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On the Road, Interlude 2:

Talking to a Chinese Colleague about Tibet, Folk Customs, Tiger Stoves and the Chinese Jews

After Qindao, we flew south to Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu. At the long-distance bus station on the way to Anhui province, I met a Han journalist called Tashi. He had spent over a decade travelling through the Tibetan areas, and had researched and published many books on Chinese folk customs, and I took this chance meeting to benefit from his advice, talent and scholarship. Because we were both journalists, there was no need for too many preliminaries, we came straight to the point, and began with the topic that I had been hoping to discuss.

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XINRAN: What sort of people are the Tibetan groups you've met in your travels?

TASHI: I haven't seen Tibetans from every single clan, there are too many. Generally speaking, the area can be divided into three groups of people: the Amdo Tibetans, the Kangba Tibetans and the Huiba Tibetans. The Amdo people are mostly those on the high plains to the north of Tibet, around Amdo, Qula and Sangxiong, up towards the uninhabited areas.

XINRAN: So what you're calling northern Tibet is to the north of the Tanggula Mountains? Is that the source of the Yellow River?

TASHI: No, that's in the area to the south of the Tanggula Mountains, because Qinghai province is to the north, with Tibet to the south.

XINRAN: But a large part of Qinghai is in Tibetan areas?

TASHI: It's Tibet proper I'm talking about now, there are Tibetan areas in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and even a part of Xinjiang.

*

We were discussing the complex question of the different societies that comprise Tibet. Changes of government through history, and the various branches of religion and schools of thought within Tibet itself, have resulted in many different groupings. It is simply not accurate or helpful to describe Tibet as home to a single society. In the middle of our conversation I suddenly heard a deep, resonant voice reading one of Mao Zedong's poems. For a moment I experienced a strong sense of dislocation, and I found myself wondering where I was, but soon I realised that this was somebody's mobile phone: recently, clever Chinese urbanites have taken to downloading pop songs, recordings of Mao Zedong or slogans from the Cultural Revolution to their mobile phones, to replace the mass-produced ringtones. As well as adding variety to the sounds around us, more significantly, people have discovered a form of humour that "gets close to the edge" of the political restraints that surround them. Tashi plainly had a good head for travel; as soon as he hung up he carried straight on from where we'd left off.

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TASHI: Amdo people can be found in parts of Qinghai, like the Tongren area, part of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, including south Gansu, and also Maqu in Gansu, part of the Ela Grasslands, which includes Lakes Zalinhu and Elinhu. The area we call Yushu has half Amdo people, half Kangba, and there's also a big stretch that is virtually unpopulated, with a very few Kangba people living there. They're rather different to other Tibetans, most noticeably in their funeral rites. They have different language groups as well, for example Amdo people say "jiuduomo" for "hello", but in places like Lhasa where they're mostly Kangba, they say "jiusang". There must be, give or take, seven language groups, but in each region there are variations again. Tibetans are a nomadic people, and there are considerable linguistic differences.

XINRAN: If they don't speak, can you make out where a Tibetan is from?

TASHI: Their clothes give some indication: for instance Kangba wear big red chest decorations.

XINRAN: How about hairstyles?

TASHI: You can tell Anli hairstyles at a glance, from the big pearl Anli women wear, but in another place they'll be smaller; here it's mostly turquoise, there it's mainly agates, they're all different, and their shoes are different too, usually you can tell at a glance.

XINRAN: Can you tell how many husbands the women have by looking?

TASHI: Ah, now that I can't do by looking. [He laughs.] What I respect most about Tibetan women is they way they give birth, there's nobody to help them, they do everything themselves. I actually saw it once with my own eyes: a woman, heavily pregnant, came galloping on her horse to a tent to give birth, and when she'd had her baby she walked outside, carrying the baby upside down, smearing butter on the infant's body as she walked, and when she'd finished rubbing in the butter she put the baby inside her robe, got on her horse and rode off.

XINRAN: What was the greatest number of husbands?

TASHI: I can't say for sure, for several reasons. First, many Tibetans, especially these who have yet to come into contact with outsiders, are even hostile to Tibetans from other clans; second, I couldn't communicate through language. Our daily practices were so different, that I found we had almost nothing in common.

XINRAN: What could you make out from observing their daily lives?

TASHI: I couldn't make anything out. We can't imagine that much, because our attitudes are different. There's a family over there, but how can I know if those men are her brothers or her husbands? It's hard to tell. For example, the unmarried girls live in little white tents that you can't go in; if you do you can never leave, you have to marry her. It's not like in Thailand, where the more water pots there are outside your door the more wives you have. In Tibet there are many different customs and religious teachings, so it's hard to say anything for sure.

XINRAN: Have you heard Tibetan people talk about why the Han people wanted to come to Tibet?

TASHI: I've heard lots of things about that, mostly that we want to steal their gods. That's people for you, they always have too many preconceived notions.

XINRAN: Has anybody mentioned the Han people going into Tibet because of the water sources?

TASHI: Water sources? What water sources?

XINRAN: Tibet is the source of 90 per cent of China's waterways. It's been this way since the Qing and Ming dynasties, hasn't it? The rulers used to say that "if the water higher up isn't clean, the water lower down may cost you your life".

TASHI: There are many different sayings about this among the Kangba Tibetans, and in the ethnic minority areas of the Yunnan–Guizhou Plateau. And throughout history there have been stories of entire villages that were poisoned by their water.

XINRAN: Did you have a local guide?

TASHI: No, I walked with the army, with the logistics brigade that supplied Lhasa. And you?

XINRAN: I was there in 1981, but not in southern Tibet, I went to northern Tibet and Qinghai, that was with the army too. It was really desolate, there were no people.

TASHI: I know. One time I walked for fifty-one days in northern Tibet. I went to Lake Zalinhu, and Lake Elinhu, the sources of the Yellow River. All that walking nearly killed me. It was completely empty, no people, barely a soul.

XINRAN: I've never walked on foot through the Tibetan areas. I have so much respect for those people who pray on the roads, walking from north to south, prostrating themselves on the ground with every three steps they walk, it's really moving.

TASHI: It's very lonely walking by yourself, but you can think; the solitude gives you your own space to muse.

XINRAN: So then you wrote down your thoughts and your feelings from the journey?

TASHI: Yes, I've brought out a few books on the minorities, such as Horse Bucket, and Old Well. But I'm even more concerned about some customs of the Han people that are on the verge of dying out all over China.

I want you to see Linhuan and the oldest tea house in Anhui, so you can see a real, unspoiled "tea culture". The water there is of the very finest quality, the locals have never used tap water for tea; every morning before daybreak they draw water from a spring, to be kept in reserve for a whole day's tea-making.

XINRAN: Is that an underground water source from a tributary of the Huai River?

TASHI: I couldn't say, but the town is built beside a river called the Huanshui – there were military storehouses in that place in ancient times. And nearby there's an old earthen town wall with over a thousand years of history, but now the wall has been almost destroyed and eroded by the wind until you can barely make out what it is. A local cadre called Chen is doing very important work there, lobbying for its preservation at all levels of society. Old Director Chen is quite a story, he's over seventy, but in the county official records they have him down as only a bit more than forty. These days there's nothing people don't dare to do in this country of ours, and nothing that can't be done: no one thinks there's anything crazy about turning an old man into a young man.

XINRAN: Why did the county government allow this cadre's file to be so illogical?

TASHI: Who knows if it's true or false? Those officials expect Old Director Chen to go to battle on their behalf, to be their shield for a few more years, don't they? If not for him standing in front of the bulldozers to obstruct the building team, over a thousand years of Linhuan's ancient tea culture would have been razed to the ground to make room for coffin-like modern blocks of flats!

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This is a particular interest of mine. I have tried to find a way to draw foreigners' attention to the revival of our ancient culture, to curb those officials whose only goal is the appearance of Western modernisation, and to stop their destruction of these ancient sites.

I did something once, in a Jewish street in Kaifeng. There are two places in China with Jewish communities: one is Shanghai, where roughly five thousand Jews found shelter among the local Chinese people under the bloodthirsty Japanese occupation; the other is Kaifeng, which is the earliest place where Jews settled, and the place where the Jewish blood runs purest, as many of the Jews who had moved to mainland China before this had intermarried. The Jews I met in Kaifeng said that most of them had fled as refugees to China during the tsarist pogroms before the First World War, first to China's north-east, then in the next few generations they moved inwards and southwards to Kaifeng, and settled there. In the late 1980s, the Kaifeng government wanted to pull down the old Jewish streets, and a listener to my radio programme wrote asking me to enlist the help of the media. A group of us journalists looked into it and, having confirmed the story, we sent a joint letter to the Kaifeng city government, saying that the Chinese Jews were not only a precious archaeological resource for the study of the migration of world populations, but also of great historical and present-day value to China, and to the study of the development of the West's most ancient religion. The old streets of the Kaifeng Jewish quarter were precisely the right kind of material for research in these areas, we maintained: not only should we not destroy it, we should help recover the former glories of its traditional Jewish ways and culture; we Chinese had a responsibility to preserve the world's cultural heritage.

And we succeeded. The streets were saved. Tashi told me that he had heard it was a great success, and he added: "If you visit that old Jewish quarter now, it's very peaceful, incredibly peaceful. Although the people are noisy and lively, you'll feel that the place has a peculiar kind of stillness to it."

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XINRAN: When we were choosing a location, a friend told me that tiger stoves were a part of Linhuan's ancient tea culture. Are the "tiger stoves" confined to the Yangtze Delta, or are they used elsewhere?

TASHI: Well, the ones I researched were in Shanghai, Nanjing and Anhui. And there are differences. Tiger stoves are also known as tea-water stoves, or even hot-water shops – that's a kind of small shop that mainly sells hot water, very common in the Yangtze Delta area. Because the furnace for heating water opens onto the front, it's like a tiger with its mouth wide open; there's a chimney at the back standing up tall behind, like a tiger holding up its tail. So people called them tiger stoves because of their shape. Though there's another very persuasive popular explanation: things that waste a lot of raw materials are traditionally called "oil tigers" or "electricity tigers"; it takes huge quantities of firewood (up to three hundred pounds, or a hundred and thirty kilos, a day) to heat water on tiger stoves, like a tiger eating, so that's why they were called tiger stoves.

A traditional tiger stove had three pots for heating water on top, with a hole for fuel in the centre of the three pots; and between the water-heating pots and the chimney were two more pots for storing water. In the past there were two other types of tiger stove too. The "seven-star stove" had one big vat, with seven fire holes made out of concrete and bricks inside it, and seven steel pots for heating water on top. With the "economy stove", the body of the stove was made out of sheets of tinplate, with a big pot on top to heat water; later on a thermometer and a water tap were added on top of the tinplate, to check the water temperature and let out water. Tiger stoves were usually found in the mouths of lanes or little alleys near the lanes; they were often just one room, though some had two rooms or an upper and lower storey, with the stove built in the doorway of the shop, its mouth facing the road, alley or lane in front. Woodchips, wood shavings or coal were burned in the belly of the stove.

Shanghai's tiger stoves or hot-water shops developed along with the city of Shanghai. There's a Shanghai saying: "In the morning wrap water in skin, in the evening wrap skin in water", which referred to the local people going to the tiger stove in the morning to fill Thermoses with hot water and drink tea, letting the delicate fragrance fill the stomach; in the evening, after a hard day's work, they would go to the tiger stoves for a hot bath, finding relief from toil by soaking their bodies in the water. In those years there was a strong connection between the prosperity of the tiger stoves and Shanghai's overcrowded living conditions – there was barely enough space to cook in those tiny, overcrowded kitchens, and heating large quantities of hot water on their tiny coal stoves was a real problem. There had always been a tradition of highly specialised service industries in Shanghai; at one fen a Thermos, buying hot water was cheap, and saved a lot of time and coal. Tiger stoves opened for business at six in the morning and did not close until eleven at night.

In Nanjing (or "the big turnip", as you sometimes hear it called), too, a place that many people consider relatively undeveloped, an old Nanjinger, recalling those years, told me that in districts where simple houses were tightly packed together, tiger stoves were an indispensable part of life: the inhabitants depended on them entirely for tea and hot water. These days the peasants who have flocked to the city to find work have replaced the city people in their need for tiger stoves, and now the peasants have a chance to experience tiger stoves, as they come to understand the differences between city life and the countryside. Many country people only have one bath a year, and their daily hygiene routine consists of just washing the feet before bed.

Most of the tiger stoves in the streets of Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, are businesses without a permit that haven't been checked or approved by the authorities. The majority are small, family-run affairs, the fuel is scrap wood, which sits heaped up along the dividing walls without even the most basic fire precautions, and there are residential areas all around, tightly packed rows of simple one-storey houses. It's terrifying to consider – if there's one small slip and a fire starts, these places will become a crematorium, the fire engines won't even be able to get through the narrow lanes, and the tiger stove will become a tiger that eats people.

XINRAN: So that's another reason why they are called tiger stoves! There are similar contraptions in every place, but they're called different names in China's thousands of different dialects. And I've heard yet another explanation for their name: after the Opium War the British and French armies set up communal hot-water stations, and the big chimney on the roof of the building showed people where to find these in the crowded alleys of Shanghai, so that "roof " slowly became a substitute local word for the stoves. The English pronunciation of "roof " is very close to the way the Shanghainese say "tiger", and that was how "tiger stoves" came about. But actually this explanation clearly doesn't hold water, since there are tiger stoves in places where the Anglo-French army never set foot.

TASHI: That can't be right, I'm certain. Even as early as the Southern Song dynasty, there were two great generals in Lin'an, that's our modernday Hangzhou: one was Yue Fei, the other was Liu Ziyu. Yue was a general in the official army and Liu was a general of the local militia. Well, both of them were driven out of office by Qin Gui, who was a traitor to the Emperor. Liu Ziyu left Lin'an and went back home to be a minor local official in Fujian, and he would order his family to cook deep-fried sticks of dough, two sticks at a time, like he was dropping Qin Gui and his wife into the boiling oil together, to vent his fury against the power of this treacherous official. And those fried dough sticks were cooked on a tiger stove.

XINRAN: But the tiger stove you're talking about isn't the kind of stove we have today, mainly for heating water, is it? The tiger stove you're talking about exists in the Zhejiang region, and Guizhou as well, but seems to be different. I think that these interconnected folk customs don't just spring from the things everyone has in common because of the instinct to survive, it may well have to do with the very earliest population movements, in particular the needs of educated people with economic power who were banished far from their old homes. Take the provinces of south China: Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong and Guangxi – these places were barely inhabited at all, densely forested, with bushes and weeds growing everywhere, and sweltering hot weather. In those wooded mountains it could often get as hot as the inside of a steamer, heat so intense that it produced a poison gas, so since ancient times these areas have been called the Places of Miasma. At that time, they were so unhealthy that exile there was little better than a death sentence. These areas were first used as places of exile as early as the Warring States Period [403–221 BC], and after two thousand years of exile as a punishment, much of the folk culture in the southern areas had been influenced by the culture of the eastern Yangtze Delta, which could be why the accent in Guizhou and thereabouts is very close to the accent along the Yangtze River Basin. So the people who came there used their own accent and their own ideas to write down things they saw in that place, and spread them abroad. In fact, I think that after the Northern Song dynasty, the Han folk cultures could no longer be called pure Han folk culture. Do you think it's possible that the "tiger stoves" in history books were called that by those exiles, the people who wrote the histories – trying to make sense of things that were similar to look at but not actually the same by calling them tiger stoves?

TASHI: It might be. Many outsiders collecting local folk customs in an unfamiliar place confuse the locals' pronunciation with similar-sounding Chinese characters, and that has left the principles and definitions of Han folk customs in a very confused state. Talking of folk tales, I've heard that you once interviewed an old prostitute who had a storybook life, is that true?

XINRAN: Yes, but I found that the things she told me are not altogether the same as our popular ideas of the famous Face Powder Lane in Nanjing. Very few people know that there used to be another, more authentic Face Powder Lane, which was also to be found in the neighbourhood of Nanjing's Confucius Temple.

The prostitute with whom I talked for several years in the 1990s was an old lady who had been born into a very poor family. She was carried from Anhui in a basket when she was only a few months old. She was bought by an old prostitute who happened to notice her when she was out shopping, so from a young age she took good care of her skin and was trained up in the skills of serving tea, drinking wine and nibbling melon seeds, and before she was five years old she was sold to a brothel in Face Powder Lane. On her first day she was put to polishing the tea sets and opium pipes, and they called her the Little Pot Girl. She said that the brothel was like a battlefield, with the clients nominating their favourites among the high-class prostitutes, whose rating could be seen from whether they used gold or silver vessels for drinking, and from the shape of their beds. In the past you couldn't put just any wine in any pot, and you couldn't pour too much – if there was too much it meant the wine was poor quality. When she was a bit older, seven or eight years old, the brothel started to teach her the knowledge of sex: bed skills, the art of keeping the clients company, and nibbling melon seeds, opening melon seeds with her teeth ready to spring the kernel into the client's mouth when he opened his mouth, without touching her lipstick.

She told me a lot of things: about the prostitutes' personal hygiene, how to arouse a client's interest in sex, how to stay neat and clean afterwards, and how to keep the client after that. In those days if a man wanted to enter one of the famous brothels, he had to improvise a couplet of classical poetry based on a line supplied by the bouncer at the gate, and they wouldn't let him in until he had successfully completed the couplet. The prostitutes' name tags, the wine list and the menu in the brothel used metaphors from Tang and Song poetry too, so men who knew nothing of poetry would have no idea what those name tags, wine lists and menus were saying! She also told me about a special bed, and later I found similar beds mentioned in books of antiques. This bed had two layers of bed curtains: one was hanging gauze, with different gauzes according to the seasons, which was used for making love, then there was an opaque silken hanging that was used for sleeping; they were very particular about getting the two colours of the hangings right. When she was still very young she learned all the knowledge passed down from previous generations, about sachets of scented herbs to keep with clothes and fill quilts, and incense to burn while washing, all of which were used to prevent pregnancy. So she felt very sorry for people nowadays, who had rejected the natural techniques of cultivating the body left to us by our ancestors, and chose instead to spend huge sums of money on researching the safest contraceptive pill!

She said that often when many rich and powerful families married off a daughter they would send to the brothel to invite a "mama", an educated, elderly prostitute, to go with the matchmaker to examine the son-in-law's feet. That old lady said, "Modern people get their palms read or fortunes told, what a load of old rubbish! What do they know!" When she and her sisters were examining a man they had only to touch his foot to know everything about him, from his feet to his head. They had all learned this skill from their "mama".

During the last three generations, the brothel would choose a woman in each generation with a gift for the pen, not to do the bills, but to record the brothel's history, complete with the clients and their gifts. This was so that if they fell on hard times, these "women of dust and wind" would have funds to flee, and the record of the existence of these gifts would offer them some protection when they needed it. She said the brothel historian in her generation had hidden these things in the well of the brothel courtyard. The old lady also told me that each generation put aside a set of drinking vessels, to be kept back as a prize for the prostitute who had earned most money for the brothel, and she remembered how her apprentice mistress had hinted to her where she had hidden them.

But when I tried to follow her directions, that place was already a mass of tall buildings and skyscrapers.

TASHI: Did you see her again after that?

XINRAN: How could I? The place where she lived has been demolished, there's nothing left! I've been looking for three to four years, the only name I had for her was what I'd heard people on her street call her, Old Lady Apple-Cheeks, but there was no such name anywhere in the household registration records.

TASHI: I'll try to help you find her. I'm sorry, I have to take a phone call . . .

*

The male voice declaiming Mao Zedong's poetry had started his recital again.

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