I became an old Chinese

My decision in 1985 to travel to China felt as an obligation. Twice in my LSD-dreams, I became an old Chinese. The dreams told me to go there after seeing in an altered state of consciousness Chinese people travelling in wagons drawn by oxen. Long lines, one wagon moving behind the other. Sometimes the wooden wheels got stuck in the furrows, wagons toppled over, people fell onto the ground. Archetypal images of the suffering of people since immemorial times.

Feng Shui

I entered China by water and wind, according to the ancient Feng Shui tradition, leaving from the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferrie Pier – Kowloon Peninsula, to Kanton (Guangzhou), capital of the province Guangdong. I read about Fu Hsi (Xi) 2952-2836, an important emperor in the Feng Shui tradition: “Looking upward he contemplated the images in the heavens; looking downward he observed the patterns on earth. Thus was instituted the science of Feng Shui.”

A dream and a landscape

The first night I dreamt about China as a large house with many floors, each with a different character as the geological levels of the earth.
Reading in my Nagel’s China guide in the city of Quilin in the province of Quang-xi, I got struck by a feeling of total ignorance. Guilin has four directions: North-South-East-West as Chinese tradition in city-planning prescribes, and mythical stories about its origin and history. Walking along the river, a man on a bamboo raft is fishing with a cigarette between his fingers; others on their bamboo rafts move downstream; a man on a horse at the riverbank has his photo taken. Thousands of crickets make a deafening sound. I wonder whether I am really seeing these people or watching a Chinese landscape painting.

Cultural Revolution 1966 – 1976

I rest and sleep for a while in a cave with a view toward the West. When I wake up, a man is sleeping next to me. I notice the ruins of three large statues: two torso’s with their front down on the floor; a third one leaning backwards against the wall, plants growing around its pedestal. The statues are the silent witnesses of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976. The last print of my Nagel’s guide is of 1984, but Annex I mentions the prices of 1966 in Peking (Beijing).
Nagel unwillingly teaches me about China’s Cultural Revolution and its devastating effects. Two of the statues are Buddha statues; the third one a mandarin or perhaps an emperor. The cave, the plants and the mutilated statues transform in front of my eyes into a new kind of beauty: timeless and time-bounded. The statues speak silently and quietly about hate and ignorance. They function in the cave like the canary-bird in its underground cage. When he dies, the miners do know that they are in danger. The aggression against the beauty of the past is an act of Mars without Venus. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (1957-1961) caused 45 million deaths by starvation.
I leave the cave, my neighbor still asleep.

Mountains of Quilin, Huangpo and Sardinia

An eighty kilometer boat-trip from Quilin to Huangpo amidst incredibly beautiful mountains. Some carry names as Quanjin, the lovely goddess, or the apple with the old man, or the nine horses. Seven years later, visiting the island of Sardinia, images of this journey jump up as if the Chinese mountains moved to the northern coast of this Italian island. The enthusiasm of my fellow travelers reaches an intensity unknown to me. For them, it is more than aesthetics: it is sacred. Faces radiate joy. The mountains seem to be animated.

When I find a whip in China
I shall use it gently
to bend your feelings
in graceful curves
as the river Li-Yang
moving swiftly southward
between the green legs of
the mountains of Guangxi.

After climbing a rock
in the mountains of Guilin
two boys were there
with their pants down
How universal is nature!

Arne Naess and the King of Nepal

The joy of my fellow travelers reminds me of a letter by Arne Naess to the King of Nepal asking him to declare all mountains above a certain height to be holy: The Great Mountains have since remote antiquity been the objects of religious cults. They have been the symbols of the Highest, the Imperishable, the Unsurpassable and Unreachable, and of course, symbols of the Deity.
Naess wants to strengthen the feeling for the untouchable.

Bronze Age

My Nagel guide informs me that during the Bronze Age (1800-800 BCE) of the Shang and the beginning of the Zhou, “the dwellings (of the nobles) faced south and already included features which are characteristic of later Chinese houses; large numbers of human victims have been found in the richest tombs, obviously sacrificed during the funeral ceremonies.”
The guide also speaks about the “fundamental dichotomy” between the nobles living in their “city-palaces” (J. Gernet) and the peasants who worked on their lands, around the walls of the towns.
Mao Tse-tung is never far away.


Postman of Dehong Chen

I am a postman in China, carrying a bundle of letters, written by Dehong Chen. Dehong Chen is a visual artist who in 1982 gets permission to leave China, but his wife and six month old child have to stay in Beijing in their house in the old city. He came to Amsterdam where we met. Dehong asked me to deliver his letters to his older brother, his wife and some friends living in various cities in China. He wrote the addresses in Chinese characters and English. By showing the letters to people in the various cities, I manage to find the homes of his relatives and friends where I always receive a warm welcome. This is especially the case in the city Kunming in the province Yunnan in the house of the oldest brother of Dehong, De Yuan Chen. Three days in a row he invites me for dinner, conversation and dancing. He asks me what I think about Mao Tse-tung, who died in 1976. Deng Xiaping and his supporters managed to outlaw the Gang of Four, including the widow and son of Mao Tse-tung. Deng Xiaping argued for reforms, under the motto: It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. The children in the house of Dehong’s brother had participated in the Cultural Revolution. After ten years, one daughter left the movement, disgusted by all the violence and chaos. But a younger sister is still wearing a Mao-dress.


Alle Menschen werden Brüder

Talking about Mao is like walking on eggs. I answer the questions of my host by saying that the aims of Mao Tse-tung are lofty but his means didn’t match his aims. Although his children and especially his sons-in-law have university degrees, no one speaks any language other than Chinese. To facilitate the conversation, my host who is about sixty-five, takes an English-Chinese Oxford dictionary from a cabinet, and translates our conversation for the family. After the conversation, we have dinner with several bottles of rice-wine. Each time the glasses are filled, I have to make a toast. After dinner comes the main surprise. Knowing about my profession as philosopher, the host tells me that German metaphysics is the apex of all philosophy. He goes to the cabinet, brings a gramophone and plays the last part of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony: Alle Menschen werden Brüder. I am touched. After listening to Schiller’s An die Freude, the family starts dancing. Talking, eating and dancing: it all happens in the same room after discussing the Cultural Revolution!


The following day I visit a bamboo-temple near Kunming. The three Buddhas carry the swastika on their breast. The Buddha at the left holds his right hand open; the left-hand in front of his belly, thumb and middle-finger crossed. The Buddha in the middle holds the forefinger and middle fingers straight, while thumb and ring-finger touch each other; his left hand rests with the palm of his hand on his left thigh-bone. The Buddha at the right holds his hands folded in each other.
Leaving the temple, members of the green militia are entering.

Deng Xiaping

Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan, is a surprise. Markets are full of vegetables, fruits and food products. No better proof for the success of Deng Xiaping’s “contract responsibility system” in which farmers are free to sell their surplus products after fulfilling their food-contract with the government. Chengdu is the powerbase of Deng Xiaping. Chengdu’s ground plan was a square until recently, when it became round.
Visiting a mosque under construction, I notice that the orientation of the mosque is westward in contrast to the orientation of temples and Chinese palaces to the north, the Pole star. The mihrab, a niche in the wall of the mosque, indicates the direction of Mecca. Men with white beards are watching and directing the building activities. Enormous beams are lifted with pulley-blocks and pulley-ropes, centimeter by centimeter until they reach the highest level. The ancient construction techniques are impressive.

Buddhas are facing the Yi river
that’s passing by without
noticing the Buddhas who
watch the river hundreds of years.

Sitting at the west bank of the Yi river near the Long Men caves, there is a strange tension between the timeless Buddhas, carved in rocky holes, and the mutilation and disappearance of hundreds of statues.

A boy is passing by without any possessions;
nothing separates him
from the nature of
Zhuangzi (Chuang-tze)

On the road of Luoyang to Long Men caves

There are more women than woman-bicycles in Luoyang, the city of nine dynasties. There are more man-bicycles than men in Luoyang, the city with a statue of Mao Tse-tung. Do the women prefer biking on men-bikes or are production figures for men-bikes fixed beforehand? Or both? Or none?

In the Temple of the White Horse near Luoyang: for a floor-plan of the Temple of the White Horse.

I have been kneeling down
for a laughing Buddha
offering one yuan
for his happiness

Chinese lesson of mind-projecting

Arriving in a city, my first action is not to find a hotel but a map of the city. If possible, one in Chinese, and another one in English. By comparing both maps, I try to find out how I can leave the city. Not being able to speak or to understand or to read any Chinese character, I have to rely on a comparison of both maps. Never in my life have I been so ‘speechless’, deaf, blind and dumb at the same time. My consciousness returns to the age of three: no single sign is clear or evident. I realized how my mind incessantly projects wishful thoughts which have little or nothing to do with the outside world.
The China journey, the hardest in my life, teaches the lesson of mind-projecting, no less important than the one of the Sahara in 1973, about the annihilation of images in that immense silence and space, and the necessity of orientation.

A biker passes by
carrying fifty chickens
hanging upside down
a circling wheel
the center of their world

Walking up and down
waiting on a bus
the crescent moon
sometimes more familiar
than mother earth

As for instance on such a trip through China where I understood nothing, I could say nothing, I felt as if I had gone back to the time when I was three or four years old. I walked around in a world I could not yet recognize, a world without understandable signs.
In this situation you return to the state of consciousness you were in when you were a child in which everything is always new, always different. Then you understand how deeply we are conditioned in our perceptions. We ascribe them to Reality but Reality does not exist; it is our perception of reality only.

I return to the roots of my thoughts and actions.

Eating is unification

I believe that I have to spend the night outside Lyoyang. It starts to get dark and bus 56 doesn’t show up. The local community surrounds me, while I am writing. An old woman brings her husband, bald but with moustache, a cup of soup. He slurps it with visible appetite. I see the Chinese enjoy their food intensely – no other thoughts. Eating is unification with the crops of the land; the chicken and its egg; the pig and the duck, while I experience distance. But I also see how more and more people in Xian and Lyoyang get up when I am standing in the bus to offer me their place. Is this a gesture towards a bald pilgrim? It becomes too dark to write. Today is the birthday of Karel van der Leeuw who years ago gave me Chan source book in Chinese philosophy.

There exist many Chinas

A few hours later I arrive in the Friendship hotel in Luoyang thanks to a motorcyclist who gave me a free ride without speaking one word. The next day, in Dong Xian, what happens around me, is my consolation for not finding the tombs of the emperors of the Song dynasty. Two old women finish the leftovers of my copious dinner and beer. A man kneels next to me, kisses my arm and shakes it so long that I am shaking on my stool. A beautiful girl gives me her picture with her name. There exist many Chinas. Travelling first class by train and staying in first class hotels, you walk in Dante’s Paradise; second class is his Purgatory, and third class China’s Hell.
The restaurant gives me one yuan back. The man who was shaking my arm, is there too. He reminds me of Buddha. I give him the yuan. Laughing he leaves the restaurant.

Trying to buy a ticket

I just discovered that I am not in Dong Xian but in Zhenghou. The bus didn’t make a stop in Dong Xian. That’s the reason why I couldn’t find the tombs of the emperors. Trying to buy a ticket to Zhenghou, after standing for more than half an hour in a queue at the train station, I happened to be there already!

A mother takes a picture
her child with a red bandage
embraces a boddhisatva
without a head
the mother takes the picture
without a camera.


Beijing, July 23. I don’t feel happy and I don’t feel unhappy on this evening before my birthday. My mind is in a state of mental equilibrium. The ancient Greek call it ‘ataraxia’. All those years, all these sequences, my childhood, the childhood of my children. ‘Carpe diem’ feels like a warm wind. The sadness over the fleeting of those years; the impermanence of life conceals a beautiful white light. It feels like a little jump.

Liyu Shao

July 24, 1985. I visited Liyu Shao, the wife of Dehong Chen. I brought her his letter, and some presents. We had dinner together. She lives in the old city. The Forbidden Palace is beautiful but Beijing as a whole lacks planning. It goes from one extreme to another. Either you are swimming in large-scale squares and streets, or the opposite. After 1949, Tiannanmen Square has been enlarged on such a scale that it serves only a strategy of mass-psychology. It is a square with fascist ambitions.
Actually, Beijing causes a feeling of alienation, not like New York City that attracts and inspires although it also may cause estrangement. Beijing is too big and too provincial. Not enough ‘bourgeois’-citizens. Mao’s mausoleum is a laugh. The peasant is never far away, spitting, laughing, fighting, shitting in a row in the public toilets.

I am longing for some poetic dreams

Ah, why does the spring wind, a stranger
Part the curtains of my bed?

Li Bai

People today cannot see the moon of ages past
Yet the moon today has shone on our ancestors
People pass away like a flowing stream
Yet all have seen the moon like this.
My only wish singing and drinking wine
Is to see the moonlight in my golden goblet.

Li Bai

Shanghai, July 30

I like Shanghai! I feel energy and warmth from the people, as I felt some weeks ago at a bus station in the early morning. It happened amidst of Chinese of various ages, waiting and exercising tai chi. I realized with great and sudden clarity that these men and women, I mean each of them, didn’t have a circle around them. The energy floated from one to the other. There was no barrier, no limit, no interruption.

August 1, 1985

I wade knee-deep through the water to reach the station of Shanghai that isn’t easy to find. From the day I arrived it keeps raining. The drinking water is horrible: it stinks, has a brown color and affects the taste of rice and tea. But Chinese walk laughingly or undisturbed through the pools. I catch their equanimity and quietness. From that moment on, their energy feeds my energy.
After changing some money on the black market, I rent a private hut for the boat journey from Shanghai to Hong Kong. My last encounter was with a man of 72. He lives in Shanghai since 1929 and has never left the city since.

Body-mind energy

This realization was not a judgment, not a projection from my side but a clear intuitive understanding of how the body-mind energy can function. A body-mind energy, in that sequence, not different from the way it functions among horses or birds.
The implications of such a stream of energy are enormous. It implies a different relationship between the public and private space. It makes people sensitive for all kinds of mass psychology such as advertising and mass consumerism, also for heroism and war.
If people with such body-mind energy work closely together, they are able to change a landscape, to build a city, to conquer territories or to defend their homes because their energy is a common, shared energy. When they start to fight each other as happened in the Cultural Revolution, the doors of hell are opened because nobody pulls the emergency brake. Not only positive energy but also destructive energy doesn’t know any border or limit. No Calvinist or individual consciousness that stands alone before the throne of God to say: Oh Lord, the life I lived has been my own responsibility.

August 4, 1985

The quality of China is its people, their social relations, their family-life, the food, their love for nature, the ease of walking through water. The old age of cities, provinces and landscapes function as the country’s vital consciousness. In the 21st century the Chinese will claim their place as one of the greatest countries, if not the greatest of all, with more forceful arguments than ever. It will be difficult for the United States and Europe, although Europe remains for me the most beautiful continent because of its nature and its cities; tradition and modernity. Europe maintains a reasonable balance between many extremes. But more joy of life, more energy, more warmth for each other, and less nationalism and less ‘petit-bourgeois’ mentality, if only that would be possible!

More empty and more clean

There are a few days left to become more empty and more clean. The two qualities complement each other. Both are attempts to dissolve an ego that got stuck in itself, to seduce it to surrender to everything that isn’t ego, thus to whatever exists. The ego is only a construction, a way of seeing, understanding and experiencing. But once it is there, it is stronger than a prison, because it functions for the ego itself fully invisible, non audible, and thus unrecognizable. Oceans, deserts and mountains are good remedies against that blindness and deafness. Perhaps also – but not unconditional – such an intense love that the ego dissolves in it, as sugar in a glass of hot tea.

Jin Jiang

The night of August 6 on the Jin Jiang from Shanghai to Hong Kong, by way of water and wind, I leave China as I entered the country of my dreams five weeks ago.

Song of the Waters by Su Shih, 1036-1101

When has there been so good a moon?
I lift my cup and ask the clear heavens;
but how would one know what time it is
up there? I would go on the wings
of the winds to see, but perhaps the palaces
there are made of jade, and I would freeze;
better to stay and be happy on earth,
making it as good as any heaven could be.

The remaining diary entries have been posted in their original language: Dutch.

Maandag 5 augustus, 1985, Jin Jiang ferry, Oost Chinese Zee, niet ver van Taiwan.
Af en toe wat vissersboten, een enkele berg. Zojuist een kajuitraam geopend, de airconditioning draait dol. Warme vochtige lucht waait naar binnen.
Met een fles Rémy Martin op tafel, en voor mijn neus een manshoge spiegel die me uitnodigt tot een semipermanente spiegeloefening à la Shinto. Op zee heb ik geen behoefte aan zo’n ritueel. De zee is sterk genoeg om je dankbaar te laten zijn dat je veilig op een grote boot zit met een hoge reling, en je tegelijkertijd te laten weten dat het slechts een kwestie van tijd is. De zee absorbeert alles: rustig of gewelddadig. De zee maakt geen onderscheid. De Oost Chinese zee, overvloeiend in andere zeeën, alleen anders door zijn naam, niet door zijn compositie en permanente beweging, omringt de verschillende continenten met een groter oppervlak dan we ooit in staat zullen zijn in één blik waar te nemen.

De Oost Chinese Zee wiegt de Jin Jiang, en Jin Jiang wiegt mij met de hartslag van zijn cilinders, zoveel meter onder mijn bed. Ik kan hen voelen. Er is een zachte, ononderbroken trilling in een regelmatig metrum, alsof een gigantisch olifantenlichaam in beweging probeert te komen. De zee nodigt uit tot gedachteloos beschouwen. Plotseling klinkt uit de luidsprekers een vrouwenstem met een Grieks lied. De zee, tijdloos op en neer golvend, vermengt zich met haar zachte stemgeluid en met de plek in ons lichaam waar de tweede chakra huist: de genitaliën. Vannacht bij volle maan met de twee kajuitramen open en een glas cognac, misschien met Kathryn Mar, een Chinese die mijn naam met liefde of vriendschap uitsprak. Mar betekent “zee”. Er moet toch iets gebeuren op zo’n groot schip, met slechts 135 passagiers in plaats van de geplande 400. En zelfs van die 135 zie ik hooguit één derde. Het is alsof een handvol mensen, zonder zelfs een ander schip te zien, in een waterachtige leegte aan zijn lot is overgelaten.

Lord Jim

Ik lees Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, een man die leefde op en rond de zee, betrokken bij een scheepsramp waarin 800 pelgrims uit Azië op weg waren naar Mekka, en met z’n allen ten onder gingen.
In het donker een rondgang op de boot gemaakt waar Schuberts Impromptu en later een sonate van Beethoven zich vermengden met het water. Muziek en water zijn verwant; tijd en ruimte in muziek volstrekt verweven. Bewegende ruimte waarin niet één richting bestaat maar de volle ruimte reageert op iedere verandering en elke verandering de ruimte op een andere manier manifesteert. Analoog aan Lovelock’s uitspraak dat de zee zijn ecologische ‘boodschap’ doorgeeft van Nieuw Zeeland tot Alaska. In Seneca’s woorden: Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt. Lotgevallen leiden de gewillige, trekken de onwillige.

In slaap gevallen

Ik droom dat ik met navelstreng en al terugkeer in de baarmoeder van mijn moeder, onvoorstelbaar groot, licht en donker, warm en vochtig. Plotseling twee vrouwen. Ik zie de ene, naakt, groot en sterk, zichzelf onderzoeken in een spiegel, terwijl zij haar beide borsten omhoog tilt alsof ze hen wikt en weegt. Ze straalt volstrekte zekerheid uit. De tweede vrouw, haar assistente, dwingt mij te liggen, sluit mijn ogen en streelt tot ik buiten zinnen raak en verdwijn in een immense ruimte.

Tang & Song dynastieën

In de ochtend, de tweede dag op de Jin Jiang, lees ik gedichten van de Tang & Song dynastieën, in het prachtige Engels van Reni Alley. Het boekje is ontroerend. Veel gedichten gaan over het leed van de ‘gewone’ mensen die voor het grote Chinese Rijk keer op keer moeten vechten, veel belasting betalen, enzovoorts. De uitdijende gebieden of de verdediging ervan bepalen honderden kilometers verderop het wel en wee van tienduizenden families. Er is een voortdurende kortsluiting tussen de keizerlijke verlangens en decreten, en de hier-en-nu verlangens en noden van de boerenfamilies. China heeft nooit de democratische stadsontwikkeling gekend, die veel Europese steden kenmerkt met hun ontstaansgeschiedenis in de Middeleeuwen. De schoonheid van de Europese steden met hun eigen specifieke karakter is te danken aan de hechte politieke en culturele eenheid van de Middeleeuwse stad, van hun vrijheidsdrang ten opzichte van het feodale systeem; van hun zelfbewustzijn ten opzichte van het formele machtscentrum van koning of keizer.

Europese stad

Het welzijn van onze steden zal in belangrijke mate afhangen van de vraag, of zij voldoende autonomie kunnen veroveren op de centrale overheid om weer een minimum aan lokaal identiteitsgevoel en dito verantwoordelijkheid te ontwikkelen. Die meerwaarde is essentieel voor een goed stedelijk leven, en voor de ontwikkeling van een culturele en sociale diversiteit, zoals we nu al weten dat Rotterdammers ‘anders’ zijn dan Amsterdammers. Kortom, de wereld van de voetbalclubs op stedelijk niveau. Amsterdam stemt over zijn stadhuis maar niet over het Vierwindenhuis.

Geen onzichtbare cirkel

Ik hou van de Chinezen. Ik vind hen het tegendeel van enigmatisch of ritualistisch. Hun emoties zijn zo voelbaar dat je ze als het ware met je vingertoppen kunt aanraken. Zij vibreren als een electro-magnetisch veld. De emoties trekken je aan of stoten je af. Ze zijn nooit neutraal zoals onze burgerlijk Westerse cultuur lijkt na te streven in zijn omgangsvormen. Veel toeristen gaan met een cirkel om zich heen de ruimte van de Chinezen binnen. De Chinezen die ik ontmoet heb, de ‘gewone’ mensen, hebben geen onzichtbare cirkel die hen afzondert en beschermt tegenover hun medemensen. Die cirkel bestaat wel als collectieve cirkel in de klassenstrijd van de Culturele Revolutie, of ten opzichte van niet-Chinezen.
De dromen die mij verleid hebben door China te reizen als postbode en onderzoek te doen naar zijn ruimte- en tijdparadigma’s, hebben me niet misleid.


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