photos. I looked one way and saw the contours of the old imperial city. Yet when I looked out from the wall, through one of the many apertures for observing and firing upon an enemy, I could see the skyscrapers and bustle of a modern city. I pondered the tensions generated out of the desire to keep and transform millennia of traditions and the century-long project of Chinese modernisation, a project that has catapulted it into being the most powerful economic nation on earth.
By evening, she led me from one temple to another – Buddhist, Taoist, even Confucian. As I paused before statues and incense burners and written ‘prayers’ – even for a human figure such as Confucius – I found myself pondering the apparent contradictions between religious observance and the atheism of the communist party. I would later learn that what appear to be contradictions are not so in China. Or rather, the contradictions find their place next to one another.
The next day we visited the old houses of the rich ruling class, now owned by the people for the people. Here I pondered the old world of emperors and their hangers-on and the new world of the communist party. But here too I thought of the way ruling class women were treated: protected and sequestered inside the houses, even courting was done under strict supervision and even with special chairs that allowed a hint of intimacy without letting the passions of young people run amok. As for the vast majority of young women and men on the farms and fields, that was a different matter entirely.
Meanwhile, she concentrated on getting my tongue to do strange things. Early in life do we learn the habits of the tongue in order to make the sounds that we know. And those habits stick. So to learn a new language, with unfamiliar sounds and placements of the tongue, is a task requiring endless patience and practice.
Push the tongue into the back of the upper teeth and force the air out, sibilant fashion. Curl the tongue backward and make, yes, another and very different sibilant. Or perhaps an ‘r’ as I have never managed before. On it went, with some frustration, laughter and limited success.
But soon I realised that the way our ears become accustomed to certain sounds means that we hear other sounds in terms of the sounds we know. Call it a sonoscape, if you will. It is the collection of sounds we hear and know, assuming they offer the complete range of all sound. Of course, our limited collection of known sounds does no such thing. Time and again, I thought I heard a standard ‘j’ and would repeat it as heard. ‘No’, she said, ‘like this …’ Again, I repeated what I thought I had heard. To me it sounded exactly the same as the sound she had made. To her it was entirely different. Instead of one ‘j’, Chinese manages two or three ‘j’ sounds, registered in pinyin as ‘j’, ‘zh’ and ‘ch’.
As I struggled with the sounds, we walked, visited imperial tombs, temples, grottoes and those extraordinarily manicured gardens. I enjoyed the visit, but she – I realised later – much more so. In her eyes, her Australian friend was becoming much more than a friend. No wonder that she was showing me her town, her ancient city, perhaps hoping that I would one day she her mine. No wonder that she divulged accounts of her childhood in a Shandong village, her parents and siblings (for they were born before the one-child policy), her recent divorce, her inability to have children, her difficulty in finding a new husband at her age …
As is my wont, I was blithely unaware of such stirrings. Or perhaps not. For some reason, I began to sense the longing to be on the road again, to feel that the time was coming to be on my way, to depart from that ancient city as power had done so often for those more important than me. The train departed not soon enough, and she stood on the platform offering a melancholy wave.
It seems as though power is not the only thing that slips away from Nanjing.