Cover image for Cousin Felix meets the Buddha and other encounters in China and Tibet
Cousin Felix meets the Buddha and other encounters in China and Tibet
Kaye, Lincoln, 1947-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
Physical Description:
xviii, 394 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


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DS712 .K39 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Adventures in a nation on the road Long caricatured as a land of stagnant traditions or lockstep Maoist conformity, China today is a country on the move. Literally--China's new migrant labor pool, known as the "blind river," logs in more road miles and piecework hours than any other workforce in the world--but also mentally and spiritually, as more and more Chinese search for some new faith, whether Maoist, Buddhist, humanist, or laissez-faire - to fill in where decaying Party ideology leaves off. The new China, where religious pilgrims cross paths with born-again capitalists and uprooted communards, is a chaos of true believers pursuing different, often conflicting, visions of fulfillment. The author and the illustrator, an American newsman and his Taiwanese wife, trail a series of such pilgrims: wandering farmhands, itinerant actors, a qi gong guru, a careerist policeman, a muckraking lawyer, a die-hard revolutionary agitator, a Taiwanese con man, a Tibetan lama, and many more. The result is neither a travelogue nor an analytic set piece, but a moral panorama, lit from within by the divergent hopes of Chinese citizens today.

Author Notes

Lincoln Kaye has headed Far Eastern Economic Review bureaus in six Asian countries, including China, where he spent five years. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Nation. He and Hsu Meilang have been married for twenty-five years

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Lately posted as the Far Eastern Economic Review's chief in Beijing, Kaye pictures this milieu from a different perspective than the usual reporter's post-posting reflections. No sweeping generalizations are declaimed here about the sweep of Chinese history, its authoritarian government, and its prospects for the future. Rather, Kaye renders a street-and village-level view of the roiling texture of contemporary Chinese society. His acute perceptions produce a physical sensation about China, buttressed by his deep absorption of Chinese customs, expressed in commentary on clothing, furnishings, cuisine, regional accents--the hints to a person's tastes and status. That observant detail entices the reader into Kaye's portraits of several protagonists as he delves into the projects of a lawyer, a hospice director, and a Buddhist lama, among others. His curiosity about them necessitates travel, which is regaled in tones both comical and serious as he and his wife journey to the city of Xian, the provinces of Qinghai and Hebei, and the loess-smothered environs of the capital. Sinophiles will delight in his companionable, experienced guidance. ^-Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Set free from editorial constraints that have bound him in his 15-year career as a journalist at the Far Eastern Economic Review, Kaye takes the time in this account of his adventures as a China correspondent to devote long passages to rarely noted attributes of the country, from the fragrance of Beijing's subway system to the gastronomic sensations of yak fat. These digressions, while at times meandering, are redeemed by Kaye's ample knowledge of China and his childlike excitement over his subject. Kaye's edifying narrative can, during a brief train ride to Xian, the middle kingdom's ancient capital, entertainingly skim across a range of subjects throughout China's long, complicated history. The book's most revealing observations come not from Kaye, but from the people he speaks and travels with across China, a diverse cast of characters that includes a reincarnated lama, a Shaanxi cop, a fast-talking city lawyer and a die-hard Communist revolutionary. Among them, his travel companions have seen China's recent revolution and reform from significantly different perspectives-upper- and lower-class, rural and urban-and Kaye's record of their experiences is valuable. His deftness with the Chinese language, helped in part by his Taiwanese wife's occasional stint as translator (she is also the book's illustrator), enables him to capture subtle insights into his interlocutors' personalities and motivations. This allows Kaye to capture the conflicts and contradictions of a country that is so often depicted as a teeming, homogenous mass. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Kaye is an American journalist and longtime resident of several Asian cities. Along with his Taiwanese wife, who contributes the illustrations, he records four journeys in some detail into areas a bit off the conventional tourist tracks to find a China that is simultaneously traditional and yet changing in some respects. He skillfully weaves history and commentary throughout his narratives of people met. Readers will be surprised by his encounter with a new-breed civil rights lawyer, disturbed by his graphic account of a hospice, troubled by the struggles of Tibetans to maintain their culture, and amused by his descriptions of McDonald's and the smells of the Beijing subway system. Kaye goes deeper and better informed into China and the Chinese way of life than do most travel writers. This is not a book on politics or economics but rather one for those with more than a passing fancy for the cultures of the world's most populous nation. Recommended for larger public libraries and academic libraries supporting Asian interests.-Harold M. Otness, formerly of Southern Oregon Univ. Lib., Ashland (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Crossing the River by Feelíng the Stones * * * NOTHING BESPEAKS China's antiquity so eloquently as its dust-or at least so it seems in the depths of a Beijing winter funk. By late March, Gobi dust coats every cranny of the city: the frames and sills and roof tiles, the bare trunks of plane trees, the grim concrete cornices. Even my eyeballs feel begrimed, and my tonsils and my daintiest alveoli. Too long I've been breathing the curdled smog of coal fires and the recycled steam of Soviet-era central heating. Newspapers get repetitious, winter cuisine palls, and social rituals grow stale. Details of daily Beijing life start to take on the consistency of Gobi dust-atomized, pervasive, inert. Can anything grow in such a medium? Cabin fever sets in. Travel brochures that I'd hardly deign to look at back in high autumn now linger for a week on my desk. Not that I get such a lot of brochures anymore. The cruise lines gave up on me long ago. But here's something from the state-run China International Travel Service: a travel agents' notice about vacation packages for huaqiao (overseas Chinese) to Huangdi Ling, the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, founding father of the Chinese race. On the Qing Ming grave-sweeping festival day, April 5, Shaanxi provincial authorities will be offering cultural performances and a trade fair there. "Warmly welcome overseas Chinese visitor to venerate our primordial ancestor in exclusive ceremony. Central government dignitaries to preside, including members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee. Three-star accommodation at Provincial Guest House." That sounds like niche marketing at its most recherché. Shaanbei-northern Shaanxi-gritty, arid, dirt-poor, at least a half-day's bone-jarring bus ride from the nearest airport. Not everybody's idea of a lightsome spring weekend. Still, Qing Ming in Huangdi Ling is not an invitation to be overlooked. For a huaqiao -in-law like me, it might offer clues to just what kind of tribe I've married into. Ah-loong, my sole familial link with the Yellow Emperor, turns out to be game for the trip. After all, it gets us out of town and up into the Ordos Loop, where the Yellow River jogs north and then south again to stake out a tenuous agrarian toehold upon the Gobi. Spring supposedly comes a few weeks earlier to the loess hills-a welcome respite from the last throes of a Beijing winter. Besides, we'll get a chance to transit Xian, a tourist mecca that we've somehow missed in all our years in China. Train tickets prove no problem at this time of year, and with twenty-four hours of "hard sleeper" ahead of us, we'll have plenty of time to ponder our itinerary and prime ourselves to do right by our ancestors. Everybody's got ancestors and reveres them, more or less, but no place can match China for elaborating this universal sentiment into a full-blown cult. To share in these ancestor rites is to probe the roots of China's self-conception. How to draw the line between Chinese civilization and the engulfing barbarity of the rest of the world? What is the touchstone for membership in the Middle Kingdom? Where is the boundary between history and chaos? No better site than Huangdi Ling for mulling such questions, and no better occasion than Qing Ming ("Clear and Bright"). Unique among traditional Chinese holidays, it's calculated on the solar rather than the lunar calendar-a vernal equinox festival. Like spring rites all over the world, it must have originated as a lusty romp through the hedgerows. It was also the occasion for burning off the stubble of the winter fields in preparation for spring planting. But once it got mixed up with the ancestor cult, Qing Ming took on a more somber cast. The scorching of the croplands became the occasion for renewing all domestic flames, which meant first letting the hearth fires go out. That, in turn, translated into a day of penitential cold baths and uncooked meals-a token reversion to the fireless simplicity of Paleolithic prehistory, before the Yellow Emperor "civilized" the Chinese. Sobered by these austerities, families gather on Qing Ming to tend the graves of their lineal forebears. In Taiwan, Hong Kong, and parts of the huaqiao diaspora, the festival triggers contests of funerary one-upmanship as mourners strive to outdo each other in ostentatious display of tangible grief. But in mainland China, Qing Ming remains an intimate, almost furtive affair. Descendants rake and prune and trim around the grave mounds, smoothing the channels of feng shui (literally "wind and water"), the invisible but all-powerful energy currents that link the fortunes of the living and the dead. A properly sited grave, with the right disposition of trees and streams, can prosper a clan for generations. Ideally, even the surrounding hills should bear the shapes of auspicious animals-a tiger to the west, a bird to the south, and so forth. Feng shui flows along hidden channels in the earth, analogous to the invisible meridians of the living body that are used in acupuncture. This reflects the world's origin as the metamorphosed corpse of Pan Gu-he who was born from the dark egg of chaos. For the first 18,000 years of measurable time, Pan Gu single-handedly propped up the heavens and kept them apart from the underworld. When at last he died, his breath became the wind, his voice the thunder, his eyes the sun and moon. The four cardinal directions are his limbs; his trunk formed the mountains. As for humanity, we're his body lice-or so says the first-century B.C. Classic of Mountains and Seas . Aside from keeping Pan Gu's meridians unbunged, the graveside worshipers tend to their more immediate ancestors, too. They lay out a spread of steamer buns, dried mushrooms, meats, and bean curd-nothing too appetizing, lest it attract the envy of malevolent "hungry ghosts," who hang around graveyards and have no duly filial descendants of their own to look after them. Qing Ming is the time to top up the ancestral bankroll of "spirit money." Historically this currency was made of coarse, hand-pressed paper, maybe embossed with a wisp of gold leaf or a crude woodblock print. Nowadays, China is awash in rotogravured "hell banknotes" strangely reminiscent of Hong Kong dollar bills, complete with copperplate flutes and scrolls, auspicious serial numbers, and pompous "bank manager" signatures. It's a giddily hyperinflated currency; the sole denomination is H$100 million (that's 100 million "hell dollars"), but nobody seems worried about having to make change. In the weeks leading up to Qing Ming, peddlers sell off thick wads of both new- and old-style spirit money at open-air markets. You can transmute the scrip into negotiable netherworld tender by burning it at graveside. Or else you can roll the banknotes into spindly paper "spirit trees" to plant at your family tomb. Even such low-profile, private observations as these would have been squelched fifteen or twenty years ago. Since "Liberation," Qing Ming has been publicly celebrated with no more than perfunctory memorial services centered around state-run cemeteries for "revolutionary martyrs." For the most part, though, the regime has given short shrift to the tomb-sweeping festival-and no wonder. Family observances of any kind could hardly thrive under founding Red dynast Mao Zedong's injunction to "smash the old" in the name of radical collectivization. "Class background" was considered a matter of heredity; a "negative" one could stigmatize you for life. To pamper your august forebears might harm, rather than help, your worldly prospects. Better to come from a nameless, undistinguished lineage. If not so favored, at least don't tout your pedigree. Totalitarian snitch culture encouraged betrayal of your living intimates; how much easier to forsake your dead ones. Long after Mao's demise, Qing Ming still remains a loaded occasion for the Communist leadership. Considering the cruelty of many a death in recent Chinese history, a day given over to requiem rites risks reopening still-raw wounds. In 1976, just months after the death of premier Zhou Enlai, the Qing Ming festival served as the trigger for Communist China's first pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Zhou had been widely revered as a buffer against the worst depredations of the Cultural Revolution, so mourners laid unauthorized wreaths for him at the foot of the Martyrs' Monument in implicit protest against the excesses of Mao and his ultra-leftist heirs. After gathering momentum for a few days, the demonstration was put down even more brutally than the famous Tiananmen student protests thirteen years later, according to veteran activists who witnessed both massacres firsthand. To this day, Qing Ming kicks off the annual season of official paranoia in Beijing. For three months, right up through June 4 (date of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre), plainclothes and uniformed police blanket Tiananmen and the surrounding city, ready to squelch any commemoration of a series of awkward anniversaries. Private Qing Ming ceremonies may be tolerated nowadays, but public observances remain dicey. All the more brazen, then, the regime's gall in officially staging Qing Ming rites at Huangdi Ling. Maybe it's because the primordial ancestor is remote enough in time and dubious enough in authenticity that he's deemed safe: the kind of Big Lie that an authoritarian regime can live with. If people can be induced to believe in the Yellow Emperor's historicity, so much the better. And even if they can't, so long as they pay dutiful lip service to an officially promoted nonsense, the regime's authority is reaffirmed. Such vehicles prove ideal for the Party's coalition-building "United Front" cooptation drives, and huaqiao are especially susceptible to such appeals. Keen to cash in on China's current development boom, overseas Chinese show themselves more avid than ever these days for opportunities to display their fealty to the fatherland. So for a huaqiao fund-raising gala, the Yellow Emperor could prove just the ticket. He's the vanishing point of Chinese historical perspective, the place where all parallel lines (or lineages) converge. He occupies a position all his own at the intersection of godhead and humankind. Legend ranks him as the last of the prehistoric Three Sovereigns. Of the three, the Yellow Emperor was the only unequivocal hominid. The earlier two featured a dragon's tail and an ox's head, respectively. On the other hand, China's earliest historian, Si-Ma Qian, counts the Yellow Emperor not among the mythic Three Sovereigns but rather as the first of the avowedly historical Five Rulers. Si-Ma Qian launches his Historical Records with a recital of Huangdi's inventions: boats, carts, pottery, armor, writing, medicine, divination, silk weaving, surnames, ball games, calendars, and lots more. Without such amenities, Si-Ma Qian seems to imply, people can hardly be deemed human, let alone Chinese. Count on China to begin its account of itself with a practical tinkerer rather than a cosmic creator. By some Gresham's law of religiosity, ancestor worship crowds out other more "spiritual" faiths, much to the despair of missionaries over the millennia. Ethereal saints, sublime abstractions, revealed truths-none of them can vie in China with the appeal of a flesh-and-blood bridge of forebears from here to eternity. By extending the whole Confucian web of interlocking social obligations backward through time, the ancestor cult lends a quasi-religious buzz to the bonds between parents and children, spouses, siblings, students and teachers, rulers and ruled. With thousands of years of historic resonance, such social relationships take on a rightness, an inevitability beyond challenge. But if the past lends gravitas to current social arrangements, the reverse also holds true: ancestor worship serves to "domesticate" history by analogy with the present. Even the dead draw pay, in the form of memorial rites. And, like other "salarymen," they face wage hikes or cuts; they're subject to periodic "personnel review" through the vagaries of historic reassessment. Few other civilizations display a greater volume-or a narrower range-of historic records than China. Since feudal times, historiography has been the exclusive privilege of the same tiny elite of scholar-bureaucrats who commanded the armies and ran the civil administration. The result (with a few notable exceptions) is a mandarin's-eye view of the past: lots of statistics, episode, and protocol, but precious little causal analysis. Instead of a period-specific Zeitgeist , official histories account for events in terms of self-righteously eternal moral verities. Each successive dynasty gets to draft its own chronicles and rewrite those of its predecessors so as to justify its own rise to power. Not just the professed moral values, but even the form of historiography remains timeless. Since ideographs offer no obvious clues to the phonetic evolution of the language, written prose style was able to remain frozen right up through the 1920s in a self-consciously classical mode divorced from everyday spoken usage. Chinese grammar doesn't even provide for verb tenses to demarcate past from present. Casually perusing a historic chronicle, a reader might be hard-pressed to tell at a glance whether the author or the events described date from a hundred or three thousand years ago. It's as though a page of Herodotus were stylistically indistinguishable from one of Toynbee, both posing equal claims of immediacy and relevance. Nor is this burden of the ever-present past confined only to lofty dynastic history. Every Chinese household has its own ancestor shrine. It may be a whole roomful of gilt-brushed name plaques or just a single calligraphic scroll of the clan surname tacked up over a shelf for daily wine-and-incense offerings. Grand or simple, the ancestral altar stands at the center of family life, as homely and familiar as a kitchen table, yet implicitly exalted. At festivals and anniversaries, the ancestors are served first, absorbing spiritual nutriment from the choicest tidbits (after which the clan's living elders get to polish off the mundane leftovers). Instead of getting sent to stand in the corner when they've been bad, Chinese children are made to kneel in front of the family altar and ponder the impossibility of ever discharging their debt to a facelessly stern infinitude of ancestors. The effect, as Ah-loong recalls, can be utterly chilling: "You feel like you're at the wrong end of a telescope. There are all your ancestors, unimaginably great and remote. And from their perspective, you're shrunk down to nothing-a bug, a mote, a flyspeck." Continues... Excerpted from Cousin Felix Meets the Buddha And Other Encounters in Chína and Tibet by LINCOLN KAYE Copyright (c) 2003 by Lincoln Kaye Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Preface: Homing Inp. xi
Prologue: The Forest for the Treesp. 3
Crossing the River by Feeling the Stonesp. 11
The Golden Spikep. 91
Under the Skinp. 200
Cousin Felix Meets the Buddhap. 296