Only if China and India (as well as America) soon start to make the postmodern turn does our planet have hope. —–David Ray Griffin

Fools Rush In Where Angels Fear To Tread

by Angela Donnelly

I want to express gratitude to Maryknoll for the missionary training I received; to dear friends Lynne Juarez and Charlene Tschirhart and my dear life partner, Terry Donnelly, for their loving support; and to Professors Wang Zhihe and Fan Meijun for opening the gate for me to village life in China.

This is a map of a part of north central China. This is Yongji City in southwestern Shanxi Province where I spent almost three weeks in Zhaizi Cun. Across the Yellow River is the city of Lingbao in northwestern Henan Province where I also spent the same amount of time.
This is the Yellow River.In second century BC the river’s Chinese name changed from Great River to Yellow River when the sediment load increased tenfold as farmers began plowing up the highly erodible silty soils into the river’s headwaters. More than two million people drowned or died in a famine when the river breached its southern dike and submerged the Province of Henan during the flood of 1887-1889. There were other floods in this area over many years.
Lynne was unable to make the China part of our journey, but our intentions in going were to learn about sustainability from Chinese villagers in order to enhance our efforts in sustainable living here at Pilgrim Place. We also wanted to lend our encouragement to rural villagers in China in their efforts to maintain an ecological environment. We had heard many conflicting stories from China: that the Chinese government was promoting strong measures toward an ecological civilization and at the same time, many rural villagers have been monetarily encouraged to move to new housing in order to create more consumers to stimulate the economy.
In fact, we had no idea how, if at all, we’d be able to help. One of the women leaders, He Huili, had visited Pilgrim Place and she was enthused that I did Chinese brush painting, so I put a painting for her and another for the other leader in a tube along with some rice paper into my suitcase. I wrapped three brushes, a bottle of black ink, a few paints, and my chop. “I’m bringing coals to Newcastle,” I said to myself. I also packed a CD of qigong music and a sheet with the names of the steps. For those who are unfamiliar with qigong, it is a slow deep-breathing exercise with repetitive movements with whimsical names. It is very related to taiji.
He Huili had also helped with our Pilgrim Place Festival in the face painting booth and expressed an interest in face painting for the children who attend their summer camp. Gail Duggan was kind enough to provide some materials and Anelise Smith gave us a lesson. There were also gifts of dried blueberries and walnuts. I will never bring another walnut to China.

This is what the road looked like in the first village (Yongji), as it was wheat harvesting time. Any vehicles were expected to run over the wheat on the road in order to thresh it.

The woman on the left is the leader of the village cooperative in Yongji County. Her name is Zheng Bing. She looked at me, the 72 year old foreign woman, non-farmer, with so-so Chinese language who had come to volunteer with her, and said, “安老师, 我 应该 问 你 干 什吗?” “Teacher An, what should I ask you to do?” By the way, no one speaks English because they have had no need. Their visitors have all been Chinese. So if I didn’t start with a humble stance, I had to take one right away.

We began at the center where they conduct trainings for the farmers. That first day, Zheng Bing asked me to teach qigong to her staff of young adults, so we gathered in the back court and practiced qigong 1 three times. Afterwards, we all returned to Zhaizi Cun, her home village and the center of their cooperative association. That very evening, I found myself at the side of the village square (the local buses were parked in the square so we couldn’t fit). Facing me were about 25 seniors from ages 50 to 75; behind me were around 40 young adults most of whom had practiced at the training center that day. It’s difficult to describe the feelings that rushed through me as I looked into the eyes of these very sincere and welcoming elders. Process thought talks about the past and future coming together in the here and now. I felt my whole life flowing into this moment.
I thought: these are the people I love so much, whom I spent more years wanting to be with than actually being with them. I was wrapped in the middle of the young and the old and once again felt so grateful, honored, and overwhelmed to be there. I experienced deep gratitude for my qigong teacher in Oakland, Arthur Siu, and our Pilgrim Place community and told them afterwards about Arthur and our qigong and taiji groups at Pilgrim Place. I explained that qigong was a gift from China to America and that I was so happy to return this gift to their village.

This photo was taken during later gatherings in the square. The woman facing me with her back to us is Zheng Bing. Both she and her mother-in-law always came to practice. Zheng Bing and her family had graciously invited me to live in their family compound. They have one daughter living with them and I stayed in the bedroom of the daughter who was away at college. People who live in Chinese cities are exposed to qigong, taiji, and other traditional Chinese exercises, but rural people rarely are. The older farmers in this area had to endure many difficult years of change and hardship going on in their country. The men told me that 13 years ago, a Chinese master came through and taught a few of them taiji and the fan form. They learned the same taiji 24 form which we do here at Pilgrim Place, so I would go earlier in the evenings and we would practice taiji.

From that first evening, we gathered every morning in the square, elders coming at 6 am, and young adults at 7. I also met for two hours in the evening with the seniors. The elders and I practiced 4 hours a day, and they were totally into it.

I laughed when the seniors wanted to learn qigong 2 right away, so that they could be “ahead” of the youth, who had a heads up on qigong 1. Qigong 2 is a little more difficult, but they liked it even better than 1.

The men would be the first to show up in the evenings. They were often in the middle of a discussion as to how a particular move should be done.

This is the senior and young adult leader for qigong. The man is my tong sui, meaning we were born the same year. They are now leading the others in their practice in the square.

This is the village square when it was covered with wheat drying in the sun.
There were a few poignant moments, like the day a 90 year old woman whom I knew from the senior daycare, walked with me along my usual path to the square. She used her aluminum crutches with no rubber tips, so they made loud clicks as she hit the cement or hard dirt. She sat on the steps before the clinic and looked straight up at me on the platform, doing her chair qigong motions.

Another day, when the children were just beginning their school vacation, the square was flooded with little ones running all over around our evening group. A little 5 or 6-year old girl would stop right at the foot of the platform and just gaze up at me with such a precious look I could barely carry on. She would look, continue running and return with that same look. That same evening, we had no music and the young adult leader wasn’t there, so two 10 or 11 year olds picked up the card and read each of the steps for us. Another time, an old man was sitting outside the clinic hooked up to an IV, watching us the whole while. I was hoping we were sending him some peaceful energy.

The association has a senior daycare center for villagers aged 75 through 100. This is the 90 year old who uses crutches to get around, the one who came with me to qigong in the square that day. The daycare has women who live with their families, but because the rest of the family isn’t home during the day, were getting no stimulation and weren’t eating well. They eat breakfast and lunch at the center and a staff member from the association provides different activities for them. (012) I went every afternoon and led chair qigong. These women had been through the terrible days when the Japanese and Nationalist troops were fighting in the mountains nearby. Several of them were still traumatized from the violence and deprivation they and their families were exposed to. They are all illiterate, and maybe because of that, have very fine powers of memorization. They speak only dialect, and somewhat understand Mandarin. (013) This 75 year old woman speaks both, so she would translate for me. She also cooked for the group and organized haircuts one day. Yes, I also packed my haircutting scissors.

Some of them were very good at singing, so they’d sing their favorite songs. (015) One folk song was in the form of a dialogue which mentioned a special flower for each of the twelve months. Two of the women were really good with this song as they went back and forth. The other women always requested this song. (016) I did my little repertoire of Chinese songs. (017) They liked my recitation of a poem by Li Bai and asked me to teach it to them. So in honor of my Chinese professors at San Francisco State, I returned another gift to the people of this part of China:
床 前 明 月 光
疑 是地 上 霜
举头望 明 月
低 头 思 故 乡
The light of the moon shines at the foot of my bed
It looks like hoarfrost
Lifting my head, I look at the bright moon
Bowing my head, I think of my old home

I was homesick, so taught this poem with great fervor. They memorized it in a few days. Had they been able to attend school, this is one of the several famous poems they would have learned. Every afternoon, after we did qigong, they wanted to recite the poem.

The association also has a handicrafts center, where they do spinning and weaving from their own locally grown cotton and many other creative arts. They spin their own cotton with great skill. The Association is trying to keep this tradition alive by passing on these skills to villagers who are interested.

This woman was sewing the blouse I’m wearing, which at the time I didn’t know was to be a gift for me. They would do their sewing or weaving, while at the same time, discuss recent issues which concerned their villages or neighborhoods. Each woman was well-informed and all were concerned for their communities.

The women who do handicrafts asked me to give them a brush-painting workshop. They had done painting other than the traditional Chinese brush painting, such as painting vegetables and fruit on cloth hangings, so they were quick learners. (021.1) I explained to them that my teacher was a colleague from Taiwan whose class I stayed in for four semesters while teaching at Laney College in Oakland. (021.2) Here was yet another gift received and given. Seeing an American appreciate traditional Chinese art so much meant a lot to them.

This is the quiet road outside the Hong Nong Academy in Lingbao County, Henan, the second village in which I lived and where I arrived with six of the Yongji staff and Zheng Bing’s husband as our driver. The Academy is the site of an old school where the classrooms are used for various trainings. It’s just around the corner from the local village and walkable to two other villages. There are dormitories for both male and female trainees who come from other places.
Living at Hong Nong Academy is like camping.
The most common sight along this road are the rows of apple trees, a main crop in Lingbao area. The apple crop last year was poor, but they expected a better harvest this year. When I was there, it was the last of the apricot and peach crop. The biggest problem these farmers have, including the farmers in the first village, is marketing their produce.

This is He Huili, the local leader sitting in one of the many caves in that area. Huili said her family lived in one of these caves during her early years. The caves are cooler in the hot weather and warmer during the winter months. It’s in one of these caves that the staff masseuse brews his health drink made from fermented apples.

On the wall of their staff office are there three pictures of the sages, Laozi, Kungzi (Confucius), and Liang Shuming, the last of the Confucian scholars. (024) On the adjacent wall is He Huili’s photo taken with our own Pilgrim Place resident, Prof. John Cobb. It includes a copy of his handwritten good wishes he expressed to her and for the work of her academy. Life in Luojia Cun was very different from Zhaizi Cun. These villagers are much poorer than the first village and the training center had only one year’s experience compared with Yongji’s 12 years. I already knew the importance of relationships from the first village, but this village brought it to a new level. The only schedule I had at Hong Nong Academy was to go from day to day, and more often from one event to another.

This is the loom at the Hong Nong Academy, which is still operable.

These are the two volunteer cooks, with one short-term visitor on the left. The visitor brought her disabled 25-year old son from a far-off village to the academy to ask the masseuse to help him. Our compound was open to all the villagers, so people would show up just to talk and often were welcomed to share our meal. (027.1) Many villagers came to get a massage or apple cider vinegar health drink for their illnesses. It was the two cooks who invited me to go with them to the local town, Ganji, to see the opera.

This is Qin Mei, on the back of the motor cart on our way to the opera.

This is Cuixiang, who took off her wet head towel and put it on me. She held my hand firmly that whole day for fear someone was going to kidnap me. We learned later that Cuixiang’s 43-year old son died from a heart attack at the factory where he works that very morning, but the family decided to wait to tell her the tragic news until after the opera.

We are at the outdoor theater for the opera. It’s quite a family event, with people of all ages. (030) The weather was quite hot and they had an overhead net to screen the sun, but you also see a lot of covered heads.

This is Da Jie, my big sister, 92 years old. Huili had introduced me when she took me home visiting on my first day. Da Jie is her second mother, the wife of Huili’s uncle on her father’s side. Da Jie and I became buddies and we’d visit each other and also visited other family compounds in Luojia Cun. Whenever I went to her home, she got two bowls of hot water along with some walnuts which we’d take turns cracking for each other. She somewhat understood my Mandarin, but she spoke the local dialect. Whenever I gave her an inappropriate answer from not understanding her, she’d glare at me. Ours was the language of the heart.

After she gifted me with a pile of the hand-woven head cloths, I gave her a cloth embroidered by one of my former Hmong students. Huili saw it later and had it framed for her. This is one of the head cloths.

This is her bed which can be heated in the winter. The oven in the kitchen extends to her kang. She even used it one night during July when it got cool and damp from a heavy rain.
In the morning, the cooks would ask me to pick some vegetables for breakfast. That was often green beans or cucumber, sometimes yellow squash. I also helped harvest shitaki mushrooms at the neighboring mushroom farm and was sent home with enough for our meal. We had no meat, tofu, nor eggs, but plenty of mantou (steamed bread) every meal. Because this is northern China, bread and noodles are popular. We had very little rice and this was in a watery soup.

We also had two sheep which I took out of their pen in the afternoon to graze. Being close to the land and these animals invited me into reflective living. It reminded me of the classic Chinese paintings where somewhere among the mountains and waterfalls, you can find a tiny person, putting everything into perspective.

This is an area under two big pine trees which was used for discussions in warmer weather. One day, one of the staff asked me to paint the Chinese characters saying “trees do not smoke” to put on the trees. It was then that I took to painting the vegetables I was helping to nurture.
Xiao Liu was one of the staff whose 7- year old daughter was born with what appeared to be Down’s Syndrome. Xiao Liu felt her daughter’s problem came from her previous profession as a hairdresser and inhaling chemicals from hair dye. (034.2) She often spent time in this little garden, so she asked me to paint it.
Xiao Liu now has this simple painting in their home. Here are a few of the simple paintings, always done in the presence of someone from the staff, some visitors from the village, or children dropping by. It was a good occasion to get the young people drawing.

This is the road outside the entrance to Hong Nong. The little brick house is where Jianlong, the 25-year old young man and his mother stayed.

We had a lot of cucumbers, (037) and yellow squash. (038) These paintings are hardly showpieces, but they represent memories that I want to share with you. Lynne and Charlene had given me a sketching pad in India. I had used up all my rice paper in Yongji, so the pad was a great resource.

Three days before my departure, I was asked to conduct a two-day English camp for 14 middle-school students who were children of volunteers from Lingbao City. Because I had to fill their whole day, I also did some qigong with them, and had a lesson in which the students had to draw a local fruit or vegetable and give an introduction in English to the others about the qualities of their choice.

Finally, I gave the staff a face-painting demonstration and donated the paints Gail had given me so they could use them for the children’s August camp. The day of my departure, several of the parents and students from Lingbao showed up with three cars. They drove me, along with most of the staff from the Academy, to the train station.

Later in Beijing, at the International Symposium on Whitehead’s Ideas of Child Education, the foreign presenters were asked to do a painting for the new kindergarten.

When I returned a week later, they had framed our paintings. These young women will be among the teachers at the first official Whitehead Kindergarten in Beijing. Their enthusiasm for bringing young children to appreciate nature is contagious. As was evident in other similar kindergartens, they are having an impact on the youth of China.

Did I learn about sustainability? I learned how difficult and complex it is. I learned how the rural areas are dependent on the decisions and lifestyle of city dwellers.

I learned how great a sacrifice it is for farmers to grow organically. Both Lingbao and Yongji farmers need advice in how to market their produce.

saw how farmers can really help one another to create a better environment when they form a cooperative. I learned what a difference fresh air and a slower pace of living can make to enhance people’s lives and well-being.

Did I encourage the villagers where I lived? I hope so, but not as much as they encouraged and nurtured me. Their spirit is here with us at Pilgrim Place in our efforts to live a more sustainable lifestyle. My own life is so much richer, and for this I give thanks.