by Ernie Diaz
They’ll tell you some claptrap about the town being named for two phoenixes that fell in love with the place and couldn’t leave. But there is truth behind stories, and stories behind “truth”. And Feng Huang town is a phoenix, alright.
Never mind the ashes and millennial rebirth. In China, the phoenix is yin embodied, and ranks second only to the Dragon, the almighty incarnation of yang. So while better-known spots are all concrete scaling and economic clawing, Feng Huang is woman in all her power, quenching fire, drawing in and down, subsuming.
For westerners who can drop the empirical programming just an hour or so, it’s enormously compelling, the realization that the ten thousand things take shape from the two, which are just a shadow play of the all-pervading Dao. Man = mountain. Woman = water. You scale mountains for the adventure, but live by the water, because there’s nowhere closer to true home.
And for pure feminine juju power, the Tuojiang River equals Raquel Welch times Octomom, an aquamarine enchantress, veiled in a super-fertile cleft of Nanhua Mountain by a luxuriant profusion of green. These are the places man truly belongs, where he can relax and cooperate with nature in adding his absurd stone quotient.
The Tuojiang draws the Chinese to her very lips. Dwellings hover over the drink, propped up by a few poles and the knowledge that this is a gentle woman, too deep and dreamy to rise against them and sweep them a way.
The ghosts of violence and sorrow add resonance to Feng Huang’s peaceful vibe. No gatekeeper, Lady Tuojiang floats along under trade and violence both, today through Hunan, but long ago a last stronghold of the Miao, since subjugated.
Hold on, can we say “assimilated”, instead? There are Miao reservations, true, but Miao aplenty in Feng Huang as well, along with Han, and no visible signs of strife, even to a sophisticated American nose. Maybe they’re both united in lording it over the Tujia, also prolific in Feng Huang County, those strange Children of the White Tiger, who don’t even seem that interested in doing business.
Today’s drowsy phoenix rests, but doesn’t forget 1,300 years of border clashing. There’s the southern Great Wall to remind, right outside the town. Maybe they weren’t as hard to beat as the Mongols, but the Miao were fierce in the pride of their Guizhou stronghold. Further South, where they are known as the Hmong, they are invulnerable to all save treachery.
But here in Feng Huang the troubles have attenuated into echoes, resonant notes that color the quiet. The Tuojiang flows on, a cadence to order all noise on shore.
Even cranky old Kiwi Rewi Alley’s breast was soothed by the music. Way back when he was number one foreign authority, he dubbed Feng Huang one of the Two Most Beautiful towns in China. Ahh, it sounds better in Mandarin, anyway. The other one? It’s in Fujian. Another time.
Traipsing across the Tuojiang, by plank or stone, may dispel such idealistic appraisals, of course. Life up close reveals that she gives life to all noise and need. Women beat clothes in water, en masse, the rhythmic clacking much less off-putting then, say, the inevitable Beijing next-door drill.
There are fish to be had as well, scaled and ready-boned both. To catch only the blue lipped brings a hard, spare living. Tourists, on the other hand, have much more flesh, enough to press for what-all to buy cell phones, pricey smokes and moutai…
…and the ten thousand things a good global citizen today doesn’t need to impress people he doesn’t care about. The Phoenix townspeople offer more than ferry rides and spicy fish. It’s silver country, where basing an economy on a precious metal is seen as much more stable than on scrip. Quaint, huh?
That doesn’t make the obligatory peramble on Phoenix town’s shopping streets an inauthentic part of your visit. And if you forget when exactly these storefronts were built and focus on the shopkeeps, you’ll get all the true-red China you can handle.
And then at night, when the river sleeps under a blanket of reflected light,the hush between nightspot and shadow will be so sweet as to make being alive by the water the absolute here, now, and only.