I hear and forget. I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.
/ Confucius, Spring and Autumn Period/
I suppose I could be accused of being frivolous, by referring to a young Chinese woman as "China Doll" and even more so if that young woman should turn out to be a policewoman on duty.
The reason I use the term, however, has nothing to do with frivolity. The brief episode, on a long and arduous journey through a number of provinces of China I am about to describe, defies description and the young woman in this fleeting encounter even more so.
The purpose of our journey through China was to visit sites of architectural, historical and artistic significance, fulfilling a long dream of seeing the many wondrous sights and objects of art "in the flesh" that we hitherto only knew from reproduced images. One of my earliest memories - going back to childhood and relating to China - was a delicate and beautiful porcelain figurine of a young Chinese woman, displayed in my aunt Kati's display cabinet, and which I always referred to as the "China Doll." I loved that figurine, even though I could never actually explain why. That China Doll - which, in all probability, had nothing to do with genuine Chinese art and craft - became the symbol, in my mind, of Chinese beauty. It was the trigger that started a long journey of search and study towards understanding and appreciating the real beauty of Chinese art and craft. This recent journey in China was the partial fulfilment of that dream of seeing some of these treasures in their native locations. The only disappointment on our tour was that our arrival to Beijing coincided with the start of a weeklong national holiday and everywhere we visited was packed to the brim.
On the sixth day of the journey, on Friday the 6th of October, after having already visited some major sites in and around Beijing, including the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall at Badaling and the Ming Tombs, we were in the city of Luoyang, where we spent the best part of the morning admiring some treasures in the city's museum. It was a relief to find the museum relatively empty of people. After leaving the museum we went for an early lunch at 11.30, as we had a six-hour train journey ahead of us to Xian, starting at 1.30 pm. We had to be at the railways station by 12.30. Our tour manager collected the reserved tickets at the station and we were ushered inside the "Soft Seat" waiting room. The station was teaming with people, the vast majority native Chinese, except for the waiting room we were in, where it was mainly "westerners" waiting for the train's arrival.
My wife and I were part of a small group of eleven tourists from the UK on a fully conducted tour, where Ben, our native Chinese tour manager, travelled with us to every destination, starting from Beijing. At every new locality a local guide joined our group, who gave us all the relevant historical and background information. The whole tour was exceptionally well organised and conducted, with the only fly in the ointment being the vast crowds of people everywhere. But even that inconvenience was somewhat mitigated by the many manifestations of friendly gestures from the natives; smiles and hand-waves from complete strangers and even numerous direct approaches from some, who would either wish to talk to us, or would ask one of us to pose for a "souvenir" photo with one or more members of their family. At times their open curiosity and friendliness was almost overpowering. By now we were getting accustomed to receiving smiles and greetings from complete strangers.
There was just one exception to this open friendliness… Although China is developing at a fantastic pace to catch up with "western standards" and in urban areas and at "tourist sites" the vast majority of the natives are well dressed in western style clothing and act and look contended, none the less the evidence of strict state control is visible everywhere. The presence of uniformed policemen and women at every location is overwhelming. They either stand stiff and motionless at their appointed posts, or walk - usually in pairs - with measured and formal steps, as if they were on a parade ground. They all appear to be young, slim, with an aura of inapproachable authority and with faces that never ease up in a smile even for a moment. Wherever they walk - no matter how dense the crowd might be - the sea of people part in blind obedience, to let them pass, just like the Red Sea might have done so for the fleeing Israelites in Biblical times. There are a confusing variety of police uniforms everywhere that even our Beijing born tour manager was unable to explain. Not a single member of our small group had ever seen a policeman or woman smile during the 15 days of our tour, anywhere in China.
Some fifteen minutes before the scheduled arrival of our train we were ushered to the appointed platform, by our local guide. The platform was teaming with a crowd of people, all waiting for the arrival of that train. This was the moment were I first spotted the slim young policewoman, in her smart blue uniform, standing motionless on the platform, facing towards the expected arrival of the train, both of her arms rigidly extended downwards by her side, palms stuck to the side of her immaculately pressed trousers, face impassive, eyes staring vacantly towards the approaching train.
It was her face that caught my attention. It was a pretty, finely sculpted face, reminiscent of the face of that "China Doll" I so loved as a child. As the train rolled by slowly and came to a screeching halt, she turned with stiff military precision to face the train and stood motionless to attention.
Our seats were reserved on the lower level of a double-decker coach and it took several minutes before we could board, having had to fight our way to the door through the crowd. In the push and shove to the coach's door I completely forgot about the policewoman on the platform. Pretty face or no pretty face, she was just another unsmiling figure of authority. I found my way to my reserved seat by the window and sat down, with video camera in my hand, which by now was an almost permanent appendage to my right hand. After making myself comfortable in my seat I relaxed, pulled the net curtain back and glanced out through the filthy window. The young policewoman was standing to attention, motionless, just outside the window, facing the train. I looked at the pretty face again. To my surprise I realised that she was looking directly at me from the corner of her eyes. I smiled at her. An almost imperceptible, coy little smile lit her face up momentarily, then - as if she feared showing signs of weakness and loss of authority - she looked straight ahead again at the train with a straight face. I looked down to switch the video camera on, ready to record the train's departure and without lifting the camera to my eye, but with the screen opened, I glanced back at her once more.
Her eyes turned back again looking at me… and our eyes met. This time she smiled first and I smiled back… it felt like a moment of sheer magic… The train started to move now slowly and, holding the camera low in my hand, I pushed the recording button, glancing at the screen, ascertaining that she was in the frame. As the train slowly moved forward I smiled at her again and waved. Her face lit up in a broad momentary smile and, with her head turning slightly to follow the train's forward move, she looked at me direct and lifted her hand for a brief wave back, before she once again looked straight ahead and assumed the stiff posture of authority. The train was now beginning to gather a little speed and she disappeared from sight, standing on the now almost deserted platform. The whole episode could not have lasted more than a few seconds, yet an indescribable minor miracle seemed to have occurred in those few precious moments…
What I always suspected and yet never fully understood and articulate was that the cultural heritage of a nation, its art and craft, is a reflection of the soul of its people. Art and craft originates from an innermost human emotion, a search for beauty and perfection, a longing for inner harmony, tranquillity and peace, well expressed in the finished article. Chinese art is perhaps the most perfect expression and manifestation of having found that inner harmony.
This recent journey was chiefly about visiting and looking at priceless treasures of art, learning first hand about Chinese culture. Little did I expect or suspect that I would find - in a brief encounter at a railway station - the true and intangible treasure of China… the soul of its people in the smile of complete strangers and one in particular…. in the smile of a young woman, a figure of state authority, who was not even supposed to look, let alone smile at a "westerner"…. a "foreign devil"… In one fleeting moment I found this intangible beauty and harmony in a stranger's smile and I will always treasure the memory of that moment…
We returned from China mid-October and my original intention was to write a detailed journal of that fascinating and eventful journey. However, a day after our arrival I developed a fever and had the worse cold I ever had since 1959, when I went down with the "Asian Flu". Some of the effects of this cold are still with me, much to my annoyance, and as we also had some visitors arriving and staying with us and upon their departure my wife had a series of medical tests and consultations, I had no chance to think about writing, let alone getting down to it.
The fleeting episode I described in this story, however, had an inexplicable impact on me. It would not leave me alone. However much it defied description, I had to try, at least, to put it in words. My first attempt was a sonnet with the same title (posted here simultaneously amongst my poems). There is no scope within a brief sonnet to describe some relevant details, to place the episode within the full context of events. Hence this short story. Being a septuagenarian, living in a busy and noisy western metropolis, I am accustomed to of being virtually invisible. People avoid eye contact and they seldom smile in public. Even people you have known for years, tend to acknowledge your presence on the street with just a brief nod of the head. Everyone is in a rush and civility, friendliness and politeness are out of fashion. To have a young stranger look at an elderly person, smile at him and even wave… well… it seems one has to travel half way across the globe to have this unique heart warming experience…
© P. J. Oszmann (November 2006)
© Illustration: Frame captured in Studio 8 from analogue video recording, enhanced in Photoshop (Nov 2006) (The video was taken from a moving train through a dirty window; hence the inferior quality of both the video and the resulting still photograph)
Please read my sonnet "China Doll" (if you are interested) posted here simultaneously in my Poetry pages.
The short video clip of "the smile and wave" can be seen by clicking on the link below: