Art China Inner Mongolia Translation

Inner Mongolian Village Governance Comics

The Great Wall on the Mongolian border near Old Garrison


Around December during a dip into Inner Mongolia along the Great Walls I found myself begging around for water in a little village there. Some Hanzu farmers, with uncharacteristic niceness, invited me in for lunch. The above is the inside of their house, which consisted of three arched cave rooms cut into a loess hillside. On the wall around the sleeping platform they had the following cool posters:



These are apparently the illustrations from a little comic book-style booklet on village governance ordinances in Inner Mongolia.  It seems like an unusual thing to make a comic book about and some of these drawings are actually surprisingly well done. (They have a nice color scheme, don’t they? And kind of an ’80s aesthetic, except trippily transplanted into rural, communist Inner Mongolia.) So I thought I’d translate the whole thing. There’s obviously a lot of gaps, as half of both posters were hidden; I suppose if you want to know more about Inner Mongolian village governance, you can go to there and find out more yourself. This goes along with my general interest in vernacular visual cultures of all types. For those of you who care about rural jurisdictional pyramids, I’m translating 村 and 嘎查 as “village”, 鄉 as “villageship”, 蘇木 as “arrow”, and 鎮 as “township”. 



I) In accordance with the “Legal Code for the Organization of Village Committees of the People’s Republic of China” and incorporating the realities of the [Inner Mongolian] Autonomous Region, the following methods will be used.


[The sign on the wall says, "The Village Committee"]


II) The village committee is the the base-level collective self-governing organization for the self governance, self education, and self service of the village people. It puts into motion democratic elections, democratic decision making, democratic governance, and democratic supervision.


[The sign on the gate says, "The People's Government of Bayan Sumu"]

III) The people’s governments at the arrow, villageship and township levels give guidance, support, and help to the work of the village committee of Gacha, but they cannot interfere with affairs that in accordance with the law fall within the realm of the self-governance of the village. The village committee will partner with the people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels in launching new projects.

IV) The village committee will be instituted in accordance with principles that are convenient for mass governance, and in accordance with the living situation of the people, their historical preferences, the size of the population, etc. The creation, dispersal, and jurisdictional adjustments of the village committee will be suggested by the people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels. After being discussed and agreed upon by a meeting of the village people, it will be reported to the people’s government at the arrow level in order to be approved.


V) The village committee is formed from the chairman, the vice-chairman, and three to seven members of the committee. These are chosen by direct election from the village people. The precise number of posts will be suggested by the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments in accordance with the specific situation of the village, and will be decided by discussion during a meeting of the people of village or a meeting of their representatives. Among the committee members of village, there should be a quota of an appropriate number of female candidates. If the village is inhabited by multiple nationalities, there should be committee members who belong to whichever nationalities represent a minority. Among the members of the committee, there should be none who are spouses or are close relatives. The chairman and vice chairman of the committee are not permitted to be in charge of the financial affairs of the village. Those who are spouses or close relatives of members of the village committee members are also not permitted to be in charge of financial affairs of the village.

VI) The village committee can establish subordinate committees in accordance with need. If the population of the village is small, the committee can also not establish subordinate committees, and just divide their work between the committee members.

VII) The village committee can, in accordance with the specific situation and the wishes of the villagers, divide up to form smaller groups. The leaders of these smaller groups will be decided by group meeting. The groups can launch projects under the direction of the village committee.


[The sign says, "The Main Responsibilities of the Village Committee".]

VIII) The village committee receives its responsibility from the assembly of the people of the village. The main tasks of this responsibility are as follows:

  1. To organize both herding and farming people to develop a multi-faceted economy. It has the task of serving and coordinating the production of the village.
  2. To protect the two-level system of using household contracts as a basis and simultaneously centralizing and decentralizing, in order to prevent the legal rights and benefits of collective economic groups, the village people, and other economic groups from being harmed.
  3. In accordance with the law, to manage, protect, and use in accordance with reason the land, prairie areas, mountain forests as well as the electrical, irrigation, and other facilities which collectively belong to the herders and farmers.
  4. To manage the financial affairs of the village.
  5. In accordance with the economic development needs of the villages and pastoral areas, to draw up and implement a building plan for the village, setting up public works and develoments to the general benefit in the agricultural fields and pastoral areas, as well as in forestry, irrigation, roads, electricity, communications, education, technology, culture, sports, and social security.
  6. To educate the people of the village to take care of public property, protect and improve the natural environment, and develop and make use of natural resources in accordance with the law and with reason.
  7. To propogate and implement the constitution, laws, regulations, and national policies. To educate and urge the village people to take part in payment of taxes, military service, volunteer education, and other tasks as defined by law, as well as to uphold the basic national policy on family planning.
  8. To develop cultural education and basic level technological knowledge, and to launch different forms of activities to develop civilized spirit.
  9. To mediate quarrels among the people, to promote family harmony, to encourage the unity of the village people and to promote the unity and mutual assistance of hamlets within the villageship.
  10. To mutually assist in acheiving a secure society, and to protect the normal order of production and life. To assist relevant agencies, and to educate, assist, and manage any members of the village who have been stripped of their political rights in accordance with the law.
  11. To convene the assembly of the people of the village and the assembly of the representatives of the village, to make work reports, and carry out their decisions and suggestions.
  12. To reflect the comments, needs, and advice of the village people to the sumu, villageship, and township level people’s governments. To guard the rights and interests of the village people in accordance with the law.


IX) When the village committee discusses and decides upon issues, it must fully carry out the democratic process, and support the principle of the minority serving the majority.

X) The committee members of the village committee are not required to separate themselves from production, and they can enjoy an appropriate subsidy for missed work.


[The sign says, "The Great Assembly of Villagers"]

XI) The village assembly is composed of all the members of the village who are over eighteen years of age.

XII) The village assembly is convened by the village committee. The assembly is headed by the chairman of the committee, or the chairman can entrust it to the vice-chairman. The assembly must be called at least once a year. It should be attended by at least half of the residents of  the village over eighteen years of age, or representatives from at least two thirds of the families. All of its decisions must be agreed upon by over half of the assembly. If over one tenth of the villagers or over one half of the representatives of the village families make a proposal, then the village assembly should be called in a timely fashion.


XIII) The assembly of the village can decide by discussion the following matters:

  1. The assembly can elect, recall or by-elect members of the village committee. It can consider and make decisions upon the resignation of members of the committee.
  2. The assembly can hear and consider the work reports of the village committee, reports on financial income and expenditure. It can consider and make decisions on important affairs of the building projects in the village, economic and social development plans, annual plans, and related public affairs or public welfare works.
  3. The assembly can consider and make decisions on setting up collective economic projects, contractual cases, and contractual cases dealing with building public welfare works. The assembly can decide on the use of collective economic profits.
  4. The assembly can consider and make decisions on how to pay money to the arrow, villageship, and township level fundraising projects, as well as methods for deducting and retaining funds for the village use and raising money for public welfare works.
  5. The assembly can consider and make decisions on cases to do with contract management, the uses of compensation money for requisitioned lands, the allocation of land for building houses, and arrangements for meeting targets on family planning.
  6. The assembly can evaluate the work of the members of the village committee, as well as decide which village members can receive subsidies and the standard of the subsidy.
  7. With the precondition that it does not contradict the constitution, laws, regulations or policies, the assembly can create self-governing regulations, a village contract, or other regulatory systems.
  8. The assembly can alter or reverse inappropriate decisions of the the village committee.
  9. The assembly can alter or reverse inappropriate decisions of the the village representative assembly.
  10. The assembly can discuss and decide on other major issues that affect the common wellfare of the village.


XVII) The village committee should create a democratic financial management group organized out of the village people. The democratic financial management group will be composed of three to five people, elected out of the the village assembly or the village representative assembly. Members of the village committee, their spouses, and those directly related to them are not allowed to become members of the democratic financial management group.  The democratic financial management group represents the masses at a fixed date to look up [...] financial items of account, and with respect to financial affairs publicly [...] to relevant organs of the people’s governments reflect financial [...]


[The text for this one is hidden. The board says, "Village Tasks Public Board", with two charts, "income situation" and "expenditure situation".]


[The sign says (I think, I don't read Mongol), "Olji Moron County People's Government"]

XLI) The results of the election of the village committee members will be reported by the newly elected members to the arrow, villageship, and township people’s governments to be put on record. If the people of the village have objections to the process or results of the elections, they can register a written appeal to the arrow, villageship, township level assemblies of people’s representatives or the people’s government, or to the arrow or county level standing committee of the assembly of people’s representatives and to relevent government bureaus. The relevant bureaus should take responsability for making an inquiry and dealing with the situation in accordance with the law.


[The paper says, "Request for Dismissal"]

XLII) The village assembly has the power to dismiss members of the village committee. One fifth or above of the voting-eligible population of the village can jointly sign their names to request that a member of the village committee be dismissed. The request for dismissal should be made in written form to the village committee, as well as filed in the records of the local arrow, villageship and township level people’s governments, explaining the reasons for the request for dismissal. The local people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels should undertake an investigation to determine whether or not the reasons for dismissal and the joint signatures are in accordance with the truth. The work of the investigation should be completed within three months.


XLIII) In response to a joint-signed request for dismissal made in accordance with laws and regulations, the village committee should convene an assembly of the village people within three months to vote on the issue. If the village committee does not convene the village assembly within the three month period, then the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments can convene the assembly and being the voting. The chairman of the committee will preside over the assembly for dismissing a member of the village committee. In the case that the villagers wish to dismiss the committee chairman or the majority of the members of the committee, the someone in charge from the arrow, villageship, or township level people’s governments can officiate.

XLIV) When the village assembly convenes to discuss the dismissal of a committee member, a representative of those who made the request for dismissal should make an explanation to the assembly and answer relevent questions. The person who is to be dismissed has the right to attend the assembly and to make objections in his own defence.


[The sign says: "Total number of voters: 458. Those in agreement with the dismissal: 346. This is over half; the dismissal is in effect."]

XLV) In order for a member of the village committee to be dismissed, over half of the population eligible to vote in the village must vote in favor. The voting and procedure will use the same methods for normal voting and procedure as outlined here. The results of the vote will be reported by the village committee to the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments.


[The piece of paper in the guy's hands says, "resignation".]

XLVI) If a member of the village committee requests to resign his post, he should submit his request in written form to the village committee. The committee should then convoke the village assembly or the village representative assembly and achieve more than half of the votes in favor. If a person is elected as a member of the village committee and his spouse or direct relative is also a member of the committee, the spouse or relative should then resign. If a member of the village committee in accordance with the law comes under investigation for responsibility in a criminal affair or is sentenced to labor reeducation, then his or her position will be accordingly terminated.


XLVII) If there are not enough members of the village committee, whether because not enough were voted upon, they were dismissed, resigned, were transferred away, their employment was terminated, they died, their residence permit was moved away, or a lack caused by any other reason, then a by-election should be held within three months. The election will be presided over by the chairman of the village committee. The election will use the election procedures and methods found here.


[The above is the inspirational calligraphy of Li Peng. It says, immortally, "Village Self Governance Is Good!"]

Central Asia China Photos Xinjiang

Photography in the Urumqi Bazaar




These were some photos I took in the bazaars at Urumqi and Turpan during a trip there this January. I’ll post more about the trip itself later on, but for now, some photos. Although taking pictures of bazaars is a pretty touristy pursuit, these are probably the closest to “photojournalism” I’ve come yet. I was thinking about all of the stereotypical China and Xinjiang topics: Uyghurs, Hans, and the all-seeing State; eating pigs and eating people; Istanbul and Beijing; the Nanjing judge and Uyghur thieves.

China Diaries Hebei Inner Mongolia

Beijing diaries

So, I arrived in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on foot yesterday, having walked here continuously from Henan Mongolian Autonomous County, Qinghai Province. It took a long time and a lot of it was pretty terrible to be honest. I wish I hadn’t done it. The Trans-Asia Trek is not yet finished, though, because there’s still a stretch of Gansu I haven’t covered. I’m also going to continue my project about fortresses in Yu County over the next few months. Here’s a link to a map of the route across China.

I was keeping kind of a sporadic diary for the last few weeks from Datong, so here’s that if you want a taste of it all:

“I take a bus to Datong and sit next to an elderly peasant whose farts smell strongly of cigarettes. The TV on the bus is playing a Korean soap opera in which a drunk girl on the Seoul metro vomits onto the head of a seated old man. The peasant next to me cackles gleefully through the whole thing, while gumming away at a pasty white bread buns.

The next day I take a minibus to New-Glory District and start walking from there. The road leads up over dry, dreary hills in a gray haze. Where the road crests each hilltop there is a small pagoda. Stunted waist-high pines lead off in striped, undulating rows, each labelled with an ostentatious rock inscription by the road, the Glorious Pines Volunteer-Planted Forest, the Beautiful Mountain Volunteer-Planted Forest, the Civilized Light Volunteer-Planted Forest. Every few hundred meters there is a little sign that says, “The Forest is Protected by Men! The Mountains are Governed by Men!” I make up a poem: “Roses are red, violets are blue. Don’t start a forest fire, or the forestry department will arrest you.”

I get drunk that night with coal truckers and go wandering around trying to find somewhere to sleep, but am turned out of some hostels, and so enter into a coal yard and get chased by dogs and a man with a flashlight, crash unsteadily off into the leaf-crunching bushes, heart pounding, hide, and then walk until I come to a field amidst the un-tall trees and sleep there under the hazy moon, shivering in my sleeping bag.

In the morning I climb up a hill to get my bearings. I can see the mud ramparts of the Ming-dynasty Great Wall, running across the plain beneath me. This means that I have wandered into Inner Mongolia during the night. Against the Wall I can see the ramparts of three garrison forts that I know from my map, Settles-the-Barbarians Fort, Achieves-Victories Fort, and a third one with no one left inside, and no name that I know. There must have been a border crossing here, I realize; here beneath me is the exterior customs yard where caravans driving sheep and horses were drawn up beneath the Wall, trading silks and tea, here the great tower that watched over it, there are the inner and outer gates through which Mongol and Bukharan merchants passed, the ramparts and bastions and barbicans that met them on the inside where the garrison forts rise suddenly up out of the prairie grass.

My water bottles froze solid in the night, so I go down into Settles-the-Barbarians and ask some friendly old people to pour boiling water into them.

I cross a river on the ice beneath the Wall and climb up onto a plateau, past the main road and some half-abandoned villages of collapsing shingled beams and stone arches denuded of their mud mortar. To the south I can see distant corrugated mountains covered in blue snow. I wander all day through windy steppe, thinking about nothing. That night after a long time walking on dirt roads in the cold I come to a place called Black-Earth-Terrace.

There is a hostel in Black-Earth-Terrace but the manager tries to kick me out. I sit on a bed and refused to leave. She speaks in the dialect of the Inner-Mongolian Chinese and I find it hard to understand her. Eventually after a lot of arguing it comes out that her hostel is not officially registered but has the tacit assent of the town police. No foreigner has ever been in this town before but she’s adamant that I’m not supposed to stay here.

“So don’t tell anyone,” I say to her.
“They’ll find out!”
“So call the town police and let me talk to them,” I say. “I don’t care.”
“Then the county police will find out about the hostel!” I ignore her and spread out my things on the bed.

Eventually the police chief of the town shows up. He looks me up and down and says, “this is too special, too special,” something which he continues to interject at intervals throughout the rest of our conversation. “Do you need any help or assistance? Is there anywhere I could assist you in going or could I bring you to anywhere else that you’re having trouble being at? I could take you back to the county seat if you want.” Eventually he seems to agree with himself that I’m not in need of assistance and there is no need to call the county authorities, and leaves, still muttering “too special, too special” under his breath. The woman who runs the hostel comes in sullenly and asks for money. I give it to her. On the wall above my bed, surreptitious graffiti has been scratched: Need a tractor? Call xxx-xxxx-xxxx. Cheap bulldozer, rent by the hour!

In the morning I eat a bowl of plain noodles with a hard boiled egg in it and then walk all day up into bare, beige mountains along a paved road. The villages here are covered in particularly un-subtle propaganda. Giving birth to just one child is good! and, It’s equally good to give birth to a boy or to a girl! Sometimes there are little poems. Increase population quality, scientific development! Whether it’s a boy or a girl , that’s irrelevant! At dusk I get to a town called Muddy-Springs-Caves, which is surrounded by snow.

Some Sichuanese workers put me up for the night. They’ve driven up here all the way from Sichuan in a caravan of 500 men to build power lines over these hills. The Sichuanese can speak good Mandarin and seem open, cheerful. It’s a relief to talk to them. Their cook is a brown little woman from Yunnan with a smock, golden earings, and tribal tattoos running up her arms. She cusses incessantly in an unbroken stream of Yunnanese that nobody can make head or tails of. Some elderly villagers hover around listening to us suspiciously, not understanding what we’re saying. For a moment I don’t feel like an alien. They give me a bed and there is some huge commotion in the night that involves loud bodily eructations, but I sleep right through it.

I go the wrong way the next morning and take a massive, horrible detour through destitute mountains. Everything is covered in snow and I’m tired. When I finally get to a road around midday I’m in completely the wrong place and somebody walks up to me and asks if I’m from Uruguay. I go into a canteen on the roadside. On the wall is a famous poem written by Mao Zedong, after the beset Red Army had fought its way across the Six-Bend Mountains and stood looking down over the labyrinthine loess country of Ningxia and Shaanxi, and safety:

Heaven is high and the clouds are light
We watch the geese fly south and out of sight.
If we don’t reach the Great Wall we’ll never call ourselves heroes-
We point our fingers, and the journey lasts twenty thousand miles.

Mao Zedong was a shitty poet.

I walk all afternoon and into the night and get to a dusty, narrow, ice-covered town called “Shop” which is lit only by the headlights of endless rumbling coal trucks on the rutted road between boarded-up houses. The one hostel is run by a deaf-mute guy in the back of a junk lot. He communicates by writing, although he doesn’t know very many characters. We sit and have a great conversation about how much prostitutes and motorcycles cost in America. On the wall of the room there’s a poster of a blond woman on a Yamaha, pouting and leaning seductively forward to expose her pale, pendulous breasts. The hostel has no toilet so you can either pee in the yard or unlock the gate and go outside to crouch by the road. That night I have diarrhea.

Before I even get out of the town in the morning the police find me and drive me back. “We need to take you back to town so we can photocopy your passport,” they tell me. They pass it back and forth. None of them have ever seen a passport before.
“Just take a picture of it here,” I say. But we drive back to the station anyway.

Today is a day for getting your ID card made at the police station so the place is mobbed with peasants, who keep throwing open the door of the interrogation room to gape at me until they are chased out by the police and must content themselves with standing on tip-toes to ogle in through the window. The chief of police is a friendly guy called Batur. He’s the first Mongol I’ve met in Inner Mongolia. Of course the photocopier is broken so they end up taking pictures of the passport anyway. Then they keep me there for two idiotic hours while they argue back and forth about what needs to be Done about this Situation. I want to snap at them but hold my tongue. Eventually they decide that this extraordinary event of my arrival calls for a formal statement from the detained, in which I confess to being in their town, having spent the night in it, having walked through it, having purchased a bowl of instant noodles in the town store and consumed it, and then having attempted to leave the town, perambulating, which all gets put down there in black and white and affirmed by me on each page with my signature and red stamps of my fingerprints above every relevant bit. Then they try to make me drink beer, to see if I might confess something else if drunk, and then when I don’t they drive me back to the spot three hundred meters away where they picked me up and set me down there, having wasted a whole morning of everyone’s life.

I walk for a long time on an empty road. Signal towers dot the brown mountain ridges. Eventually I cross the Great Wall again. I lay down in a grassy field on the inner side. I can see geese flying north against the clouds. Slowly, gently, it begins to snow. I’m out of Inner Mongolia once more.

: : : : : : : :

In Huai’an county I end up staying in the official government hotel, which is a moldering place in an empty lot some kilometers out from the town itself. The rooms come provided with a little expository booklet titled, in English, “Humanistic Huai’an”. The only way to get food is to walk twenty minutes to another remote apartment complex where there are some restaurants. The children there crowd around the windows whenever I eat and screech “foreigner! foreigner! foreigner!” For fun I pretend I don’t understand and then suddenly leap up and run to the door to scare them off, howling and cackling.

That night when I get back to the hotel I see a caravan of black cars pull up around the rotary and and ten or twelve men in leather jackets jog in the doorway. I wonder if they’re police here for me so I go around the back, hop a fence, and sit in the garden looking in through the windows. The guys stand around in the lobby smoking and talking on cellphones for about the amount of time it takes me to finish a can of potato chips and get bored. I try the side doors to the hotel but they’re all locked. I’m cold. Eventually I just go in. The guys look me up and down but nobody says anything so I go up to my room. About an hour later the actual police do knock on my door, eight of them in uniform, and mill around awkwardly in my room while one of them looks at my passport.

“Don’t you guys sleep?” I ask them.

“The Huai’an police are ready for duty twenty-four hours a day!” one of them replies seriously.

Then they leave. I go down and complain to the wide-eyed girls at the front desk. “Bunch of god-damn time wasters.” The suspicious-looking leather jacket guys who are still down in the lobby smoking all come and commiserate with me.

I spend all day walking down the highway, sit for a while on the mud bastions of a place called West Sand Fort, and then go on over depressive loess hills to get to another great fortress on a plain there. That night I get invited to dinner by a guy named Mr. Stone, who I run into in the intersection of the town, where the drum tower once stood. Mr. Stone owns an illegal iron mine near here and wears yellow-tinted sunglasses. He’s very impressed that I’ve walked here all the way from Qinghai.

“How long have you been doing this?” he asks me.
I tell him, “five years.”

The two of us get drunk. We have a sumptuous dinner behind closed doors in the banquet room of the town’s fanciest restaurant, which Mr. Stone swears in whispers is run by the mafia. Mr. Stone avoids phone calls by telling people he’s out to dinner with his “American business associate”. After that all the supposed mafia people who run the restaurant want to take a picture with me, and we get turned out of two hostels because I’m a foreigner, and eventually drunk-drive our way back to Huai’an in an SUV that came from somewhere and install ourselves in the fanciest hotel in town, from which Mr. Stone disappears, and I never hear from him again, and in the morning I have to hire a taxi to drive me back to where I was, hungover and pissed off about this little detour.

The weather gets warm and windy. Spring is coming and the farmers are suddenly out in their fields, bandy-legged old men with wrinkled faces raising hoes to hack at the earth. A friendly guy lets me throw my bag onto the back of his donkey cart and we walk together up into a town called Third Fort. I haven’t eaten all day, so I buy a bowl of instant noodles and some strips of tofu in a shop there. Some children come to ogle me as I eat until I get tired of it. “It’s not a zoo,” I tell them. For once, the shopkeeper listens to me and hussles them out. I go up into the mountains and cross a pass called Lion’s Mouth. it’s a perfect north-Chinese day. I can taste hearth-smoke, noodles, garbage; golden light, old men squat on the roadside in padded blue coats, donkey carts and tinny-honking white minibuses, corn stalks burning, barren fields, ragged purple ridges, blue sky, wind. I walk until long after dark and sleep on the floor of abandoned house underneath an old mud signal tower.

I’m close to Beijing now but you wouldn’t know it except for the creeping haze. These mountain villages are destitute and the people all gone. I get lost. An old man offers to show me the way and we wind through a maze of ice-floored loess canyons. He is tiny, spindly, with a grey stubble of a beard. He seems friendly but I can’t understand anything he’s saying. Eventually when we reach a pass he turns back. I lose the trail again on grassy hilltops and end up fighting my way through thorns down into a valley and back up the other side.

Eventually, and totally by accident, I come to a temple in the mountains. The place is cut into a rock outcropping in the bend of a remote slope, washed by green cedars that seem miraculous. The last gray light of the day is streaming down and lighting up the low barracks of the monks’ quarters, the two-storied main hall fronting the cliff face, the stairs cut into the rock that lead into chapel rooms in hollowed-out boulders poised over precipices, the brick stupa, balanced precariously amid stones and thorns, carved with the cross-legged figures of Buddhas in meditation. There’s one monk, a friendly young guy who tells me to go on in, it’s unlocked.

The main chapel is devoted to the Buddha of the Earth Treasury, who has taken a vow not to pass on into Nirvana until all the denizens of hell have been rescued. The chapel has been renovated. On the walls someone has drawn a gleeful mural of the judgement and torture of souls sent to hell. There are women having their breasts sawn off, Men having knives plunged into their genitals, people wriggling their legs while being carried off by grinning demons, crucified in obscene positions and impaled, kneeling, bowing, kowtowing, supplicating before Yama the judge of hell, his long-bearded leering officials, their scrolls and robes, and the terrible psychopomps Horse-Face and Ox-Head.

The caves up above can be reached by staircases cut into the gloomy rock. Inside are the bulky, crude figures of stone Buddhas, now headless and featureless, black and impassive. The ceilings have been painted, long ago, in a grid meant to imitate tiles. Each square is embroidered with blue and red clouds, lines drawn in white on the black surface, then within them mandala wheels, swirling mists and wish-fulfilling jewels, lotuses, the lines curving off into blackness where more rows of figures can be made out, dark as the void. I kneel and I hope that emptiness intermingles somewhere in that pitch extremity. I pray.”

Art China Hebei Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Ragpicking on the Northern Frontier


China feels distopian these days. Up in Yu County, plastic bags blow across dead fields underneath skies black with coal dust. Toothless old men in collapsing villages stand staring blankly in the cold. Off in the gray distance, the frames of tower blocks loom. I go wandering through dry, garbage-strewed villages, prying open old doors and hopping mud walls, searching for treasure.



Above top: coffins stored in a ruined temple. Bottom: the interior of an Empress Temple (娘娘廟).

Fifty years ago every village in Yu County had at least one temple, and often four or five, plus a large opera stage. All of these were adorned with frescoes, sculptures, and wood- and stone-carving. Some of them still remain.



Above top, another Empress Temple. Bottom, the words “Destroy the Private” written on a temple wall, left over from the Cultural Revolution. On the opposite wall, not pictured, is written “Erect the Public” (立公).

A lot of these places have just been boarded up, or turned into sheep pens or grain storage houses. I have to do a lot of entreating with elderly men who own the keys to rusty locks and scaling walls to get into some of these places. Nobody seems to care.



Above top, a Temple to the True Warrior (真武廟) and bottom, an opera stage (戲臺), both now used as storage spaces.

Since I don’t have all that much intelligent to say about this stuff as a whole I’m going to let it speak for itself. Note that I’m not going to say where any of this is, because a lot of it is quite valuable, and does get stolen. Here are some of the highlights:




Above: Three different Shrines to the True Warrior (真武廟), all located on mud towers on the northern walls of villages. The last one was repaired and repainted recently, paid for by what appears to be the last remaining resident of the village. 


No idea what the above represents, although I intend to figure it out. The procession is marching towards the Crystal Palace (水晶宮), which is the residence of the Dragon Kings. And yet it doesn’t seem to be a temple dedicated to the Dragon King, which is peculiar. 


These are from the interior of a Buddhist monastery, built in the Qianlong Reign of the Qing. Another interesting element is the presence of “comic-book” style paneled narrations. Common topics are the life of Sakyamuni in Buddhist temples, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and other popular stories. 



Since this collection is going to be growing endlessly, I’ve decided to put up the rest, including details of some of the more intricate frescoes, as a sidebar. So if you scroll down you’ll see it on the right and you can look through the whole set.

Another thing I’ve been collecting is specimens of wood and stone carving from around Yu County.


This is the gatehouse of a fort. Note the ornamental brackets (斗拱) and the little panels bearing images of animals to either side of the gate inscription in the center. I’m not sure what the significance of these little panels is but every fort seems to have some. Similar panels show up on either side of door lintels in temples or what were wealthier homes, often as ornamental pillar-caps.




Another good area for carving is the ornamental screens (影壁) that still sit opposite to the doors of the more sumptuous courtyard houses.


Below is the most spectacular example I’ve come across of this yet, from an abandoned courtyard in the back of some crumbling village. 


Detail of the lower panel of the screen, from the left:






Here’s the rest. I’ll keep adding to these as more come in, so check back.

China Diaries Hebei Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

The Posthumous House of Mr. Zhao






So drawn by the sound of firecrackers, one night in Warm Springs Township, Yu County (蔚县暖泉镇) I wandered down a little lane that runs in front of the walls of the Old West Fort (西古堡) and found myself attending a funeral. I’ve always been kind of fascinated by Chinese funerals, as they’re probably the least westernized of all Chinese ceremonies, and they tend to be extremely loud and public. Out of respect, though, I’d never dared to take pictures or ask details about the proceedings. This time, however, when someone caught me lurking in the shadows watching the fireworks on the street, I was immediately dragged into the house to take part. Everybody kept urging me to take lots of pictures so as to share them around later, and even told me without being asked that if I wanted to post the photos online that was okay with them. So although usually I wouldn’t do this, here they are.


Inside, big tables filled with food had been laid out in the courtyard. The immediate family members were dressed in white for mourning, while the sundry musicians, drummers, random villagers, etc. all wore normal clothes. Everyone seemed super excited to have a foreigner attending (I think they thought it gave the deceased face).



The deceased was one Ren Zhao (任照), who had been born in the twentieth year of the Republic or 1931, which made him 83 by the Chinese count. He had been laid into a very fine coffin of black-painted wood with gold designs. Incense, offerings of food, and paper money for use in the afterlife were laid out before him.


In front of this was set up Mr. Zhao’s posthumous house. This was a very fine affair made of paper, according a note written on the back, “dwelling-place of bricks, southward facing with five rooms” (砖瓦住宅正方伍间). The sign above the door marks it as a “dwelling place of the gathered immortals” (仙人聚居). A large paper television was also provided, bearing the legend “The Movie Theater of Heaven” (天堂影院), so that Mr. Zhao could enjoy his favorite Chinese Opera shows in the afterlife. There was also another, slightly more elaborate house with a big courtyard inside, set on a table in the back. The visitor was supposed to kneel on the cushions and kowtow to the memory of the deceased, which I did, and then since I had payed my respects to the family patriarch in the traditional manner I was told that I was now a full member of the proceedings and should attend the whole thing.



The funeral had been going on for seven days, a number decided on by magical means by the Buddhist priest who lives in the little Sages of the Ridge Temple (岭圣寺) inside the Old West Fort. He’s a very nice guy, although I never wrote down his name and his Yu Xian accent is so thick I can’t understand a word he says.


Other than that I got sucked into taking family photos. Everybody seemed pretty cheerful since the whole ordeal was about to end. I also got fed an extremely good dinner and was made to promise that I’d come back at seven o’clock the next morning for breakfast and the final rounds of the funeral.



The morning started with lots of fireworks and also lots of neighbors, who turned up bright and early for breakfast and the conclusion of the ceremonies.



Outside on the gray, chilly street, a bunch of local guys were tying big logs together to create a carrying harness for the massive coffin. This would eventually take sixteen men to hump out of town to the burial ground.


The big flower wreaths that had been sitting outside the house were also loaded up onto a tractor for transport.



After a lot of wailing and complex rituals that I didn’t like to pry into, the coffin and the crowd moved out into a nearby square, where a table was set up. With the priest from Sages of the Ridge officiating, the whole family dressed in white knelt on the street and kowtowed to the image of the deceased, incessant fireworks went off, the musicians beat their drums and whined on clarinets and toodled on the demented pan-pipe things called “sheng” (笙).



Then the procession got underway. We all marched past the gate of the Old West Fort and down the road that leads out of the town towards Shanxi province. The whole procession included the nuclear family members dressed in white, a minibus carrying the elderly attendees, the tractor carrying the flower wreaths being driven by a scowling peasant clutching the nub of a cigarette between his teeth, the pallbearers with their massive sling of wood spars and rope straps, and various grinning neighbors carrying the paper houses, incense, etc.



We headed out of town, towards the old Han Dynasty burial mounds that sit on the hillsides overlooking the basin of the Huliu River (壶流河) and the three sister walled towns that make up Warm Springs Township.



Ren Zhao was buried in a cornfield, with his head facing west. Later on the houses and the paper wreaths were burned, but I didn’t stay for this part.



I got to talk to the musicians a bit. They apparently learn their trade by studying with masters, and make a flat rate of a hundred yuan (about 17 USD) a day for playing at funerals. Since these often last several weeks and food and lodging are always provided, it seems like a decent gig. Most of these guys also farm on the side.


When the whole thing was done, the family members retired back to their house to chat and wait for lunch. We all got a little bit drunk and I promised a fellow who lived in Beijing that I would take him out for dinner at some point, which I will. The neighbors all went home.


The musicians, meanwhile, retired to a tofu shop across from the north gate of the Old West Fort. I joined them there for a smoke.



So the whole thing was a novel experience. That night it snowed and when I woke up white mountains ringed the southern horizon. I walked from Warm Springs Township to the Yu County seat, which is where I hope to spend the next few months, and then took a bus to Beijing.

Art China Shanxi Translation Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

The Amitabha Sutra and the Monastery of Ultimate Bliss

the monastery gate


This is going to be the first in a series of illustrated translations I want to put up here. Translating is a great way for me to learn about things, and by posting it on the blog I can show off some of the images I’ve been collecting lately. I’m interested here in ideas about pilgrimage, Buddhist travelogue, world mountains and paradises in Central Asia, architectural metaphors for transcendence, lists as an artistic or spiritual subject, and also vernacular art generally in whatever context.

The following is the Buddha Speaks of Amitābha Sūtra (佛说阿弥陀经), translated from the Latter Qin Kumārajīva Chinese rendering. I used the version very helpfully provided with a modern Mandarin rendition and notes here, published by something called the Sea of Wisdom Buddha Light (慧海佛光) organization. All of this is translated by me, with the exception of the more obscure bits of Sanskrit, since I don’t read that language at all and have no-one to ask about it in Seoul, Korea, which is where I am right now. The original names of the arhats and bodhisattvas listed at the start I plagiarized from the version on the website of Lapis Lazuli Texts, and the mantra at the end which I got from the wikipedia article on the subject. Since this has been translated an infinitudeof, timesbefore, I took the liberty of adding in some of the enumerations for interest. Thus when the original text simply says “Three Evil Paths” (三恶道), my translation reads, “the Three Evil Paths of rebirth in hell, rebirth as a hungry ghost, or rebirth as an animal”.

The accompanying pictures were all taken in the large and newly renovated “Monastery of Infinite Bliss” (极乐寺) located on a mountainside somewhat outside of South Village Township in Guangling County, Shanxi Province (山西广灵县南村镇). Apparently the monastery just received a huge grant for renovation from somewhere or other, and there are now about forty monks and nuns residing there and the whole main hall has been massively and spectacularly redone by an artistic troupe from the Jiangxi Buddhist Institute (江西佛学院). It’s one of the most impressive prayer halls I’ve ever been in, although I have no idea who any of these people are on the walls.

An interesting thing to watch in this sutra is the physical description of the Land of Ultimate Bliss. It’s a little bit vague, but it seems reasonable to read it as describing a sort of central tower (the spire of a stupa, perhaps, or godhead) encircled by sevenfold tiers of different objects (heavens, realms), from which flow four “stepped ways” (阶道) in the cardinal directions (the Four Rivers of Eden, Kailash, or Kunlun). Which is to say, the Land of Ultimate Bliss is a classic world-mountain…

The merit of the translation is given over to all sentient beings, etc.




Thus I have heard:


The Buddha is in the city of Sravasti, in the monastery called Jetavane Anāthapindikassa ārāma, which means the park of trees that was donated to the monastic community by Prince Jeta and Anāthapindika, whose name means “Gives to the Lonely”. The Buddha is talking to a multitude of great monks, in all a thousand two hundred and fifty of them gathered there, and they are all great arhats, whose names are familiar to all: the eldest Śāriputra, as well as Mahāmaudgalyāyana, Mahākāśyapa, Mahākātyāyana, Mahākauṣṭhila, Revata, Śuddhipanthakena, Nanda, Ānanda, Rāhula, Gavāṃpati, Piṇḍolabhāradvāja, Kālodayin, Mahākapphiṇa, Vakkula, Aniruddha, and other such great disciples. There were also all of the the bodhisattva mahasattvas: Prince of the Law Mañjuśrī, Ajita bodhisattva, Gandhastin bodhisattva, Nityodyukta bodhisattva, and other such bodhisattvas as these, as well as a limitless multitude of gods and heavenly beings were also gathered, including Śakra the king of the gods and so on.



And thus in such a time and place the Buddha says to the elder Sāriputra, “If you go west from here, and cross ten thousand hundred-millions of Buddhist lands, there is a world called “Ultimate Bliss”. In this land there is a buddha whose name is Amitābha or ‘Infinite Light’, and who is at this very moment teaching the Law.”


“Śāriputra, why is this land called ‘Ultimate Bliss’? It is because all of the sentient beings in this realm are without any of the multitudinous sorrows, and yet they receive every possible joy. Therefore it is called ‘Ultimate Bliss’.”



“And Śāriputra the Land of Ultimate Bliss is encircled and surrounded on all sides by seven types of railings, seven types of nets, and seven types of trees, each made from the Four Precious Materials being gold, silver, glass, and crystal, and therefore this land is called ‘Ultimate Bliss’.”


“And Śāriputra in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, there are seven pools of jewels, eight waters of virtuous achievements, each filled to the brim, and the floors of the pools are made from a sand of pure gold. And staircases in each of the four directions are made of gold and silver, glass and crystal. Above the pools is a great tower, also made of gold and silver, glass and crystal, and also coral, red pearls, and agate as decoration. In the pools the lotuses grow as big as cart wheels, and in the colors blue-green, glowing blue-green, yellow, glowing yellow, red, glowing red, white, glowing white, and they give off a delicate and pleasant fragrance.”



“Śāriputra, the Land of Ultimate Bliss is the achievement of such wondrous virtues!”


“And Śāriputra this Buddhist land is constantly the scene of merrymaking by heavenly beings. The ground there is made of gold. During day and night and at all the six times, it rains heavenly mandaraka flowers. And the sentient beings of this land in the pure dawn gather up myriads of these beautiful flowers to make down for clothing, and offer it to ten ten-thousands of buddhas from other places, and then when it is time for meals, these people are able to return to their original country, where they eat and practice walking meditation.”



“Śāriputra, the Land of Ultimate Bliss is the achievement of such wondrous virtues!”


“And once more, Śāriputra this land always has all different types of unusual and resplendent birds: there are white storks, peacocks, parrots, myna birds, kalavinka birds, jivijivaka birds. And this multitudinous flock of birds during day and night and at all the six times produce harmonious and elegant noises, and in these noises can be heard preached various teachings: They preach the teaching of the Five Roots, which are faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom, as well as the concordant teaching of the Five Strengths, the strength of faith to destroy false belief, the strength of energy to against laziness and lax ways, the strength of mindfulness in avoiding evil and licentious thoughts, the strength of concentration to reign in disorderly thinking, the strength of wisdom to end all conceptual thoughts. They also preach the Seven Bodhyanga, the factors of enlightenment, which are mindfulness, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, equanimity, as well as the teaching of the Eightfold Noble Path, which is enumerated as follows: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right energy, right mindfulness, right concentration. And the birds preach other teachings besides these. Having heard the voices of these birds, the sentient beings of this land all are reminded of and take refuge in the Buddha, the Law, and the Monastic Community.”



“And Śāriputra, do not think that these birds by doing this are repaying the karmic debts of their crimes to all sentient beings. These birds are not the same as the birds in our world. How can this be? In this Buddha Realm, the Three Evil Paths of rebirth in hell, rebirth as a hungry ghost, or rebirth as an animal do not even exist.”


“Śāriputra, in this Buddhist land, even the names of these Three Evil Paths do not exist, how could they exist in reality? This flock of multitudinous birds, are all in fact the Buddha of Infinite Light, who has transformed himself thus because he desires the sound of the teaching of the Law to be spread widely.”



“Śāriputra, in that Buddhist land, a mild breeze blows through all of the jeweled trees, all of the jeweled nets, making a mild and exquisite noise, which sounds like a hundred ten-thousands of different types of instruments, all playing together at the same time. And whoever hears this sound, his mind naturally begins to think of and take refuge in the Buddha, the Law, and the Monastic Community.”


“Śāriputra, the Land of Ultimate Bliss is the achievement of such wondrous virtues!”



“Śāriputra, is it this that you wish to ask me: Why is this Buddha called ‘Infinite Light’?”


“Śāriputra, this Buddha emits limitless glowing radiance, which shines down without any sort of obstruction upon all the nations of the Ten Directions, to the heavens above and the earth bellow, to the east, west, south, and north, to the gates of birth and the place of death, to the past and to the future. Therefore this Buddha is called ‘Infinite Light’.



“And Śāriputra, since this ‘Infinite Light’ achieved Buddhahood until now, it has been ten aeons.”


And Śāriputra, this Buddha has numberless and limitless famous disciples, who are all arhats, and they are so many that it is impossible to calculate the number of them or know it. All of the multitude of bodhisattvas, are also thus.


“Śāriputra, the Land of Ultimate Bliss is the achievement of such wondrous virtues!”



“Śāriputra, in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, all sentient beings have attained the level of avaivartika, those whose progress will not be turned back, and among them many have reached the ranks of those who will achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime. Their multitudes are so great, that it is impossible to calculate the number of them or know it, but they can only be said to number in numberless and boundless infinitudes.”


“And Śāriputra those among sentient beings who hear this should make a resolve to be reborn in this realm. What will happen to them? They will achieve a place in this gathering of all of these high and good beings so described.”



“But Śāriputra sentient beings who wish to achieve this rebirth cannot do without the Three Good Roots, which are being without lust, without anger, and without unwillingness to learn, nor without the recompenses of good deeds and virtuous conduct. These causes and conditions are necessary to achieve rebirth in this realm.”


“Śāriputra, if there is any good man or good woman, who hears and speaks the name of the Buddha of Infinite Light, in Sanskrit Amitābha or in Chinese A-mi-tuo-fo, and continues and persists in speaking this name, whether for one day, or for two days, or for three days, or for four days, or for five days, or for six days, or for seven days, with their whole heart in orderly concentration, then when that person nears the end of his life the Buddha of Infinite Light along with a whole host of enlightened sages will appear before him. Such a person at the end of his time will not enter headfirst into the darkness, but instead immediately achieve rebirth in with the Buddha of Infinite Light in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.”


“Śāriputra, I have seen that this is beneficial, and therefore I say this words. If there are any among sentient beings who hear these words, then they should make this resolve, and they will be reborn within this realm.”



“Śāriputra, if there are any such as myself just now, who praise and recite the name of the Buddha of Infinite Light, then it will result in an unimaginably great amount of beneficial merit. For in the east there exist the Akṣobhya Buddha, the Sumeru Image Buddha, the Great Sumeru Buddha, the Sumeru Light Buddha, the Exquisite Sound Buddha, and there are other Buddhas such as these, as numerous as the sands of the Ganga, and each has its own realm, each spreading out his wide and long tongue, covering three thousand great ten-thousand worlds, speaking these true and honest words: ‘You and all sentient beings of my realm should believe this “Sutra of Protection and Assistance by All and Every Buddha”, which is praised as containing inconceivable merit’.”



“Śāriputra, in the worlds of the south there exist the Buddha of the Lamps of the Sun and the Moon, the Buddha of Famous Light, the Great Burning Shoulders Buddha, the Great Flaming Shoulders Buddha, the Lamp of Sumeru Buddha, the Limitless Spiritual Energy Buddha, and there are other Buddhas such as these, as numerous as the sands of the Ganga, and each has its own realm, each spreading out his wide and long tongue, covering three thousand great ten-thousand worlds, speaking these true and honest words: ‘You and all sentient beings of my realm should believe this “Sutra of Protection and Assistance by All and Every Buddha”, which is praised as containing inconceivable merit’.”



“Śāriputra, in the worlds of the west there exist the Limitless Longevity Buddha, the Limitless Images Buddha, the Limitless Parasols Buddha, the Great Glow Buddha, the Great Light Buddha, the Treasure Images Buddha, the Pure Glow Buddha, and there are other Buddhas such as these, as numerous as the sands of the Ganga, and each has its own realm, each spreading out his wide and long tongue, covering three thousand great ten-thousand worlds, speaking these true and honest words: ‘You and all sentient beings of my realm should believe this “Sutra of Protection and Assistance by All and Every Buddha”, which is praised as containing inconceivable merit’.”



“Śāriputra, in the worlds of the north there exist the Burning Shoulders Buddha, the Most Victorious Sound Buddha, the Difficult to Obstruct Buddha, the Birth of the Sun Buddha, the Net of Lights Buddha, and there are other Buddhas such as these, as numerous as the sands of the Ganga, and each has its own realm, each spreading out his wide and long tongue, covering three thousand great ten-thousand worlds, speaking these true and honest words: ‘You and all sentient beings of my realm should believe this “Sutra of Protection and Assistance by All and Every Buddha”, which is praised as containing inconceivable merit’.”



“Śāriputra, in the worlds below there exist the Lion Buddha, the Famous Buddha, the Famous Light Buddha, the Dharma Buddha, the Parasol of the Law Buddha, the Buddha who Upholds the Law, and there are other Buddhas such as these, as numerous as the sands of the Ganga, and each has its own realm, each spreading out his wide and long tongue, covering three thousand great ten-thousand worlds, speaking these true and honest words: ‘You and all sentient beings of my realm should believe this “Sutra of Protection and Assistance by All and Every Buddha”, which is praised as containing inconceivable merit’.”



“Śāriputra, in the worlds above there exist the Words of Brahmā Buddha, the King of the Constellations Buddha, the Incense Rising Buddha, the Glow of Incense Buddha, the Great Burning Shoulders Buddha, the Buddha of the Variously Colored Treasure Flower Garland, the Sala Tree Buddha, the Treasured Flowery Virtue Buddha, and in fact all Buddhas, for instance the Mount Sumeru Buddha, and other Buddhas such as these, as numerous as the sands of the Ganga, and each has its own realm, each spreading out his wide and long tongue, covering three thousand great ten-thousand worlds, speaking these true and honest words: ‘You and all sentient beings of my realm should believe this “Sutra of Protection and Assistance by All and Every Buddha”, which is praised as containing inconceivable merit’.”



“Śāriputra, what is it that you want to ask me? Is it, why is it called “The Sutra of Protection and Assistance by All and Every Buddha”?


“Śāriputra, if there are any good men or good women, who hearing this teaching receive it and uphold it, and repeat the names of all of the various buddhas, any such good man or any such good woman will receive protection from outside interference and assistance in inner growth by all and every Buddha, and they will all achieve and not return from the state of anuttarā samyak saṃbodhi, the unsurpassable true and perfected enlightenment. Therefore, Śāriputra you and all others should believe and accept that which I say, and that which is said by all other Buddhas.”



“Śāriputra, if there are any who have made this resolve, or make this resolve now, or will make this resolve, wishing to be reborn in the realm of the Buddha of Infinite Light, all of these people will go to this realm and achieve there the state of unreturning unsurpassable true and perfected enlightenment. If they made this resolve then they have been born there, if they make this resolve now then they will be born there, and if they will make this resolve then they will be born there in the future.”



“Therefore, Śāriputra, among all good men and good women, if there are any who have faith, they should make this resolve to be reborn in this realm. And Śāriputra, if I today praise all these Buddhas and their inconceivable merit, then all of these Buddhas are also at the same time praising me and my inconceivable merit, and in doing so they speak as follows: “The Buddha Sakyamuni can do something extremely rare for those who are in extreme difficulty. Those who are born into Sahā Lokadhātu, this our Realm-That-Must-be-Endured, suffer from the five evil obscurations: the obscuration being born into an chaotic age, the obscuration having wrong views, the obscuration of anger and irritation, the obscuration of living among other sentient beings, and the obscuration of a limited lifespan. Sakyamuni can cause all of these beings to achieve the state of unsurpassable true and perfected enlightenment. Therefore for the sake of all sentient beings, he speaks the Law which is so difficult to believe during any era.



“Śāriputra, therefore know that I was born in the realm of the five evil obscurations, and I have achieved this difficult task of achieving the state of unsurpassable true and perfected enlightenment, and I have spoken this unbelievable Law for the sake of all worlds; truly it was extremely difficult.”


The Buddha finishes speaking this sutra. Then Śāriputra and all of the other monks and the assembled heavenly beings of all times and the asuras, hearing that which the Buddha had said, welcomed it and were happy and believed it and received it, and made obeisances, and dispersed.



namo amitābhāya tathāgatāya tadyathā
amṛtabhave amṛtasaṃbhave
amṛtavikrānte amṛtavikrāntagāmini
gagana kīrtīchare svāhā

the main shrine to Sakyamuni

Art China Shaanxi Shanxi

More Trogloditic Interior Decorating

Continuing from the previous post about wallpaper in Ningxia, I want to talk more here about cave houses in the Chinese Loess Plateau and specifically about the types of decoration found inside of them. Cave houses are called in Chinese yaodong (窑洞), literally “kiln caves”. They’re found all over northern China: loess soil is easy to dig through and quite stable when dry, making it perfect for cave building. It’s also startlingly, eruptively erosive when it reaches a certain point of saturation, which means among other things that there are plenty of embankments and sheer hillsides into which to dig caves. The governments of different areas seem to have taken different attitudes towards cave dwellings; in some places the cave houses are abandoned and have been for decades, in other areas everybody lives in bright, modern caves and eight or ten story “apartment blocks” are dug into mechanically sheered-off loess hillsides.

Cave house doors near Big Belly Mountains

In much of the central part of the loess plateau, the cave houses are simply arched chambers dug into the soil and fitted with a wooden or fired-brick door, often of patterned wood slats fronted by translucent wax paper that lets in a cool white light. These caves then open out onto the indispensable Chinese yard (院子) which is usually fenced off.

Outside of a yaodong near Huan Xian

The arched chamber inside is then plastered and furnished. The most important piece of furniture is a platform called a kang (炕). Beside this is usually a stove/coal burner (炉子), which ideally has its chimney routed through the body of the kang so as to heat it from underneath. The kang is a sitting area during the day, while in the evening duvets are rolled out and it becomes a bed for the whole family. The rooms generally are surprisingly pleasant and somewhat hobbit-hole-like. Below is somebody’s living room (the kang is to the right in the foreground) and a kitchen.

Inside of a yaodong near Huan Xian

Inside a cave house in Benefits the People

Below is a room in the back of a shop which functions as a village guesthouse, whence my bags and sticks lying on the kang. You can see the small stove attached, which as described above has a hidden chimney running under the kang to heat it.

Inside a cave house in Benefits the People

In the outer areas of the plateau where rock is available, the cave houses are often constructed wholly or partly from that material, to the extent that many of them are actually free standing houses in their own right which simply mimic the arched design of the yaodongs.

Yaodong door near Yulin

These rock yaodongs have the structural strength to get quite elaborate, with many parallel chambers in a long row connected by lateral passages. The shop below is an impressive example:

Cave house shop in Old Garrison

A lot of the decoration inside the yaodongs is pretty prosaic, either newspapering the walls (as in the previous post) or hanging up pictures, posters, etc. Cross-stitching is popular.

Interior decoration in a Yaodong

Interior decoration in a Yaodong

One of the more unique decorative aspects, however, is the paintings that line the kang in many of the houses in the northeast. This type of decoration is not limited to cave houses, but it does crop up in them and so I’m going to talk about it here. I’d seen these paintings in passing but I didn’t really have a chance to inspect and photograph any up close until I wandered into an abandoned village in Yanggao County, Shanxi (山西阳高县). The place is called Big Valley Mouth Village (大峪口村), since it sits at the entrance of a gorge leading over the mountains towards Guangling County (广灵县). It seems to have been gradually abandoned in favor of new villages on the plain beneath. 




I’m always fascinated by this kind of decorative art, especially in places where life is bleak and difficult. People who paint or decorate their doors display their dreams, pretensions, superstitions, machismo, hopes, etc. to the outside world. The same can be said of truck art in Pakistan, prison tattoos in Russian, and a thousand other examples. People in impoverished Shanxinese mountain villages who paint on the panels above their own bed, similarly, are expressing what it is that they want to see every morning when they wake up. A lot of it is crude and simple, but it has an intensely real purpose.

The panels in Big Valley Mouth are especially interesting because they are hand painted, whereas many of the more recent ones are simply bought as wallpaper. The general format is several decorated panels surrounding a central image, as below.









A common motif in Chinese decorative arts generally is children holding symbols (corn, fish, etc.) that represent prosperity.



Probably the most popular single theme in Big Valley Mouth, though, is Chinese opera stars, often in pairs.








S0 that’s all. I’m in Beijing right now, heading to Seoul to renew my visa. I’ll be making a trip out to Xinjiang this January to look at some fortresses out there, and then settling down in Yu County, Hebei Province (河北蔚县) to stare at walled villages there for the next couple months. In the spring I’ll walk from there to Beijing. Meanwhile I’ll be putting up a bunch of translations of things and collections of art over the next few weeks, inshallah.

[Note: I'm starting to pick up more of these in other parts of Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan counties where I'm doing research. So I'm going to stick them up here, not-edited.]

China Shanxi

The Mountain Gods

I’m feeling hard-up for narratives lately, so here are some pictures. These are from my walk over the ranges of western Shanxi (山西) Province, up finally out of the endless loess country and into brambly mountain ridges.

One interesting thing to be found up there are a great number of shrines to the Mountain Gods (shan shen, 山神) and the Gods of the Place (地神). Mountain God worship, particularly, is something that I had heard about from Korea and Japan (san sin [산신] or yama no kami [山の神] respectively, both derived from Chinese). Mountain gods are quite popular in Korea in fact; it is not unusual to see signs on the street in Seoul for shamans offering seances with the mountain gods. (This guy’s website, if you’re interested in this, is a trip, as is this blog post.)  Tibetans also have a whole typically variegated typology of mountain gods as well, with (so far as I can remember), the basic types being sa bdag, “Lords of the Place”, lha ri “Spirit Mountains”, and generalized gnyan “Spirits”.  But I’d never met with mountain worship in China before. Nearly every village in this part of Shanxi, however, has a Mountain God shrine, often just a little arch built of stones on a nearby ridgeline. These can be found as well on remote mountaintops, surrounded by cairns, as well as at the entrance to deep forests, passes, etc. Locals tell me that the Mountain God appears as an elderly man, who finds lost sheep and cows and prevents injury or misfortune in the high country.

The Reed Sprout Mountains at dusk

The Reed Sprout Mountains (芦芽山) at dusk.

Birch tree in the Black Tea Mountains

Forest in the Black Tea Mountains

Forest in the Black Tea Mountains (黑茶山)

Street in the Black Tea Mountains

House near Lan Xian

Village in the Reed Sprout Mountains

Mountain villages


Shrine to the Mountain Gods and the Gods of Place in the Black Tea Mountains.

Rock shrine in the Reed Sprout Mountain

Rock shrine in the Reed Sprout Mountains

Mountain god temple near Jia County

Mountain god shrine near Jia County (佳县); I spent a night here.

Shanshen shrine in the Black Tea Mountains

Mountain god shrine at the entrance to the forest in the Black Tea Mountains

The temple atop Big Belly Mountain

The monastery at the peak of Big Belly Mountain (大肚山), in which lives one monk and some assorted peasants. I spent the night here.

Roof tiles on Big Belly Mountain

Figurines at White Cloud Mountain

Hermits' abode on Big Belly Mountain

Rock hermitage on the slopes of Big Belly Mountain.

Art China Shaanxi

Some Qing Dynasty frescoes in a temple near Jia Xian

I’ve been poking through a lot of temples lately, as every village in this area seems to have one or more small shrines, and they’re usually unlocked. I’d break down the contents of these temples as follows: 50% of it is recent trash, and not interesting. Another 40% is still recent trash, but zany, interesting trash. Another 9% is recent, but not trash, and well done. And a final 1% is old stuff, half-ruined, and gemlike. The following are from a small village temple in a valley near Jia Xian, Shaanxi (陕西佳县). To be honest I’m not going to say exactly which village, because old frescoes like this are quite valuable, and you could take them off the wall pretty easily with an exacto-knife. Also the gallery function on the blog seems to have turned into a gallery malfunction so until I can straighten that out I’m just going to post photos directly.

An inscription outside the temple says that it was renovated in the twenty-fourth year of the Guangxu reign, or 1899, which may or may not have been the year in which these frescoes were painted. Some of these drawings put me in mind of the Yuan dynasty depictions of Chingghis Khaghan, or, weirdly, Darius in the Pompeiian frescoes of Issus

The first set come from a chapel of the Jade Emperor, and contains his assorted ministers flanking him on three sides.









The second set are from the adjacent chapel, dedicated to the Guansheng Lord Emperor, or to give his full title from the spirit tablet, the Dark Thunderbolt King Respected Jade Emperor ‘Sage of the Passes’ Lord Emperor (玄雷王玉皇尊关圣帝君). The walls contain lively comic-book style illustrations.















Art China Shaanxi

Gods, Men and Monsters along the Great Wall

The two temples in Guoshipan Village

Detail of the new temple in Guoshipan Village

If I ever do write anything proper about crossing the loess country on foot, it will probably have to do with monstrosity. So here go some visuals. The area along the Ming Great Wall between Yulin (榆林) and Jingbian (靖边) has some spectacular temples. In this particular village, Guo Family Stone Bank 郭石畔, the old temple and the new one sit across from each other, providing a pleasant contrast. The new temple is decorated with the heads of dragons, cocks, and elephants.

In the new temple at Guoshipan

The old temple has a really good collection of what the locals refer to as “monster heads” (魔头) (elsewhere the term just means “monsters”), which are set as shingle caps on old Chinese buildings. These little gargoyles ward off thieves from climbing onto the roof or over the courtyard walls.

Tile caps in the old temple at Guoshipan Village

Tile caps in the old temple at Guoshipan Village

Tile caps in the old temple at Guoshipan Village

Tile caps in the old temple at Guoshipan Village

Other interesting bits include this mural of a tentacled horse on the side of the new temple,

In the new temple at Guoshipan

and this little monster face on the main altar for incense and alcohol offerings. No idea what’s going on with either one of these.

Offering stone at old temple in Guoshipan

The old bits of the fortress of Boluo (波罗堡) has these little inset shrine nooks between the arches of the cave-houses. They no longer house any gods, although you can see some elderly resident has inserted a few nuts as an offering to the now long-gone spirit.

Shrine nook on a wall in Poluo

The temple underneath the fortress of Boluo, however, is hands down the most spectacularly goofy Chinese temple I’ve ever been into.

Inside the temple at Poluo

Inside the temple at Poluo

Inside the temple at Poluo

Arhats flank the shrine Shakyamuni.

Arhats in the temple at Poluo

Arhats in the temple at Poluo

Arhats in the temple at Poluo

This fellow below is known as the Great Scholar of the Face (面然大士). The story here is that one day the Arhat Ananda was sitting among the sangha when he was approached by a man with a blue face and a terrible aspect. Ananda was repulsed, but the man with the blue face counseled him that “All things are impermanent, and thus after three days you too shall take on this aspect!” Ananda made fearful obesiences, and eventually the curse was lifted. The Great Scholar of the Face was actually an avatar of Avalokiteshvara.

Figure in the temple at Poluo

Another common character to meet in these northern temples is the Truly Martial Emperor (真武大帝), or the Emperor of the Dark Heavens (玄天大帝). These pictures are, again, from the inexhaustably weird halls of the main temple at Boluo.

The Zhenwu Hall at the temple at Poluo

The Zhenwu Hall at the temple at Poluo

The temple of the Truly Martial is usually fertile ground for monstrosity. As I’ve discussed earlier, the god Zhenwu is usually represented by a tortoise battling a snake. These days,  as the god of the war-torn north, Zhenwu is flanked by an array of generals and racks of exciting weaponry.

The Zhenwu Hall at the temple at Poluo

To preserve the lord’s dignity, the processing generals will usually be seen with plaques bearing the notices “Remain Silent!” (肃静) and “Give Way” (回避) to the presumably awed populace. For emphasis here these are topped with tigers.

The Zhenwu Hall at the temple at Poluo

The Zhenwu Hall at the temple at Poluo

Outside the big temple at Boluo, there’s lots of little temples dotting the villages in this area, in greater and lesser stages of delapidation and refreshment.

Temple in the fields outside of Xiangshui

The temples are usually unlocked.

God in a temple in Xiangshui Village

Chapel in a temple near Poluo

Chapel in a temple near Poluo

Fans of “Journey to the West” will note with approval that Sun Wukong (below) is refered to on the tablet here by his official title, “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven” (齐天大圣)

Chapel in a temple near Tawan

Chapel in a temple near Tawan

Gods in a temple in Zaowan Village

In some of the poorer temples, you don’t even have gods, just the little plaques that represent their presence.

Altar in a temple near Longzhou

More temples interiors. Some of these could, to my mind, be profitably entered into

Most of these little temples contain, opposite to them, opera stages.

Opera stage near Tawan

I was lucky enough to see what these are used for by stumbling into a temple fair (庙会) on a hilltop outside of Tranquility Villageship (镇静乡), and once again in Yulin City. At Tranquility Villageship, there was a smallish crowd setting off fireworks and listening to erhu music and crosstalk (相声).

Folks sitting outside the newly concecrated temple

People at the temple fair

Boy at the temple fair

Musicians and audience at the temple fair

There were also several claques of grannies sitting on pieces of cardboard and gambling furiously.

Old ladies gambling at the temple fair

The really interesting bit to me at least came with the arrival of an opera troupe, specially driven up from the city of Treasure Chicken (Baoji, 宝鸡) near Xi’an. These folks proved to be super friendly and not at all adverse to me going backstage and taking pictures of them.

Actors at the temple fair

Actors at the temple fair

Actors at the temple fair

The makeup table:

The actors' makeup table

Actor applying makeup

Actor at the temple fair

Actor at the temple fair

The play being performed was called “The Affair of the Cutting of the Beauty”  (铡美案). The plot involves one Chen Shimei (陈世美), a poor man who passes the Jinshi Examinations and is given an official post. When his wife Qin Xiangpeng (秦香蓬) comes to the capital to search for him, however, he is too proud to recognize her, and attempts to have her killed. This sets in motion a sort of detective story, in which Qin Xiangpeng suffers increasingly depressing fortunes until her husband’s crimes are revealed, and at the end of the play he is sentenced to a fearsome death by the method of “dragonhead cutting” (龙头铡). Here they are in action:

Actors at the temple fair

Meanwhile, being consecrated inside the temple was the following:

Inside the newly concecrated temple

Inside the newly concecrated temple

Some of these opera stages have some quite good grafitti inside, generally drawn by the actors themselves to advertise their troupes.

Grafitti in the back of an opera stage

The opera performers' hats

Grafitti in the back of an opera stage

Here’s the rest of the pictures from the performance at the Temple of the God of Wealth in Yulin:

Another unusual bit of monstrosity to be found on the road between Yulin and Jingbian is the apparition of the Mao Devil Spirit (毛鬼神). This I found scrawled on the walls, pavement, and telephone poles of a certain village across the water from Xiangshui Town (响水镇). I would have asked the villagers what it meant except it was getting dark, and frankly the drawings were a bit creepy.

The Mao Gui Shen

As to what the Mao Devil Spirit is, this depends more or less on who you ask. According to the locals I talked to, it’s a type of trickster spirit that lives in village houses, and is generally up to no good. Drawing the figure on the street in this case is apparently political: the ‘mao’ (毛) can be taken to refer to Chairman M., thus implying that the government is Mao’s “devil spirit”, and similarly evil. I’m told that the villages on this side of the river have an axe to grind against the government, although nobody was forthcoming as to why. This fellow above has the words “Rinse the Filthy Taste” (洗臭味) written across his stomach and hand, as well as a large penis and a vagina for a mouth. The one below has “Beijing” written on a box, and “Mao House” on his stomach. Don’t ask me what any of this means.

Baidu searches online turn up articles opining that the Mao Devil Spirit is a type of theiving sprite, opposite to the God of Wealth (财神), and is worshipped by avaricious villagers because he can steal away other’s money. Still more sources connect the Mao Devil Spirit with excrement (he frequents latrines, and plays tricks with poo), or opine that he is a god of cats, and his name should be read “Cat God Spirit” (猫鬼神) instead. He is worshipped in Shaanxi, Shanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, and probably other places too.

The Mao Gui Shen

And to conclude our little tour of monsters and spirits, in the town of Tower Bend (塔湾) there is a small but pleasant brick pagoda and, underneath it, a small cave with some defaced Buddhist frescoes.

Frescoes in the caves at Tawan

Frescoes in the caves at Tawan