Bridging Generations on China’s High Plateau
AS our train from Beijing entered Shanxi Province in northern China, the land turned stark and blinding. Scarred by the chasms scratched out by brutally fitful rain, its sculpted, parched earth yielded only scrubby fields and poplars, as goats and donkeys sought lazy refuge from the relentless June sun.
My mother and I had arrived in her birthplace, our ancestral home. And as the train rolled past centuries-old Ming dynasty watchtowers, melting forlornly into the hills, I recalled the words of Zhang Jigang, the Shanxinese choreographer whom I had met in Beijing. “You’ll see how important Shanxi is to Chinese civilization,” Mr. Zhang, a director of the Olympic opening ceremony, told me. “In my opinion, you cannot know China without knowing Shanxi.”
As the train rumbled on, my mother was quick to agree. “See? Didn’t I tell you?” she said, in that Chinese mother sort of way.
With the Great Wall edging its north, towering peaks in its east and the Yellow River cordoning its south and west, Shanxi — its name means west of the mountains — is not the China of fertile rice paddies and lush bamboo forests. Instead, picture the arid plateau, heaved through the ages into clouds of dust by marauding Mongol horsemen, and still carved by the awesome monuments left by a millennium and a half of Buddhism.
From Shanxi’s political and spiritual crossroads arose some of China’s earliest dynasties. And in its courtyard mansions — the 1991 movie “Raise the Red Lantern” was filmed in one — you can almost make out the ghosts of the province’s famed merchants and bankers, clattering their abacuses among meandering, tranquil courtyards.
I, however, was in Shanxi to confront a few ghosts of my own. Growing up in Chicago, where my Taiwanese-raised parents had met as students in the 1970s, I was typical of many first-generation children in playing down — or, in my case, even shunning — my ancestry. Having been formed by Phase 1 of that classic, child-of-immigrants narrative, I was determined never to give in to Phase 2. But here I was, trying to rediscover my roots, as if seeking some kind of redemption.
Specifically, I had come to see where my maternal grandparents had lived and where they’re now buried — the province they left in 1949 as mainland China fell to the Communists. My grandfather was then a legislator in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, and like some two million other Chinese, he and my grandmother joined it in fleeing to Taiwan.
After six hours on the train, my mother, Wang Qihui, and I arrived at our first stop, the city of Datong. It was across this dry rugged landscape, blasted by Gobi Desert air, that my great-grandfather once traded livestock before retiring to the family compound in the Shanxinese capital of Taiyuan. Nowadays, Datong is the heart of coal country — Shanxi’s abundant reserves have made it a crucible of China’s boom — and, surveying the city’s mirrored high-rises and smoggy air, the blessings seemed mixed.
Still, Datong is known throughout China for its historic sites. And before long, my mother and I were wandering its pleasant temple district, joining the monks in golden robes as we ascended the millennium-old Huayan Temple, its cavernous upper hall presided over by five enormous Buddhas seated among magnificent Qing dynasty (1644-1911) frescoes.
With our hotel-arranged tour guide, Zhang Zhao, and his maroon Volkswagen Jetta, we also hit the sites just outside of town. We explored the majestic Yungang Grottoes, their deep niches and sublime chambers chiseled with thousands of Buddhist sculptures by the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), and the fifth-century Hanging Temple of Mount Hengshan, its matchstick pavilions clinging perilously high to the side of a cliff. We stopped every so often at the remains of withered market towns and garrisons, while visiting sections of the Great Wall that you won’t find on postcards, their endlessly snaking coils of rammed earth eroding into a poetry of ruins.
When we weren’t scouting 1,000-year-old treasures — or dodging gusts of powdered coal — we were liberally sampling the celebrated Shanxinese noodles that my grandmother, a good cook, could only approximate in Taiwan: pinched, curled or sliced, usually seasoned with the province’s malty vinegar and always washed down with a shot of grappa-like Fen Jiu.
After one such meal, curiosity got the better of me and I asked Mr. Zhang, the tour guide, to take us to one of the traditional cave dwellings, called yaodongs, that dotted the hillsides. In a dash, we were in the tiny village of Donggetuopu, standing beside the arched entranceway of a whitewashed cave. Out popped a wrinkled man named Zhang Dehua (none of the Zhangs in this article are related); at 75, dressed in an olive Mao suit and cap, he still looked ready for revolution. “It’s 500 years old,” he said with a wide smile, clearly proud of his cool, tamped-earth den. “But I’ve only lived here for 30.”