This story appears in the December issue of VICE UK magazine.
Years ago, I worked as an interpreter for an American journalist who planned to write a big story about life along the Yellow River. We were joined by a photographer named Joan who'd just spent a month in Afghanistan. I have lived abroad for over a decade, and my experience, and my philosophy as an interpreter, is that the best kinds of stories are those that are somehow hidden. I believe in chance: You go to a place, and talk with people, and see the life that's there. Nick and Joan had a different philosophy. They were professionals, and their editors expected them to produce. For a flat fee that we'd agreed on in advance, I traveled with them for five weeks, starting near the source of the Yellow River, on the Tibetan highlands, and moving down to the flood plains and finally to the delta, with its tall sea grasses and birds. There the river, after 3,000 miles, enters the Yellow Sea. We began our trip in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, where we hired a local man named Qin as our driver.
I regarded interpreting as a job of little consequence. I did it because I spoke the language and needed the money. I did conferences. Now and then, foreign executives hired me to attend formal dinners to help them strike deals with Chinese officials. I took no pride in my work, but I enjoyed being able to see things that I would not have otherwise been able to see. I have never had any formal training as an interpreter, or translator, and when younger people ask me the best way to learn the language, I tell them the same thing: Move to a small town, go for walks, talk to people.
The Yellow River begins as melting snow in the Bayan Har Mountains. We could not see the alpine wetlands that are its actual beginnings – they are too remote - so we began in Madoi, staying with Tibetan herders in tents by a chain of lakes called the Sea of Stars. In Madoi there is a bridge called the Yellow River Bridge, and the river is clear and wide and shallow there – so clear that I could see the freckled stones of the river bed. One afternoon, we were coming down from the plateau. Qin, whose name Nick and Joan pronounced "cheen" – without the rising tone – was wearing my sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot from staring at the horizon in that high-altitude light. Joan sat in the front seat, her camera on her lap. Nick and I sat in the back. Grasslands surrounded us. The only sign of human life – aside from the road itself – was the electric poles. I noticed a vulture perched on an electric pole. On the next pole sat another vulture. On a third pole sat a third vulture. We passed maybe ten of them.
"Can we stop for a second?" Joan said. She was a compact woman with strong arms and strong legs and red hair that fell to her shoulders. The camera seemed to be a part of her body. She was constantly changing lenses, or looking through the viewfinder and adjusting her zoom, trying to find a good picture.
I told Qin to stop the car. Joan got out and stood on the shoulder, pointing her lens at the vultures. The vultures sat like hunched old men, resting.
A few hours later we came to a police roadblock. Qin got out to ask what was going on, and when he came back he said, "There's black plague up ahead. The town's under quarantine. We'll have to go around."
"Black plague?" Nick said brightly.
He was joking. Joan was shaking her head.
"Like the medieval kind," she said. "Forget it."
We stopped at a resettlement camp for herders whose land had been seized in a government campaign. The government did not want them wandering around from place to place anymore but wanted them settled in observable places, to control them. The camp of small concrete barracks stood on a high, cold plain, colder than other places because of its elevation and exposure to the wind. Nick interviewed a Tibetan woman who said she was having trouble nursing her baby. Without her pastures she'd had to sell her yaks and sheep. "It's hard now," she said.
niHe crouched down close to the Tibetan woman, and as she spoke and I translated his face registered calmness and sympathy.
Nick was an easygoing guy from Oklahoma. Before joining the foreign desk, he'd covered politics and business in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and sometimes Florida. I'd worked with Nick before, and we were friends. He had a way of asking and re-asking the same question until he heard something he found interesting. I learned to do that from him. Nick had many things that I did not have: a job, money, a house, a family, and an audience for his writing. There was a reason for this: He was good at what he did. Even when he was writing on deadline his prose was clear and often witty.
When we got back to the car, Nick looked through our bags of food. "We should leave her with something," he said. Nick gave her two packages of dried apricots and a case of beef-flavoured instant noodles. She turned her palms up to thank him.
That same day, we were crossing the Mountain of the Sun and the Moon, nearing the place where we'd rest our heads for the night. Joan wanted to know what this Yellow River story was all about.
"I have some ideas," Nick said.
"Let's hear it, then."
Nick cleaned his glasses with his shirt. "High on the Tibetan Plateau," he began, speaking the opening paragraph of a story about the Yellow River, pausing in places as he gathered his thoughts. He started in a shelter made from animal skins and heated with animal dung, and ended thousands of miles downriver, in a Chinese family's high-rise apartment in a coastal megacity, "in what feels like a different century."
"I don't know," I said. "Sounds a bit too sweeping."
"I like it," Joan said. "I think it's good."
We drove on new and empty highways through Gansu Province and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. We stayed in brand-new hotels that had names like the Black Nights Holiday Inn and the Happy Traveler's Resting Place. Usually we'd get in quite late, and a sleepy girl in a red silk qipao would make us turn over our passports so she could photocopy them and notify the police. The police required all foreigners to register in hotels. I would usually wait in the car while Nick and Joan registered and share a room clandestinely with Qin. He didn't seem to mind. The standard rooms had two twin beds, and we were both hired help.
Qin traveled very lightly. He had only one bag – a small black leather purse. As far as I could tell, it contained cigarettes, money, toilet paper, and a deck of cards. Before bed, he'd wash his shirt and socks in the bathroom sink. There was something apocalyptic about him. He always filled the tank of the car at night. If the world had suddenly ended, he would have been able to make a getaway. He could have stayed fresh for months, as long as he found an abandoned house with running water or a stream to wash his shirt and underclothes.
Qin was the thinnest man I've ever known. I wondered about hepatitis. He had yellow cheeks and thick brown fingernails, and he let his right pinkie fingernail grow long so it curled like a talon. Sometimes he stayed up late in our room, playing cards with strangers he'd found in the lobby, or in the hallway, or wherever he stopped on his way to fill up the gas tank. I liked him. I called him Qin Shifu – shifu being a term of respect for drivers, bike mechanics, repair men, and so on. I think Nick and Joan liked him too. They learned to call him by this honorific as well. He became one of us, eternally present at the breakfast buffet, or walking around his car, smoking a Panda cigarette, as we drifted back from another of our Yellow River interviews. Every night, when I switched off my bedside light, he'd look up from his cards and say, "Sleep a good sleep," or "Dream a good dream." He and his fellow card players would move out to the hallway to finish their game.
Sometimes, if we had no interviews planned, we simply looked for the river. At the river there were people, and where there were people we could talk to them and learn something. I liked this way of working.
We found ourselves in a village on a hot day with no purpose in mind. Among the farmhouses were concrete threshing floors covered in wheat. Two old women sat on the riverbank. I could barely understand them, and I waved Qin over to help me translate. Qin had grown up in the northwest and could understand the dialect they spoke. I asked them their ages. One woman was 99, and the other was 102. Their faces looked like walnuts. Their eyes were foggy with cataracts. They wore tiny slippers shaped like spades.
Nick pulled out his notebook and began asking questions. I asked them how they happened to live here, in this quiet spot on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. They spoke in chirps and groans and gravelly movements of the tongue, and I understood maybe half of what they said. I recognized phrases and words – the War Against the Japanese, Mao Zedong, famine. The 102-year-old spoke for a long time, uninterrupted. Nick looked at me for a translation, and I looked at Qin. "What did she say?"
Surprised, he said, "I forgot."
So we had to ask her again, and she told us her life story a second time. Qin did his best to translate what she was saying into Standard Mandarin, and I did my best to translate what Qin was saying for Nick. I cannot imagine a more labored way of having a conversation, and yet it miraculously worked. Her story was conveyed to the three of us, however diluted and distorted it became on the way.
The 99-year-old was shy. She didn't talk.
After a while, Nick said, "Could you ask them about their feet?"
Their feet were wrapped in tiny silk slippers, like ballet shoes. I asked Qin to ask them. They'd both had their feet bound at age seven.
"It hurt," the 102-year-old said. "But it was a custom."
Joan had been sitting quietly beside us. She had taken some pictures already.
"Would you ask them to take off their slippers so I can photograph their feet?"
I thought about this. Nick shrugged and looked away.
"Would you ask them for me?" Joan repeated.
Joan held her camera at her hip. I noticed she'd taken the lens cap off.
"I'm sorry," I said, standing up. "I can't do it."
"I'm staying out of this," Nick said. "I think I've got enough."
"I'm asking you a favor."
"You ask her," I said.
"You know I can't do that."
Nick had his head down. He was writing in his notebook. Joan stared at me. "Two weeks ago, I was with the Marines in Helmand Province. Do you know what the Marines do in Helmand Province?"
"I take pictures. It's what I do for a living. I'm not ashamed of it."
"Fine," I said after a while.
I told Qin to ask the 102-year-old to show us her feet. She couldn't bend over, so her friend helped her remove her right slipper.
We walked back to the car in silence. Joan gave me a hard look as we drove by the cornfields.
"Part of what photographers do is create a record," she said calmly. "You can think whatever you want, but I wanted to document those feet."
I looked out the car window at the fields. After Joan fell asleep, Nick said, "It's OK, buddy." That night we each had dinner alone in our hotel rooms. The next morning, at the breakfast buffet, Nick announced that he and Joan were going to fly back to Beijing for the weekend to have a breather. We'd meet again in a few days. They flew out from a tiny airport near the supposed burial site of Genghis Khan.
Qin and I drove south, staying close to the river. There were no highways, only paved county roads. The landscape changed from tall-grass prairie to desert to treeless brown hills. The hills were formed from loess, a dust that had blown in from the western deserts and settled here over the centuries. Rainwater had carved the landscape into a gothic wonderland of chutes and ravines. All of the people lived in rooms they dug into the yellow mountains. The locals called them caves. Each family had a little compound with several rooms and a yard with a brick wall. Qin honked the horn as we passed two women on motorcycles whose faces were wrapped in white scarves.
"Beautiful," I said, looking out the window.
Qin laughed and looked at me with disbelief.
"I have relatives who live here," he said after a while.
After dark, we turned right onto a dirt road. I could see lights of some kind around us, moving slowly in the hills. The lights appeared gradually, and flickered, like fireflies. The lights glowed violet. I asked Qin about them.
"They're hunting xiezi," he said.
"Bugs," he said. "They bite with their tails."
"Are those flashlights?"
"Black lights," he said. "The bugs glow. Doctors use the poison to make medicine."
We parked in front of a house. Not a house really, but four rooms, side by side, that had been excavated from the hillside. A woman came out as we were unloading the car. Qin had not called anyone – there were no phone towers, no signals – but she seemed to be expecting us.
"My sister-in-law," Qin said.
"Ni hao," I said softly. She laughed.
"He can talk," Qin said. "He's American."
The cave had three rooms, with rounded ceilings like subway tunnels. Each room had a door to the outside and pretty wooden windows carved with patterns that looked like mazes. Qin and I sat at the kitchen table for a while. We were tired from the drive. She stood by the door, cracking walnuts in the door hinge, then shelling them and placing them in a pile beside me. I drank a large bottle of warm beer, then another. When she had cracked all the walnuts, she sat down. The three of us were silent together, as if we'd known each other forever.
I watched her cut an elaborate picture, with scissors, from a piece of red paper. The picture showed a beautiful arrangement of auspicious things: ears of ripe corn, an elephant, two fish, and two fat baby boys, floating like angels above a rolling landscape. Qin wasn't paying attention. He stared at the cards on the table, playing solitaire.
Outside, I could see the black lights of the scorpion hunters. A single light grew brighter, and there was a stamping of feet by the door. A man appeared holding long metal pincers. A large glass jar hung from his belt. She went outside, and through the open doorway, I watched her shine a flashlight carefully over her husband's hair, then around the collar of his shirt, then over the backs of his legs. Then he emptied a clump of scorpions from the glass jar into a large clay cistern. The scorpions glowed in the black light. Some clung to the glass. Holding the jar upside down, he tapped the glass with his hand until they dropped away. Then he covered the cistern.
That night I had difficulty sleeping. I had never slept in a cave before; I had never slept buried in the earth. I woke up and needed to pee. Normally I would have gone outside alone, but I was afraid of the scorpions. I looked over at Qin. He was sleeping on the other side of the brick kang; I could see the shape of his body in the dark. I whispered his name, over and over, until he opened his eyes.
"I have to go to the bathroom."
"Big or small?"
"Go on the ground outside."
"Take me out," I said.
Qin put on slippers, and we went outside. A shaft of moonlight crossed the hood of the car. There were many, many stars. I peed into a ravine. Looking up, I could see the silhouette of a single tree on a distant ridge. I heard the sound of a dog barking.
Qin looked up briefly at the stars as he zipped his fly.
"It's daytime in America," he said. "Right?"
I said I thought it was.
"If we tunneled straight down from here," he said, motioning into the ravine, "we'd get to America, and you'd be back home."
The next day, we kept going south. The word for "family" is jia, and all of the villages along that part of the river were named after families. We passed Luojiahai (the Luo Family Sea), and Dingjiawan (the Ding Family Bend in the River), and Lijiatan (the Li Family Shoal). Wus, Wangs, Peis, Hans, Cais, Guans, and Caos had settled along the river, surviving in caves their ancestors had dug into the loess hills.
Where the road passed beneath steep cliffs there were signs that warned of falling rocks. I saw several billboards, on treeless hills, with government slogans urging people to plant trees. There were no mature trees anywhere, only tiny, hopeless saplings planted in rows. As we approached towns there were signs advertising hotels and guesthouses. Toward nightfall, I noticed a billboard that advertised an ancient feudal mansion with good country food. "Let's have a look," I said.
On the hilltop by the river stood a beautiful old farmhouse with pine beams and sloping tile roofs, the rooms overlooking an open-air courtyard. We decided to stay for the night. Qin politely addressed our host as Wang Ayi, or Aunt Wang. She had two teenage children, a boy and a girl, and they ate with us at a square folding table in the courtyard. It got dark. Wang Ayi plugged a cord into the kitchen wall, illuminating the paper lanterns that hung from the eaves, casting us all in a strange red light.
I had seen a group of men in coats and ties standing outside the house next door, and I asked the two children, "Did someone get married today?"
"Someone died," the girl said, smiling nervously and glancing at her brother, who remained silent. "A boy in his class."
Qin lifted the bowl to his mouth and slurped the broth from his noodles.
"How did he die?" he asked.
"He was sick for a long time," she said. "Now they have to find a wife for him."
Wang Ayi suddenly appeared from the kitchen and slapped her hand on the table, rattling our bowls and chopsticks.
"Keep it to yourself! We have guests."
Qin and I had the mansion to ourselves that night. We could have slept separately, but we put our things in the same room. It had two narrow beds and a small wooden table between them. A dim bulb hung by a wire from the ceiling. Wang Ayi brought us a basin of warm water, and Qin washed his face, then his socks and shirt. He took off his shoes and pants and got into bed. As I lay there, the little scene from dinner played in my mind.
"Why does a dead boy need a wife?"
Qin mumbled, "Local custom."
He had an arm on his forehead, and his eyes were closed.
"What kind of custom?"
"People here believe a child comes of age at thirteen. If a boy dies after he's turned thirteen, it is custom for his parents to find him a bride."
I thought about this.
"You mean, a girl—"
"A girl who also died young," Qin said.
A sort of wedding was to take place, he told me. The ashes of the bride and groom were mixed together, or, in villages where cremation was not the custom, their bodies were buried together. Instead of wedding gifts, the mothers of the dead children made paper cuttings of the things they had hoped their children would one day have – a washing machine, a house, a car. Red paper cuttings. They traced delicate patterns on the paper and cut the patterns with scissors. "Red is the color of happiness," Qin said.
The room was quiet. The red lanterns in the yard went out. I thought Qin had fallen asleep. Then I heard his voice again.
"They do it out of love," he said. "So they won't be lonely in the afterlife."
When I told Nick, he said, "So they preserve the dead bodies?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Sometimes."
Nick and Joan called the story "corpse brides." For two days we drove around the loess plateau, stopping in villages, lingering in jujube orchards, talking to proprietors of tiny general stores, looking for a family. Qin grew quieter and waited by the car while we walked into villages and asked the questions we had to ask.
This is how it worked. We'd go into a village. We'd find a person milling around outside. Then I'd have to somehow get around to the question while Nick stood beside me, watching. Joan waited in the car with Qin. I soon realized that if somebody knew someone, and wanted to help us, he or she would have had to point to a house and say, "Yes, over there. In that house. Their child died."
People had heard of the custom. But nobody wanted to name a family or direct us to a person we could interview. Each evening Qin drove us on dirt roads that wove through the dry brown mountains and down to the river, where all the hotels were.
We stayed in Jia County one night. The town had no streetlights, and I didn't see any people. We walked the empty main street until we came to a tiny noodle shop.
A man in a white apron pointed to a table. His daughter squatted on the floor, running dishes through a basin of soapy brown water.
"Three bowls of beef noodles," I said to the man.
I liked being alone in small restaurants late at night. Families working side by side. The father cooking, the mother chopping, a daughter or son waiting on tables. When I'd first moved here, I lived in a small town, and the only friends I had were a family from Xinjiang who owned a little noodle shop outside the front gate of my school.
"Let's give it one more day," Nick said.
"I'm just not sure it can be done," I said.
The girl brought out our food. Her hands were red and swollen. Steam rose out of the bowls she put on the table.
Joan said to me, "I don't think you have a very high opinion of us."
"The story can't be done," I said. "It's nothing personal."
One day, we came upon a beautiful young woman in a jujube orchard. She wore a straw hat and army surplus fatigues, and she was carrying night soil in two buckets that hung from a shoulder pole. I could smell it. She had red circles on her cheeks. Her expression suggested she had never seen people like us before. I introduced myself, and she smiled shyly, putting down her load. I said that we were researchers, interested in the custom of minghun –afterlife marriages.
"Have you heard of this?"
She looked frightened. Her cheeks turned redder.
"No," she said.
"Do you know anyone who might be able to help us?"
"No," she said again.
She lifted the buckets and walked away.
"She knows something," Nick said. "She definitely knows."
He thought we should follow her. We got back into the car and drove down toward the river. The road descended very steeply, and as we passed into a notch, I noticed white characters painted on the cliff.
"What does it say?" Nick asked.
"'Outsiders forbidden to enter village.'"
There had been signs like this during the SARS virus, but it was unusual under normal circumstances for a village to discourage visitors.
We kept going. We stopped again, and I got out of the car and spoke with a man, perhaps my age, who wore a jacket and tie. His family name was Ma, and he was a teacher. We offered him a ride back to his home. He climbed into the back seat. Qin started the car and turned on his headlights, and we kept descending. "Where are we?" I asked Ma.
"What is this place?"
"Majiapan," he said. The Ma Family Riverbank.
Ma's house was halfway down the hill. It was a warm night, and we sat outside a cave with Ma and his pregnant wife and his big family. Ma's mother was cooking a millet and jujube porridge over an outdoor stove. She fed the belly of the stove with chaff and twigs, and orange sparks rose up into the darkness and disappeared. Ma's grandfather – I noticed him sitting on a stool by the entrance to the cave – did not say a word to us all night. He stared at us silently, chewing on a corncob pipe. Ma did not introduce the other men, his brothers and brothers-in-law and cousins, who sat at a table, playing the card game Fight the Landlord and drinking jujube wine. At one point, a man walked into the yard carrying a wooden slingshot in one hand and a dead bird in the other. He tore the feathers from the bird and cut off its head with a sharp hunting knife. Ma's mother made room for the bird on the stove.
Nick did not remove the notebook from his back pocket. He was taking notes with his eyes. Joan did not take the camera from her bag. The corpse-bride story demanded patience and finesse. We sat there on tiny wooden stools, observing everything. Nick and Joan were waiting for me to ask the question, but they did not press me. Ma sat beside us, watching us watch his family. He was holding a yellow flyswatter.
"This man is a teacher," Nick said to me. "He would know if anyone knew."
"He might," I said.
"If you're not going to ask him," Joan said after a while, "I think we should go."
Qin had been standing near the entrance to the yard, holding his car keys and smoking a cigarette. "These roads are no good at night," he said.
Ma went into his house and returned with a pile of notebooks. He licked a finger and flipped through the white pages. "This is my best student," he said, handing me a note pad. The rice paper felt soft in my hand. A girl's name was at the top of the paper. The essay was written in a child's handwriting, big blue characters that filled up each line. It was rare for people from this area to travel far from home. This student had gone on a special field trip to Beijing. "Last semester," she had written, "Teacher Ma told me when we got back from Beijing that I should write something about how beautiful Beijing is. I didn't finish writing last semester. Please forgive me."
The yard glowed with firelight, but everything else around us had fallen into darkness. I finished reading and handed him the notebook.
His face turned sad. The flyswatter trembled slightly in his hand.
"For her, everything about the city was beautiful," he said. "And everything about her home was backward and poor."
"Nali," I said.
"Yes, it is," he whispered hoarsely. "She died last winter. She and her classmates. They were riding in the back of a truck. It skidded on the ice and dropped into a ravine."
"On this road?" I motioned to the road.
"On that road."
I looked around, but nobody else was listening. Ma's mother stood by the stove. The men were drinking. Nick and Joan were sitting on stools, talking to each other, laughing about something.
"How many students died?" I asked.
"Twenty-six," Ma said after a while. A nervous tick appeared below his right eye. "All the seventh- and eighth-graders from Majiapan—"
I'd read about these things in newspapers. Short wire stories about terrible bus accidents. Usually just a paragraph long. Little things to fill up the column space. If 26 children had died, would that mean twenty-six weddings? Or had some of them married each other? I thought of the beautiful girl in the orchard. Her terrified expression. Why she had walked away.
"Have you heard of a custom called minghun?" I asked.
Ma stared at me. "Yes," he whispered. "I have heard of it."
Qin drove slowly, two hands on the wheel, and our headlights shone into ravines each time we came to a turn on the road. That night we stayed at a little guest house on the river. We were tired. The four of us said goodnight on the second-floor hallway. "Let's sleep in tomorrow," Nick said. "We might need to cut our losses on this one."
Qin and I had a room at the end of the hall. Our room had a small balcony that overlooked the river. Qin stood there, smoking a cigarette. I joined him outside and lit my own cigarette and leaned against the railing. The water moved with great, silent force.
"I know that you want to know about this, so I am going to tell you," Qin said. "I had a cousin who lived with my family when I was in elementary school. We called her a cousin, but she was more like an adopted daughter. Her name was Meihong. She died from leukemia when she was twelve years old."
He flicked his cigarette. The orange ember fell and disappeared in the river.
"My father and I walked from our village to another village with her ashes. There is a narrow path that runs along the river. The mountains along the path have no trees. We stopped in a little temple that was dug into the stone. He burned some incense. Then we kept walking. We walked all morning and all afternoon. Around sunset we came to a sandy riverbank. 'We're here,' my father said. A girl was swimming with an empty jug of cooking oil tied to her back. There were two women standing in the water, feeling for chunks of coal with their feet. There were mines along the river."
Qin ashed his cigarette over the railing.
"We ate dinner with the boy's family. My father had found him through a matchmaker. The next morning, people began showing up at the house. The boy's father and my father sat a table together, and they toasted each other many times, they toasted all of the men at the other tables, until both of them were very drunk."
After a while I said, "So that was the ceremony?"
"They burned money and gave gifts."
Qin laughed. "A car, a house, a washing machine, and a refrigerator. My aunt and my mother cut them for her."
A light went out in a farmhouse across the river. Qin started coughing. He leaned over the railing and spat into the water.
"Now you have your story," he said.
Nick gave up on the corpse-bride story, because it wasn't meant to be. He and Joan flew back to Beijing. Qin and I followed the river east for six more days, all the way to the sea. We saw hydroelectric dams. We drove on empty new highways. We saw cities pretending to be other cities, buildings of glass and steel. We saw ancient cities waiting to be demolished. In Kaifeng, there lives a Charlie Chaplin impersonator who walks the streets every night, silently, with his bowler hat and cane, waiting for a someone to notice him. I saw him outside a McDonald's. It seemed like it could be a story. When I tried to talk to him, he mimed laughter.