China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: The Wheat Was Ripe And It Was Sunday
Date: Mon, 15 Jun 1998 10:25:22 -0700

22:45 Linfen Hotel, Linfen; Shanxi--China :: SU 14 JUN 98

Since entering northern China more than two months ago I've been watching the countryside shed its winter grey cloak to reveal the green, green springtime colour. The winter wheat progressed from scattered seedlings, to a lush carpet of long grass. Then the grain itself began to plump, changing the texture of the fields. This past week the grassy green gradually began browning and yesterday it seemed everywhere the landscape had been lightly toasted to a honey hue. Harvest was imminent.

Today, cycling away from Huo Zhou with the sun breaking through the previous day's smoggy shroud and the worst of the smokestack forest withdrawing, I am treated to something special. In the fields peasants stooped to sever wheat stalks with short sicle strokes. Stalks are bundled and stacked on all manner of vehicle on two, three or four wheels pulled by horsepower, manpower or mulepower.

08:04 Linfen Hotel, Linfen; Shanxi--China :: MO 15 JUN 98

Cycling through this scene reminded me of a favourite short story by Sinclair Ross, I believe the title is "Cornet at Night" but the story's first line reads, "The wheat was ripe and it was Sunday." Ross was a Canadian contemporary of John Steinbeck who also wrote extensively concerning the plight of dust-bowl era plains life, though the Canadian plains. In many respects I prefer Ross's work, which scrutinizes familial and community relationships and the hardships induced on them by farm and rural life without the blatant politicisation that sometimes leads Steinbeck away from accurate portrayal.

With "Cornet at Night," Ross explores conflict between the practicalities of farm life and the imposition of 'civilizing' structures on human interaction. The story's opening line perfectly expresses this conflict which manifests in the struggle between the pragmatic father and the upright mother to influence their son's understanding of the world. The father wins the short-term battle, sending the young son into town (a rite of passage) on a Sunday to find labourers. But the son brings back an unemployed and destitute musician, useless as a farm hand but whose lilting cornet, issuing from the hand's barracks that night, leaves a lasting impression on the boy, and even the father. There must be a place for this impractical beauty amongst all the necessity.

And so I wonder while rolling and crackling through the prone wheat what day this is and am pleased to discover from my wristwatch that it is, indeed, Sunday. A smile, and a quick acknowledgement that life on the Canadian prairies early in this century, though in appearance so different, underneath all the essentials remain the same, and still do, and always have. In Chapter 1 of the analects, Confucius said, "If you would govern a state of a thousand chariots (a small-to-middle-size state), you must pay strict attention to business, be true to your word, be economical in expenditure and love the people. You should use them according to the seasons." Using the people "according to the seasons" refers to the unwise practice of some tyrants who pressed the farmers into public works labour when the harvest was in.

And while I'm thinking about all this, the tremendous loads of wheat shimmy their way to some available strip of highway and there dumped along the roadside. Pitchforks break and spread the bundles across the throughway's width so that coal trucks and buses and Volkswagen Santanas drive through, crackling the husks like blisterwrap underfoot.

A few simple threshers perform this same function on the larger fields, preening the wheat kernels from their housing so much more quickly. But more efficiently? Perhaps not in a country where human sweat can be had so cheaply.

And so the peasants wield their pitchforks again, lifting sunbleached stalks and their liberated husks from the honey hued wheat-fruit lying below. Straw brooms sweep the kernels and chaff into piles where they are lifted into the air in shovel fulls. Chaff flits away in the breeze, softly glittering in the warm sun. Again and again the simplest of methods filters fruit from refuse, then wooden rakes spread the piles into long rectangular beds a centimeter deep, occupying a third of the highway's width. A line of rocks wards off the now unwelcome traffic squeezing through the narrow lane remaining. And there the result of months labour basks in the afternoon sun while the labourers seek the tree-lined shade.

Many third-world countries that the people utilize the roadways for more than the purpose of transportation. It seems such an oddity to a westerner, but this is a perfect and ingenious saving of labour. I crackle a few husks beneath my tires and feel a little like a contributor. The Santana's squeeze toward the shoulders trying to keep at least two tires on pavement. The evasive tactic is futile. Streaming stalks cling to their undercarriages like the bristles of a brush.

Nearing Linfen, the day's destination, hunger overtakes me and I stop for miantiao and a pijiu, a bowl of noodles and bottle of beer. Just 5 yuan. I think about the work still ahead of the peasants. The grain to be gathered up again then milled. Two small stone disks and circling, circling a mule or a human drives one stone's chiseled surface across the stationary surface of another, grinding the seed fed between to a powder. And from the powder, my miantiao or the steamed bread staple of northern China, mantou.

The day ends in Linfen where a bathtub awaits, and a laundry service for my exhausted and coal-sodden clothing supply. In the evening, after a rest, I leave the hotel for a walk. The town is alive with night food markets, streetside karaoke and, something unique to Linfen: streetside teahouses where the locals recline on lawnchairs ostensibly to sip tea from the small teasets at their tables. Like the coffee served by the better street cafe's of the West, tea is only an excuse to gather and jabber, to watch the world parade by, to pass the time and to be seen. I hope this catches on and spreads through China because nowhere else have I found anything like it. I have sorely missed such places to linger for a while and watch the grand parade.

~~~ Respondents are Admirable Souls ~~~

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

If you open yourself to the Tao,
you are at one with the Tao
and you can embody it completely.
If you open yourself to insight,
you are at one with insight
and you can use it completely.
If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 23
trans. Stephen Mitchell