By: Paul Elson
In ancient Greece, there was a school of philosophy that believed that all is becoming, that destinations were merely a pause in the journey — if you will, a misunderstanding. China understands.
In the winter of 2001, twelve 40 x 60 canvas gicleés of my work were hanging in a café in NYC's SoHo district. Unbeknownst to me, a high-ranking official from the Chinese Ministry of Culture was touring the quarter, and stopped in the café for lunch. To make a very convoluted story short, the result was that a few months later, I received an official invitation to travel and tour in China, and lecture and display my work.
Not that I would ever deny that my work is evocative, stunning, and deserving of all manner of effusive encomia, but in the interest of full disclosure, the Chinese are fascinated with all things digital, and absolutely dazzled with the concept of imagery and art as a computer product. So chances are that my work was just in the right place at the right time...
With boundless vistas devoid of human artifice, China is a vast and often barren landscape, tens of thousands of square miles at a stretch that are a long step backward into an era with which few Americans could ever empathize. From Xinjiang¹s nomadic sands that ceaselessly ebb and flow across the ancient Silk Road in the northwest deserts, to Inner Mongolia's sweeping grasslands bending to the staccato rhythms of a Siberian wind, to the hypoxic summits of Tibet, from the remorseless winter gales on the Manchurian Plain, to the steamy, malarial littorals of the South China Sea — disappear a few klicks off what may pass as the main road in any of these areas, and mayhap, the last tour group to breeze through might well have been Genghis Kahn and his Merry Men. Which brings me to this point: if the road less traveled is what floats your sampan, China is your kinda town.
In my twenty-five years as a commercial photographer (99% location assignments), and before that, two tours in the Navy during the Southeast Asia contretemps, I have worked with a range of natives from a fetishist shaman in Togo over a meal of still-squirming larvae whose biologic existence would have enthralled a Harvard entomologist, and been cosseted by the concierge at the Ritz Hotel in Paris . But to my Western eye, China's mark has an indelible element that will surpass all others.
Permit me a few non-sequitur observations, which I hope will serve to illustrate.
Five-star hotels may dot the landscape in Beijing, but don't expect to do a walking tour of the city from your miniscule haven of opulence: Beijing is only slightly, and I do mean slightly, smaller than the landmass of New Jersey. And as for maps of the city — well, scale must be a concept considered delightfully gauche by Chinese cartographers... But let's away from the confines, rather capacious confines, of Beijing.
If Adventure is what you seek, head for the hills, say, Shanghai or Tibet, and rent a car to get there. If you plan to drive yourself, I salute your Panglossian attitude. Because if you attempt a jaunt in the outback á la your college summers in Europe or serially knocking about the university haunts of the USA with a vague idea of destination and route thereto, your future is about to become thrilling.
Bear in mind the following: I am of the firm belief that in all of China, about the size of all 50 states, there are about ten places that the government would wish you to visit. No one proscribes your travel, it's just that very, very few places are prepared to accommodate the delicate sensibilities of the occasional occidental. To wit:
1. Even if you could rent a car without a driver(which you can't), signs in English will appear as often as Halley's Comet; road maps may be more an indication of The Ministry of Transportation's hopes and dreams; and as for accuracy and scale — see above. Street signs — you did memorize a few thousand logograms on the plane ride over, didn't you?? — are still some as-yet-unhired urban planner's fantasy. And even with a chauffeur, communications will have a clarity quotient approaching that of egg drop soup. For much of my trip, I had a driver and I was accompanied by my Chinese wife, who speaks Mandarin (the official language), Cantonese, and several dialects fluently. But somehow, things seemed to get lost, nay, annihilated in the translation, and it soon became apparent that our intended itinerary was merely a bargaining chip in the negotiations that infrastructure, distance, food, and hygiene imposed on us. Between cities, there are no hotels, and if motels exist in China, we somehow managed to travel only the roads that avoided them, especially at night and after a long and tiring day. Perhaps Somebody is letting me know that my triumphant karmic return will indeed be as a cockroach...
Additionally, if, like me, you¹re anticipating the serendipitous while out and about with your camera, you're going to take that little squiggly line on the map and avoid the main road. Be aware that the smooth parts will be the potholes.
2. And speaking of food, I believe that the Chinese consider flavor highly overrated. Probably an evil vestige of The Gang of Five and that period of pique known as The Cultural Revolution. But if you got a hankerin' for chicken beaks, well, then, you¹ll be in hog heaven — if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor. Because that's a delicacy, along with chicken feet. To the unaccustomed eye, these creative flourishes in the daily fare are at first a little unsettling, especially when smartly protruding from the stir-fried vegetable platter. And don't look too intently at the other dishes which may slow to a stop before you on the Lazy Susan. Because in the steaming concoction in that elegant Ming soup bowl, you may find something gazing balefully back at you — in some parts of town, sheep eyes and banquets are as appreciated as pizza and Super Bowls are here.
But after disgorging the business end of a chicken talon at one afternoon's All Five Senses Adventure into Unrecognizable Cuisine, I remind myself, with some chagrin, that true hunger for a large part of the population is a fact of the not too distant past. For all of China's huge size (only Russia and Canada are larger), and two billion souls, the amount of arable land is small. The cultivation of food products that taste better, as opposed to number of harvests per year of a crop, is of low priority. Along with that sobering thought, note that you will also probably be introduced to flora and fauna that may be reminiscent of your high school biology dissection lab. And if PETA's sense of fair play strikes a resonant chord, you might be well-advised to skip the folkloric nature of any country market — make that city, too.
3. If the rutted Conestoga wagon trails still visible on the arid high plains of the American West evoke a somber realization of the suffering and gritty endurance of the pioneers, chances are you'll soon be having a more immediate empathy for their experience. In Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and other large cities that are prepared for tourists, unless you're seeking to relive the sights, smells, and glancing approach to personal hygiene of your fellow wanderers of your youth hostel days, you will not be happy in a hotel sporting less than a three-star rating. In the outback, stars are what you¹ll find in the night sky, galaxies of them, sparkling all the way down to the horizon from lack of competition from the illumination of sparsely-lit homes and streets. But not on the plaques of the hotel entrances. And upon arrival in your room, and throughout your stay, you may also confront your imagined affinity for the Hindu belief in the sacredness of all life, as there may be ample example of it sharing your quarters. Some of it quite exotic, ravenous, and quick.
And as good Americans, some of you will be wondering about the bathroom. Be afraid, be very afraid. You will probably become acquainted with nature in ways my fastidious upbringing and puritan abhorrence of bodily functions bid me avoid. Ah, but what purpose travel, if not to broaden the mind.
I will take only a little more advantage of Michael's generous offer of space, and your time — merely to say China was a fabulous experience. What may be my inept attempts at humorous irony interspersed with egregious exaggeration should not mislead you into thinking that I would not recommend wholeheartedly, 100%, through and through, and without hesitation a trip to this stunning land. Nor would I have missed a day. Topography that spans a gamut from 450 feet below sea level (only the Dead Sea is lower) to the highest mountains on earth; all climate zones, save the polar tundra; a friendly, curious, welcoming, gentle people, especially in those areas where most Caucasians fear to tread; vistas and moments that for me are more striking and memorable than any I've experienced — this is what I had before me in my six weeks.
I would be foolish to think I know any more than the slightest bit (certainly not a byte!) about China. I know, perhaps, as a drop in the thunderous cataracts of the Yellow River, a grain in the simoons that rise off the shear vastness of the western deserts, a mote on the eddying wind that soughs amid the gilded parapets of The Forbidden City. Only enough to know that the constant adventure of China is the ying that underscores it's yang.
But I come away with discordant thoughts. China is a sentence that I can't quite yet parse, and written on the edge of my peripheral vision. It is more a feeling of an ancient grace, that all that has been before is barely past. Perhaps, too, a glimpse of the life force in the cocoon that expels the butterfly — so vibrant, so different from what it was just yesterday. And yet hidden beneath the beauty of that fluttering lightness and awesome change, at its very cellular core, still lies the undulating, voracious slug.
The merest glimpse of China's history limns a barbaric past, an indurate, pitiless cruelty in pursuit of empire, no less savage for the realization that that is the shadow stalking much of recorded history. It calls into question the very juxtaposition of the words "ancient civilization". But therein lies too long a stroll down too dark a path, and I only mention my musings of its past because of their very immediate effect on my thoughts today.
For always, as I think back upon this trip, with all this bantering insouciance, and my stark visions of all the broken bodies upon which The Great Wall was built, I sense a poignant awareness once again, as my travels so often indicate, of my incredible good fortune to be born in America, to live every day in America. To be able to return to an existence and a freedom about which nine-tenths of the world would have difficulty imagining. And too, I am reminded: so close the ravening wolves. So delicate this balance. Who will keep this America, for here, truly, here is the stuff of dreams.
And Michael, thank's so much for letting me share a few of the moments I saw along the way.
Text and Photograph Copyright 2003 — Paul Elson
Paul Elson was born and brought up in Manhattan. During college, and before graduating as a Philosophy Major from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1967, he studied twelve months in Paris as an art student. It was in Paris that he acquired a lifelong appreciation for what he calls "discernible art" — favorite practitioners of which include Praxiteles, Brunelleschi, Rembrandt, and Seurat. After graduation from Antioch the path of Art and Philosophy led to the U.S. Navy, where Paul became an officer and a pilot. Five years later, after two tours in Vietnam where he received personal decorations for valor in combat, he was discharged from Active Duty. While flying in the Naval Reserve, he began his career as a photographer in 1975 in New York City.
Paul's commercial photography clients include a score from the Fortune 500. He specialized in architecture, travel and food, and thoroughly enjoyed the worldwide voyages on which he was dispatched by the hotel chains, cruise lines, and travel and food magazines that are household phrases in the American lexicon.
In 1999, Paul's path diverged from its extremely successful photographic course. With talents refined during his commercial career he developed a unique art form he calls Photo Impressionism. It involves capturing an image photographically, painting or drawing on the resultant print, re-photographing it, and then scanning it to create an Iris print on archival watercolor paper.