A Bus to Changsha
As summer drifted toward fall, and long months of waiting dwindled to weeks and then to days, I began to dream of her.
This stranger, small and far away. This unknown child.
I didn't yet know what she looked like, had no idea where or how she lived. I didn't know her name. Yet in those final days she came to me every night, her appearance as certain as the moon.
It was always the same dream. A winter night, cold and clear. I'm alone, hurrying through a series of alleyways, moving past darkened homes and shuttered stores. I can see my breath in the frozen air. Farther and farther I go, deeper into the labyrinth of narrow streets. I know she is here, somewhere. I can sense her in the darkness. I'm nearly running now. I can't see her, but I know I am close. And she knows it too. She knows I am coming, and she is pleased.
In my dream, she is willing me forward, faster and faster through the night to her side. She is happy. She is well. In my dream we will be together soon, and we will rejoice, father and daughter.
In my dream, it is all so simple.
The rice fields stretch in every direction, an endless patchwork of marshy paddies containing an infinite number of sprouts, all the identical shade of radiant green, all illuminated by the glare of a fierce summer sun. It is like arriving in Oz, a place where even the ground is the dazzling color of emerald.
The bus bounces and dips, groaning as it parts this shimmery ocean of green from atop a ribbon of new, hard blacktop, pushing on toward the city of Changsha. People in the middle rows make polite small talk—where they're from, what they do, who they know.
I'm too tired. And too nervous.
I'm sitting in the back, trying to stay alert after days with little sleep, trying to stay calm despite the anticipation of all that awaits. My wife, Christine, sits on the seat beside me, the two of us grouped with thirty other Americans, people we don't know, all of us thrown together to witness some of the most intimate moments of each other's existence.
I'm looking out the window, trying to take in the sight of all that surrounds me, certain that later on I will be questioned about the details of this day, these last hours, before everything changed.
There will not be much to tell.
Today, a Sunday, the highway is all but deserted, and the fields are empty of people and beasts. The jade gloss of the rice paddies rushes to the horizon, where it collides with the royal blue of the sky. The only signs of life, one every couple of miles, are the soaring spires of smokestacks, the flues of small, hand-fed kilns that fire bricks from clay dredged from the fields. The chimneys spew plumes of thick black smoke, inky smudges on the two-color tableau of sky and land.
Changsha is the capital of Hunan Province, the local center of politics, education, trade, and most important for my wife and me, government. The city rests in a valley along the lower length of the Xiang River, a principal tributary of the mighty Yangtze. Most of the province stands south of Lake Dongting, a Yangtze flood basin, and its name means exactly that, "South of the Lake."
Humans have lived here for millennia. Settlers came to this region some three centuries before the birth of Christ, many of them Han Chinese from the north, farmers who set about clearing the forests and woods to grow wheat and rice. Within a hundred years, Changsha had become a fortified city—some of the old walls survive today. During the Han Dynasty, Changsha served as the capital of its own kingdom. During the Song, it gave birth to the famed Yuelu Academy.
By the 1850s, word of the area's fertile fields and abundant harvests had circulated far and wide, attracting waves of new settlers. Soon the province was home to more people than it could support. And soon the rich soil was sown not just with dung but with blood. Landowners began to force out tenant farmers in the early 1900s, bringing death by riot and famine. In 1927 the peasants rose up—not for the first time, but this time with arms—in a battle that became known as the Autumn Harvest Uprising. The man who led the people in that fight was a headstrong Hunan native named Mao Tse-tung, who was born not far from Changsha. It was from the Hunan-Jiangxi-Province border that Mao and his loyalists later launched the Long March, the storied, strategic retreat to Shaanxi that allowed the Communists to regroup and, ultimately, to conquer China and establish the People's Republic.
Today Hunan's capital is known for its ancient tombs, its Neolithic pottery and bronzes, for the scenic appeal of Mount Yuelu, which lies like the profile of a sleeping giant, a natural barrier to the west. But Changsha is no tourist haunt. And it's not a pretty city. During the 1940s, the nationalist Kuomintang Army burned parts of Changsha to the ground as the soldiers tried to root out the Japanese. Much of what remained was cleared during more recent modernization campaigns that have turned Changsha into a nondescript capital of gray governmental buildings, big white-tile offices, and incessant smog.
As I stare out the window, I wonder if my daughter will care. About this place. About these people.
I wonder if it will matter to her that the people here take great pride in their tongue-scalding, chili-pepper cooking, and in their local style of opera. That their hand-stitched, double-sided Xiang embroidery is regarded as among the most exquisite in the world. That monuments to Mao can be found across the region, his office in Changsha a museum, buses and trains running daily to the shrine of his birthplace in the mountain village of Shaoshan.