Message in a bottle

Yünnan province is the land of unknown miracles. Among its northwestern mountains, near the Burmese border, lays Nuodeng, the thousand-year-old salt mine town, where, as we will soon present, time has come to a halt in the 1400s. And only eight kilometers away from Nuodeng is a natural wonder, where the Bijiang river turns back in itself, writing a veritable taijitu, yin-yang-symbol in the landscape. We would expect masses of Chinese Taoists to pilgrim here, as they do to the similar Český Krumlov, but not. While the Chinese-language European guidebooks all highlight the wonderful yin-yang-shape of Český Krumlov, the wonder of Bijiang river is virtually unknown. The Yunnan company, from whom I rent the bus for our chinese journey, on looking at the itinerary, hesitates, and says: “Well, explain this to the driver.” I show the driver the pin inserted in during my Yunnan wanderings, but he doubts, since, in spite of being a local, he was never there. So, before going up, he tests the info at a nearby restaurant owner. And he does it well, because thus we also have a gorgeous Yunnan lunch before the wonderful sight.

While we eat, a lonely man stands in front of the restaurant’s glass door, in a blue shirt and a military jacket, with an ageless, haggard face, somewhere between forty and seventy. For a while, he also looks at the sight which is a miracle to him, the unlikely epiphany, the eight white persons here, at the border of China, at the edge of a small town, in a roadside eating-house.

He tries to communicate with us, he waves the hand, smiles, grimaces. I open the door, speak Chinese to him, but he does not answer, this probably goes beyond the limits of credibility to him. I lift he camera. He immediately stands in a military position, salutes, shows his non-existent pistol.

For a while, I try to communicate with him, but from now on he only switches between these two gestures. I sit back to eat. He disappears. One dish later he comes back, and calls me before the dor. He gives over a sheet of paper torn from a booklet, with beautiful calligraphic writing. I sit back, start to decypher it.

“I am from Chengdu, I was a soldier, I fought in the Vietnam war. My military number: …248. Sincerely, Yang Zhi Cheng, local resident. On November 17, 2017”

Chinese soldiers in the Vietnam war? I recall the Ukrainian Zenon from Bolekhiv, the former Soviet military officer, who told me in full about his Ethiopian and Middle Eastern missions, where officially no Soviet soldier has ever been. I serch for it on the internet. The Chinese state leaked half-officially, what they had adamantly denied, that is, that three hundred and twenty thousand Chinese soldiers fought in the Vietnam war againt the Americans. Can it really happen, that this man, who now saw white men for the second time in his life, wanted to tell them the secret, who he is, and what binds him to them?

While I’m reading, the chef bends over me. He quickly reads the letter, and then he shouts something to the man, while showing with his hand to get him out from there. By the time I finish the letter, and lift my head, he’s nowhere.

Morning in Dali

It dawns. The sun that emerges from the Lake of Erhai is not yet visible, but its light shines up on the ridge of Cangshan Range, the foothills of the Himalayas. The market in Dali’s old town rises up. First comes the spraying lorry, playing a loud Chinese opera aria, so everyone could get out of its way in time. Then come the costermongers from the neighboring villages, in Bai folk costume, bringing the harvest of the night on two-wheeled cords, or in a basket on their back.

In the halal meat store, mouth-watering pieces of meat are suspended, the passing men slow down and carefully examine them. A part of the Bais have been Muslim since the Mongol conquest, and their shops and eating-houses announce themselves in Chinese and Arabic letters. Bai folk music is sounding in the shop, the shopkeeper’s little girl is carelessly dancing to its tune in front of the shop.

In the market’s eating-houses they offer mian, hot dough soup, with a spoonful of minced hot on the top. The vendors come alternately to eat a bowlful of it. The morning is cold under the Himalayas, until the sun is up. The dumplings filled with vegetables or meat, the baozi and jiaozi, offered in bamboo steamers in other places, are not sold here. They cost two yuans more, they are too expensive for the people of the market.

An old Bai lady is selling fragrant spheres made from herbs. “What are they good for?” “For lavement, my dear. For soap. Buy of it, it’s just two yuans a piece.” We all buy of it, the lady’s face is dressed in a thousand cheerful wrinkles. “Ask her, how old she is”, they are urging me. “I’m eighty, baby boy”, she laughs. Her wrinkles suggest more, but her smile has not grown any older since she was a girl. “So don’t forget, this is soap, for washing yourself. Do not cook it for tea!”

Revolution from bottom view

Ivan Vladimirov: Burning the Tsar’s images and eagles, 5 May 1917.

November seventh, the anniversary of the October Revolution. The decisive celebration of our school years. Lenin left Smolny, and made a call to the revolutionaries. They surrounded the Winter Palace. At the cannon-shot of Aurora, the revolution began. The cadets desperately defended the palace, but the revolutionaries entered, and put an end to the rule of the Tsar (as they did not burden us with the February Revolution and the Provisional Government). And no word was made about Gergely Bors.

On the 100th anniversary of the revolution we remember this day and all that followed, with a different, less well-known chronicle.

Ivan Vladimirov: Destruction in the Winter Palace, 1918

Several years ago we published some of the watercolors made about the revolution by Ivan Alekseevich Vladimir (1869-1947). That we now return to him, is not only due to the anniversary, but rather to the fact, that in the meantime more of this series was published on the Russian web, and the history of these odd images has also been revealed.

Because it is odd indeed, that Ivan Vladimirov, the historical and battle painter of the Soviet era, awarded with the Red Banner Order, member of the Revolutionary Artists’ Association, illustrator of the official historiography of the Civil War published in the 1930s, portrait painter of Lenin, Stalin and Gorki, and decorator of the Soviet pavilion of the 1937 World Expo, also published such images, which clearly demonstrate the wickedness and cruelty of the revolutionaries as well as his sympathy for their victims.

Ivan Vladimirov: On the streets of Petrograd, 1918

Graduated both in the military and the fine arts school in the 1890s, Vladimirov soon became an official battle painter of the Russian army. He took part in the Russian-Japanese war of 1904, and also in the First World War. As his mother was British, he had good contacts in London, where The Graphic asked him to regularly report from the Eastern front. Over the course of the war, more of a hundred of his paintings, signed as “John Wladimiroff”, were published in the journal, which in 1918 also included a photo of him with this caption: “Mr. Wladimiroff enables The Graphic to be the only paper in the country giving realistic drawings of the revolution”.

As we can see, the drawings offer a truly realistic picture of the revolution, also due to the fact, that Vladimirov, as a member of the police of Petrograd between 1917 and 1918, was an eye witness of all what he painted. His opinion may be reflected by the captions of some of the drawings published in The Graphic: “Blight of Bolshevik Barbarism”, “The chaos resulting from Leninite Misrule”, “Anarchy in Russia”, “Revolution, rapine and robbery”. However, the series of the illustrations was interrupted in the summer of 1918. Vladimirov might have realized that the situation, which he considered transitional, will be persistent. But he did not stop portraiting the revolution.

At that time he might have got in contact with Frank Golder, who came to Russia to oversee the food aid program launched by the later US President Herbert Hoover. Golder also collected material for the Hoover War Library, set up by his commissioner at Stanford University, and considered Vladimirov’s images as excellent contemporary documentation. He bought one after the other, and after his leaving, another colleague of the program, Donald Renshaw continued the collection. The signature of one picture refers to him: “To Mr. Renshaw, a souvenir of the hungry years in Petrograd, with my sincere regards. John Wladimiroff, 19 June 1923”.

Ivan Vladimirov: Plundering the aid wagon of the Red Cross, 1922

Today, thirty-seven “revolutionary images” by Vladimirov are seen in Hoover Institution. During his lifetime, his signature was covered on them, to avoid his getting into trouble. Ten further pictures appeared in auction in 1953, and they are now kept in Brown University in Rhode Island. These images open a unique window to the horror and suffering which was denied by contemporary propaganda, and which could not be evoked so vividly either by later historiography.

Ivan Vladimirov: The revolutionary tribunal condemns to death the landowner and the priest, 1919

Vladimirov’s “secret painting” arrived home to Russia only this year. On the 100th anniversary of the revolution, the Moscow Museum of Contemporary History  organized for the first time a comprehensive exhibition of his works made during the revolution and the Civil War. The paintings kept in the US were just reproduced, but they also exhibited a dozen of his paintings from Vladimir Ruga’s private collection, which depict how the new “ruling class” expropriates and destroys the culture built up over the centuries.

Ivan Vladimirov: Reading the Pravda, ca. 1918-1923

rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev rev

Ivan Vladimirov: The last way, 1918.
On the first version, kept in the USA, the painter’s signature was covered

Funeral in Yangshuo

It’s seven o’clock in the morning. Yangshuo wakes up. Darkness is first replaced by a homogenous gray light, and then the edge of the house opposite begins to show color. From my third floor room I see the colorful light descending down the wall of the house. I also go down, we arrive together to the street. By the time I get to the breakfast place, the whole unpopulated street is flooded with brilliant morning sunshine. In the Uyghur eating-house they just lit a fire in the stove, they prepare the first soup for me.

The port of Yangshuo in the morning

The rhythm of Yangshuo is determined by the big cruisers coming down from Guilin every day among the beautiful karst mountains along the Pearl River. They moor around 2 p.m., releasing hundreds of tourists on the wharf, and the residents of the town have to earn their bread from two until midnight as street vendors, hotel managers or restaurant owners. But the morning is entirely theirs. Tourists are still asleep after Zhang Yimou’s midnight mega-show, or they have already gone back by bus to Guilin the previous evening. This is the time to spend on their own businesses, sweep the street, sit out in front of shops for a chat, arrange goods on the shelves. And hold funerals.

I’m still sitting in the Uyghur restaurant when distant, loud Chinese music sounds in the street. First it seems like the usual melody used by Chinese trash and watering cars: the former to warn you to bring your trash down, the latter to keep away from the sprinklers. But then a rickshaw passes the restaurant with a colorful wreath on the back, and those sitting in it are scattering with both hands the yellow papers, the money of the dead.

After the car, at a reasonable distance, comes the funeral march. First come close relatives in white turbans and white mourning clothes, bearing the image of the deceased. Ater them, the pallbearers. Eight or ten of them are carrying a wooden mechanism, whose structure was apparently devised centuries ago, and it was devised well, because it has not changed since then. The pallbearers’ faces are similarly archaic. When you browse Chinese photo albums from before the great wars, the closeness and strangeness of the faces, their closure in the local culture is very striking. The vicissitudes of the twentieth century loosened the Chinese faces up a great deal, just as on the faces of every other archaic culture. But here, in Yangshuo, in the morning in a tourist town without tourists, on the faces of these pallbearers, the faces of the photographs of a hundred years ago, still intact from European culture, emerge from unknown nooks of the city.

A wreathed white stork emerges from the top of the coffin, wrapped in colored paper, to the sky, as if the soul of the dead has slipped off the ground. I recall, from a whole other culture, the verses of Bulat Okudzhava written on Vladimir Vysotsky’s death:

Белый аист московский на белое небо взлетел,
черный аист московский на черную землю спустился
A white stork of Moscow flew up to the white sky
a black stork of Moscow descended to the black earth.

The march is trailed by three musicians, two men with suona, the Chinese clarinet, and a woman with two drums. They provide the sharp, monotonous mourning melody permeating the whole street, to the rhythm of which the march is advancing to the riverside, and the rickshaw before them spilling the money of the dead. At times, a red petard is blown up before the rickshaw, its smoke covers the march for a few minutes from the people standing in front of the shops and watching them. All are local faces, no foreigners. In the morning, the city lives its own life, and says good-bye to its own dead.

I follow the march, as they pass along the riverfront, across the large covered gallery next to the port, through which in the afternoon you cannot  pass for the crowd of sellers and buyers, but now it is still completely empty. I’m curious whether they will put the coffin on a boat and take it over the river for burial, as many cultures do, but they do not. They pass by the port, and, by leaving the gallery, they start to climb up the narrow mountain path. Those who hitherto followed them, now leave. I do, too, for apparently this is the custom.

Only in the afternoon, riding a rented bike along Yulong River, will I know what happens next. I pass by a small roadside cemetery. It has four or five large, circular stone graves, as if they were big wells. One of them is obviously freshly erected, it is filled with earth, and an empty coffin was recently put on it. Around it, petards, incense, empty bottles.

I go back along the river. The money of the dead and the remains of the petards have already been swept up. Along the route of the funeral march, little red heaps are waiting for being carried away, dust and ash.