Dianchi Lake in China

On Soul

I decided to return to Kunming in the summer of 2013 after several years away. Vivi, who had been my student at Yunnan University, came to get me from the airport. On the drive into town, she filled me in on her life. She was married with a son and had found fulfilling work as a journalist. Their family was prosperous and had just returned from a trip to Las Vegas. Of all the things she saw there, she liked the casinos, the Grand Canyon and Costco the best. They were planning another trip to Malaysia in the winter. I at least heard that much. I was frequently distracted by our surroundings. Everything was so different. We drove through new tunnels cut into the sides of red rock mountains. Once dusty and narrow, the roads had been transformed into broad, glassphalt highways that sparkled in the sun. As we neared the city, I was struck by how much it had come to resemble Hong Kong with its endless sea of high rises. I was busy taking in all the newness, trying to find something familiar to help anchor myself in this place that had once been my home.

I also noticed all the ways that my friend had changed. In my memory, Vivi was a bubbly, wide-eyed college student. She was kind but more reserved than before, with a healthy dose of circumspection thrown in for good measure. My wonderment at the changes did not move her.

“You must be someone who is impressed with new things,” she said, her voice tinged with judgment.

I looked at the road again. Seven years earlier, these would have been bicycles and bread cars surrounding us; now there were shiny Audi’s and BMW’s everywhere. The collective will that made the shift possible was impressive, for sure. Maybe she had grown so accustomed to the pace of development that the unusualness of it, relative to other places around the world, had escaped her assessment. And there she was driving through her made-over hometown, melancholy as I’d ever seen her, as if the changes did not represent the gifts of the new China but a kind of theft. We zipped alongside the other cars headed downtown before the traffic slowed and all vehicles were forced to stop.

Vivi apologized, saying the congestion was another negative consequence of all of the development. I tried to roll down the windows to get some fresh air and she pressed a button to stop me. “These days the sky is too dirty,” she said, turning on the AC instead.

Red brake lights flashed across the highway in a standstill. I could see the drivers up ahead craning their necks, trying to see what was wrong. 

Vivi inched toward the off-ramp. As we descended from the highway, I glanced upward and spotted the cause of the slow down. A solitary man was standing on the overpass, obstructing traffic. He looked like he was in his twenties, with dark hair and a slight build in jeans and a t-shirt—normal, except in his bearing. His eyes were crazed. He spun across the lanes in slow circles, holding two knives out at the police cars surrounding him. 

I had been scanning the city, looking for something to remind me of the Kunming I once knew, and found the first continuity in this man and his madness.

Seeing him spinning in the middle of the highway brought back something ineffable that I’d always associated with this place. It worked hard to create a manicured impression of uniform happiness and prosperity, but once in awhile the things happened to reveal an honest underbelly. The episode served to sharpen Vivi’s admonition. There was a lot about Kunming that had changed, and not all of it was good. Some of the change, furthermore, served to exacerbate troubles already present in Kunming society.

I’m driven to think about it now— what was the answer to the widespread sorrow that survived the razing of the old city?

I’ve resolved that I’ll never know the answer to this question, but one of the ideas that I’m led to in an attempt is “soul.” Within a Black American ontological perspective, this term goes beyond religious resonances, as in a personal essence that survives death. It includes a system of aesthetic and ethical valuation that exalts our quotidian striving, championing sincerity, and the ingenious uses of humble materials. Soul is both catalyst and result. Through loving effort informed by pain, the crude and ordinary are transformed into things of beauty—all of this constituting the redemptive output of our suffering. 

I take it as a truism that every people who have suffered and survived find ways to absorb the memory into their music, lore, and discourse. I’ve always wondered how this idea could be applied to China. What mechanisms in this society transform trauma in ways that are unvarnished, communal and uncensored? 

Among the many spaces where soul generates itself, it seems that one crucial arena is in connection with the land. The land is China’s constant— it is the only living witness to the rise and fall of dynasties. It absorbs each era’s traumas and gives back forests, rivers, and grasslands with horses and wildflowers. Given the limitations of public discourse, it provides an important psychological counterweight in an environment of strict governmental controls. So that vast topographical changes pose an almost spiritual threat, for lack of a more precise term. They must be coped with as much as enjoyed, as the “improvements” unleash a kind of grief that casts its shadow everywhere.


I awakened the next morning and pressed a button over the nightstand to let in the daylight. The curtains retracted slowly to reveal a cloudless sky and the Dianchi lake in the distance. Seven years earlier, it would take half an hour to drive there, but from the twenty-second floor, it looked so near. The rest of the morning was filled with similar appraisals— the steaming hot shower contrasted to the occasional warm baths I was allowed at the University, the tidy abundance of the breakfast buffet triggered thoughts of the days I spent haggling for my rations in Kunming’s open air markets. Between the two Kunming lives I had known, this one suited me better, though I was quickly reminded of my folly in thinking this way.

I got a map from the concierge, intent to make my way back to Yunnan University on foot.  I walked outside and noticed a fruit salesman a few paces from the taxi queue. He positioned himself near the driveway, lowering two large bamboo trays full of lychees and bayberries to sell on the sidewalk. 

A security guard walked over to the man before I could reach him and buy some of the tart berries—a favorite summer snack. He made a gesture for the fruit seller to get up but the man resisted. The closer I got, the more I heard of their dialogue.

“Who am I bothering?” The fruit seller asked. He barely got out the words before the security guard responded.

“Just get away from the hotel,” he said and the man finally lifted the baskets and walked off.

The guard had said something else in his scolding, and it was probably this that angered the fruit seller enough to leave. 

Very early in my China life, I learned that if you wanted to insult someone, you called them“土.”Tu is actually a lovely word. The ideograph itself represents a plant growing up from the soil. Combined with other characters, it forms words relating to the Earth and its cartography, though it’s commonly used as a pejorative—a way to identify someone as crude or uncivilized; a country bumpkin.

I heard this word used often in my early China years. Once when I was leaving my apartment at the university hotel. I approached the spiral stairwell, where I overheard the housekeeping manager berating the cleaning staff. She barked at the women who stood lined up in their baby blue uniforms and cloth Mary Jane’s, wagging her finger in their faces as she paced before them. The women didn’t have a broad enough scope of responsibilities to have done anything drastically wrong, yet the manager snarled. How stupid they were, she said, how “土”.

I went on to befriend one of the women on the receiving end of her lecturing. Ma LiuFen was sturdy and vibrant and unusually indifferent to the manager’s tirades. Some of the other women trembled as she carried on, whereas Ma Liu Fen stood, spine erect, her face stolid as a porcelain mask. 

She cleaned rooms at the university hotel but spent most of her time working in the laundry. In the afternoons, a colleague and I would stop by to visit her. She would be folding large piles of cyan-colored bath towels as we sat and talked.

When I asked Ma LiuFen about the manager, she shook her head. 

“That woman doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I come here, I do my work, and she pays me. Other than that, we have no relationship.”

Her folding partner piped up. “Why do you come here to spend time with us? Shouldn’t you be out with your friends having fun?”

“It’s warmer here than in our apartments,” I said, which was true but partial. She would have found me patronizing had I told her the rest—despite everything Kunming society wanted these women to believe about themselves, they were some of the best people I met there.

The alternative would have been passing the time with moneyed, presumably “refined” Kunmingers who merely tolerated me because of my institutional affiliation, who appeared self-conscious when other Chinese people saw us together. Their material aspirations made them vulnerable to a host of vices, including white worship. Their lives offered a vision of success that seemed to disregard China’s progressive struggle, rooting out the worst aspects of Western influence. They’d all come out of the same humble circumstances of the Mao era, yet it seemed that so many were running away from that story, taking on the signifiers of affluence borrowed from a culture not their own. Why should I want to be part of a social sphere so estranged from its own overwhelmingly agrarian, working-class history? 

In the spring of my first year in Yunnan, Ma LiuFen invited my colleague and me to visit her hometown. On a Saturday morning, we left for the two-hour journey into the countryside. After months surrounded by grey concrete, we saw farmland and rolling hills. The homestead itself was an active farm with two water buffalo pinned under the house. You could see them chewing their feed from the stairs that led to the living room. Ma LiuFen smiled, “Welcome to my home,” she beamed.

Over the next few hours, we ate sunflower seeds on the veranda with her sisters and watched a static-ridden TV with her male cousins, just returned from their plowing chores. Ma LiuFen cried light tears when it was time to leave, hugging her sisters and forcing money into their hands despite their many refusals. I felt a bit of sadness, too, as we headed back that evening. The shadows of the tall buildings came over us as we passed the city limits. I tried to steady myself with the memory of the perfect day we’d spent in an unspoiled place, with heartfelt, earnest people who didn’t seem to care that I was “foreign” or black.

I do not mean to romanticize; of course Ma LiuFen had struggles that she tried to obscure, namely around her finances, health and her marriage. The extent to which I valorize her example still feels appropriate somehow. I never saw her wavering in self-respect, I always saw pride in the way she regarded her origins. 

It seems to me that the comorbidities of China’s new affluence are different today than they were 15 years ago, but the question of rooted-ness remains in tact. In some ways it feels more pressing than before. In a rapidly urbanizing country, where more and more of the land is taken from its ordinary inhabitants and altered to the point of being unrecognizable, where does one go to draw strength and ventilate difficult emotions? Where else can we arrive at the humbling truth? In the contest between nature and temporal powers, nature always wins.

After a briefer than expected jaunt around campus, I walked back south toward my hotel. I had been listening to my mp3 player on the way up—a defense mechanism I’d learned years ago— but walking back I took time to observe. There were several new apartment developments along the route, most of them uninhabited. Maybe it was Vivi’s scolding, but all of the changes focused my mind away from the pristine look of things to thoughts of what the new construction had replaced. Thousands of livelihoods had to have been uprooted to make way for the high rises, and countless sites of memory destroyed—playgrounds and parks, all the quiet places for walks and first kisses reduced to rubble. 

I thought of the people who were forced to leave, who claimed to be happy in doing so. They play their part in helping the country further its strategic plan, they say, but they stretch the truth. They are doing what is prudent in order to survive. 

An old, two-story building stood near one of the complexes—the place was a total eyesore. It was dirty with shattered windows and had large, red “拆” or “tear down” signs spray-painted on two exterior walls. A family was still living there. They sat inside, their belongings in piles of black plastic bags, having an afternoon meal on the concrete floor. 

There was a red and gold cloth banner stretched out before their home. “Resistance is futile,” it read. “Leave now!” Didn’t they know what was coming? Maybe they didn’t care, or maybe they wanted to experience the unyielding ways of power firsthand. The day was fast approaching when they would be forcibly displaced, but something compelled them to stay. They brought their bowls close to their faces, worked the food into their mouths, and paid me no mind.


That night Vivi and her husband picked me up for dinner. They took me to a restaurant on the far side of town specializing in Over the Bridge Noodles— my favorite Yunnan meal. The restaurant was unnecessarily fancy for the simplicity of the food, a far cry from the modest outdoor benches where I enjoyed huge bowls of the steamy broth with rice noodles, dried tofu, quail eggs, and cilantro.

Over dinner, I observed Vivi’s dynamic with her husband. He was attentive and admiring of his wife. He took his cues from her, catering to me as if he, too, had been my student. He asked me how it felt to be back. Again, I emphasized all of the changes. That’s when the performance of deference ended— my response disappointed him.

“We don’t want all of this stuff; we just want a simple life.” Her husband said, looking at me like I was refusing to understand something obvious. 

It made me raise an eyebrow. Hadn’t they just returned from Vegas? Weren’t they looking forward to Malaysia? The changes were all part of a broader transformation that made this kind of travel possible. It struck me that Vivi and her husband, were not clear about the true extent of their desires—how one set of sacrifices made other things possible. What I took from his words was a bemoaning of lost innocence. They missed the days when progress was not linked to bad traffic and polluted skies, and all the other ills that come with modern life. I just nodded and sipped my rice noodles. I had insights, but I’ve learned to keep my notions to myself when people share their troubles. My heart knew they were already whole. The essence they sought, that they felt they’d lost, had already been recovered in the words he’d just spoken. Grieving out loud is sometimes all that soul needs to come forward and do its healing work. It is an insight from the US Black experience that colors how I see our short time together; in their lament I hear a kind of freedom song.