Q: How did you first develop an interest in Chinese languages, history, and culture?
A: Serendipity at age 14. At a Magnet High School in Minneapolis, merely by chance I took Chinese language from Margaret Wong, a pedagogic genius who convinced many of us that learning Chinese was urgently necessary, and easy. Teacher Wong's father had fought on the losing side of China's civil war in the 1940s, as a high-ranking Nationalist general close to Chiang Kai-shek. Her war stories from the 1940s mesmerized me, as did her anecdotes about growing up in a powerful household of wartime China, cosmopolitan Shanghai, and political Beijing. Despite Teacher Wong's Nationalist background, she developed strong ties with the new PRC, and thus our Chinese class managed to visit China in 1978, as guests of the Chinese government, six months before the US and China normalized relations in 1979. The only photo I have from that trip is following a basketball game we played with a school team in a mountain village. Our overnight in the mountains was unplanned; that day the military needed our hotel due to the eruption of tensions on the Sino-Soviet border.
Following this 1978 trip, I stayed on in Hong Kong, studying language and history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. My subsequent education at Stanford and Harvard was driven by an obsession with China and learning Chinese. I've been lucky, studying with some of the leading China scholars in the world, and studying intensive Chinese at the preeminent language centers in China and Taiwan. I've also enjoyed non-academic experiences in East Asia, such as acting in movies, helping produce the first Chinese-Japanese TV series, living in a village, on a farmer's roof next to his pigeon coop, and working as a runway model.
Q: How long would it take to traverse the entire 3,600 miles of the Yangtze? What would one see of note upstream of the Three Gorges?
A: Well, it could take months, as it did for the several million people who walked up the Yangtze from Shanghai to Chongqing, to escape the fighting during World War II.
Regarding the historical significance of the Three Gorges and the Yangtze River, bear in mind that China's history, unlike Western history, occurred in a concentrated geographic area. The history of the west is spread out across half the globe, from Mesopotamia, the Mideast, the Mediterranean, Europe, and then North America. By contrast, China's historical experience occurred largely within the area of today's China. This means that China's equivalent of Abraham, Odysseus, Hippocrates, Cleopatra, Caesar, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Napoleon, George Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt all lived within a relatively restricted geographical space, especially along China's great river systems. (This is also why the remarkable Terra Cotta warriors of the First Emperor were discovered by chance, by farmers digging a well). The earth is brimming with archeological riches and places such as the Three Gorges are bursting with historical memory and cultural significance. And the lessons of this area continue to excite the modern imagination. Take for example the classic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), which describes in Homeric detail the adventures inside the Three Gorges of warriors such as Guan Gong (China's Achilles) and the ingenious military strategist Zhu Geliang. This exciting text informed the strategic thinking of Chairman Mao Zedong more than the writings of Marx and Lenin. The blockbuster film "Red Cliff" reinterpreted these dramas for the big screen. Recent archeological discoveries of the 'Sanxingdui' culture now posit a competing vision of early Chinese civilization, complicating the Yellow River's age-old claim as the China's "cradle." The role of the Three Gorges in Tang poetry, Song painting, and Ming drama is profound. The Three Gorges are also visually stunning, as are the unspoiled nature reserves in adjacent tributaries feeding the Three Gorges. Finally, to come to terms with contemporary China, one must understand the Three Gorges Dam.
Q: When Smithsonian travelers tour a traditional, perhaps millennium old, Beijing "hutong" or neighborhood, what should they be especially aware of? Architecture? Layout? Location relative to the Forbidden City? Do hutongs compare to old neighborhoods in other parts of the world?
A : What makes Beijing a unique city is that it contains the full range of urban cultural experience, from the sublime Imperial City were the Emperor dwelled as the Celestial Pivot of universal empire, to the large public spaces such as Tiananmen Square, an area that constitutes the very core of China's political culture, and the centuries-old neighborhoods of the 'hutong,' where the city people live. On one trip to China in the 1980s, the airlines lost my luggage and a passenger invited me to stay with his family in a hutong until my bags turned up. The key architectural feature of a hutong home is that the rooms surround a courtyard. The entire courtyard compound is invisible to the outside. Thus from a narrow alley, through a nondescript doorway, the hutong opens up into highly personal spaces where families live. The old hutong neighborhood is walking distance from the imperial city, which was built on the ashes of Kublai Khan's palace.
Q: One can read about the 7,000 Terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an, or perhaps have seen the 120 that have traveled to museums outside China in the last several years, but is there any way to convey the awe and impact of seeing the entire 7,000 in their original 2,300 year old environment? Please share your impressions.
A: The first surprise is the north China plain, on which the Great Qin Emperor's tomb rests. For hundreds of years, emperors carefully placed their tombs in this area, so as one drives to the Terra Cotta warrior site, one passes mound after imperial mound. Most remain unexcavated, but one can still climb to the top and take in the unrivaled feng shui of this zone of imperial eternity, sensing the tomb's role in maintaining the fabric of cosmic harmony. There is hardly a better way to glimpse the imperial imagination than to experience face-to-face its monumental architecture, designed for eternity.
During his lifetime of war, the Great Qin Emperor made many enemies. His subterranean army of terra cotta warriors discovered by farmers in 1974 is but one aspect of his stunning attempt to sustain himself in the afterlife. The science and technology that enabled the construction of this archeological treasure was based on techniques perfected during centuries of warfare and empire building. At the site one gains an immediate sense of the Warring States science that enabled China's first unification, setting the subcontinent of China on a different trajectory than the Europe of competing nation states. The quality, durability, and vast number of terra cotta warriors, horses, chariots, weapons, and daily life items was made possible by a gamut of stunningly precocious industrial techniques, such as the blast furnace, cast iron, and above all, the unsung hero of ancient China, the double acting piston bellows.
The terra cotta army continues to yield remarkable insights into the social life of Qin China, including self-fashioning, diet, clothing, ethnicity, notions of afterlife, crime and punishment, infrastructure, and insight into military affairs, including strategy, projectile and steel weapons, poison gas, and siege craft. One can turn to the The Records of the Grand Historian (written by SiMa Qian, China's Herodotus, who interviewed people alive during Emperor Qin's reign) to glimpse inside the Emperor Qin's tomb, yet to be excavated. Recent chemical analysis of the soil surrounding the tomb suggests the accuracy of many of SiMa Qian's statements.
Q: How are the pandas at the preserve in Chengdu doing these days? Is the preserve breeding program making the hoped-for difference in the overall population of this endangered species?
A: The pandas are thriving. Frankly I was blown away by what I witnessed there. The biologists running the place are on the cutting edge and are doing paradigm-shifting work, work that is supported both by the Chinese government and by international organizations, such as the WWF. The panda was on the cusp of extinction, due to encroachment by humans and the erosion of panda habitat. Yet the species itself harbors a few evolutionary challenges. For example, pandas are carnivores but behave like herbivores. They maintain a 100 percent vegetarian diet, and thus must consume large amounts of bamboo leaves to compensate for the relatively low nutritional density of the plant vs. meat. Pandas also have relatively long cycles of fertility, slowing down the reproductive process. But the pandas at the Chengdu reserve are doing wonderfully. Recalling my visit there puts me in a good mood.
Q: We will visit local families in Beijing and Lhasa. What similarities and what differences can we anticipate?
A: What these families will have in common is a profound sense of hospitality. My best memories are of the times spent in people's homes. I have learned more sitting around the dinner tables of friends than almost anywhere else. It's these times, these discussions that made me feel an 'expert,' even after years of formal training. In my experience, people are incredibly open and are willing to discuss almost any topic. Public places have an important social function. The market, restaurants, parks, and public transportation are all places where people meet, bump into strangers, exchange ideas; some of my deepest conversations with people have been on the bus. But the home is distinct: people share and they also wish to know your opinion, your point of view. What strikes me about families in both Beijing and Lhasa is the lived sense of history. People not only have deep historical consciousness, they sometimes see themselves as caretakers of memory, much as professional historians might think. The principal difference in these two places is in how the culture of the other is regarded.
There's a saying in both Chinese and Tibetan: "When at home, depend on family; when out in the world, depend on friends." What people often forget is that the opening line of the Confucian classic, the Analects, easily the most influential text in the long history of East Asia, quotes the Master Confucius: "What greater delight than to welcome friends from afar?"
Q: Perhaps the most well-known form of Chinese medicine in the West is acupuncture. Is acupuncture used throughout China or only in certain regions? And what part does it play in the pantheon of traditional Chinese medicine?
A: After years of testing, the AMA (American Medical Association) now acknowledges acupuncture as a legitimate therapy. Acupuncture is widely practiced in China, and is an efficacious treatment for controlling pain. And acupuncture is but part of a pantheon of therapies to treat disruptions of vitality inside the body. Examples include moxibustion and cupping, to extract toxins, gua-sha, to scrape toxins from the skin's surface, and of course, the widely practiced pharmacology. Massage is another expression of these therapies, and foot massage in particular is now wildly popular. When friends from Japan visiting Beijing suggested that we all get foot massages, I thought it sounded tedious. I was mistaken.
Medicine in China has in fact become a global medicine, soon perhaps as ubiquitous as biomedicine. Inside China, patients tend to be agnostic, consulting different medical systems depending on the ailment and on the results. Medicine is also a big business in China and entrepreneurs creatively find ways to repackage traditional treatments into fashionable products for China's dynamic, hip urbanites.