by Ernie Diaz
It’s easy to see the beauty in a Hawaiian beach sunset, or the model posing with it as a backdrop. From there, standards of beauty differ. But the illuminated ones say beauty is truth. Few are they who see the beauty in an elegant equation; the rest of us can strive to see truth and beauty in the genuine, especially as the genuine grows rarer by the day. We don’t have the spirit to find the truth and beauty in Ningxia just yet, but let us pick another province, almost as dreary by reputation: Shanxi.
You want meat to last, you desiccate it. Perhaps the same holds true for towns. Although Dapin looks like a 19th century Sicilian hill town without a padrone exporting olive oil, it’s a full millennium older. That’s right: twelve hundred years of eaking millet out of stinting loess, with all manner of mounted thug, snooty Mandarin, and greasy landlord helping themselves to the first fruits.
Not listed in Supertrends, eaking millet out of the Good Earth, although super-investor Jim Rogers would tell Chinese youngsters otherwise. To no avail; everyone under 50 has decamped to lives and places more comfortable, more modern, but by no means more authentic.
The Pied Piper has lured away all but a scant seventeen villagers, shown above, ranging between 50 and 88. To toil by hand is their lot, with nary a doctor, hospital, nor even pharmacy at hand. Some Advil for aching joints would no doubt be much appreciated, but acute illness and degenerative disease is rare, given the sample size.
What all to do, besides tend to the crops, get simple meals together, and strive to maintain a proper relationship with your flock? Contemplative pipe smoking and offline chatting must make do for a significant lack of digital entertainment. Most tellingly, neither Pfizer nor McDonald’s have any plans for the village.
No one’s telling the age of Laoniuwan village. Even better, hardly anyone’s telling that it sits in Shanxi’s most beautiful valley, where the Yellow River and Great Wall meet. By the looks of it, though, Liaoniuwan village dates back to at least the third age of Middle Earth.
Yes, the homes are largely holes in the earth. Not nasty, dirty, wet holes, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet dry, bare, sandy holes with nothing in them to sit down on or to eat: they are Shanxi ren holes, and that means comfort. Well, functionality, at least.
No doubt there’s not a more authentic bowl of broad noodles to be had than in Laoniuwan, but this is the one village of today’s three that we can recommend visiting. We’ve recommended you go West on the wall , and in this valley, far from the tender mercies of government tourism flaks, it turns genuine as the food and the folk.
A valley hike will reveal a wall worn smooth by time, with signal towers overlooking the river. Just don’t expect that much of it; a lot of the masonry has gone into front-of-cave facades and boundary walls for local farmers. Traditional conservationists in concrete apartments deplore that the Shanxi section of the wall has seen more “degradation” in the last fifty years than it saw in the previous five hundred. We call it recycling.
Outside of Datong sits Zhoujiazhuang village, hardly picture-worthy but nonetheless memorable. For beauty, you want the Longmen Grottoes a bus-ride south and west. But unremarkable as it is, Zhoujiazhuang still glows with its past, like that decrepit old uncle with the twinkle in his eye from livelier times.
Here during the Ming Dynasty was sold orphan Su-san to the Suhuai House brothel. It was a high-class joint, so she could play guzheng, paint, and account for herself in Chinese chess. Perhaps these attainments played into her effect on Wang Jinlong, son of a dignitary, who dropped in for fun but stayed more than year, doting on Su-san, until he ran out of money and the madam ran out of patience.
Su-san bid Wang continue his imperial exam studies. In the meantime, she was sold off to a businessman, whose jealous wife poisoned him and pinned Su-san with a murder rap. She confessed, as anyone does, under torture, and got the death penalty from a bribed judge. Not before pleading her case and her love for Wang Jinlong in court.
An attendant official sent a letter to Wang, who was now the governor of Shanxi. He came to Zhoujiazhuang, exposed the whole rat’s nest, sentenced the real criminals to death, and married Su-san. That’s the way the Beijing opera sings it, anyway. The point being, there are a whole lot of villages in Shanxi that don’t look like much, and don’t or can’t advertise their claims to fame. That’s humility, and for spiritual types, humility is beautiful. Beatific, even.