Postcard from Henan

Here is a postcard from Henan written by guest contributor Damien Kinney.

The road to the Yellow River is rough and unsealed. We’re well out of town by now. I doubt my driver normally ventures this far, and before long he stops to ask a farmer for the best way to 'Huanghe shui.'  Inquisitive also, the farmer looks over at him, then at me, with a gaze that suggests we are but specks on the horizon. The farmer's house is like all the others I've seen in the last ten minutes: its roof is ablaze with the yellow of ripening bananas. Whole hamlets are thus covered, as if to offset the bleak alluvial beauty of the region.

Sleepy waters, on a rainy day

Misty river, yellow earthen flow

Do the people need your latent fury?

From raised river banks

Raised a thousand times…

Do all your unsuspecting visitors

Leave so entranced?

Leave so entranced.

Kaifeng is south of the river. A thousand years ago it was the capital of the Northern Song dynasty, when the city was known by two other names, Bianliang and Bianjing. At its apex it was one of the largest cities in the world, home to a diverse population of traders and artisans from across Asia. They had arrived at the eastern extremity of the Silk Road.

Yesterday I went to Xiangguo Temple. The Buddha must have been a firm, guiding presence along my meandering path: the mere thought of walking through that temple continues to fill me with the calm and serenity of unexpected joy.

Come nightfall, the ancient city’s enduring bustle becomes more apparent. Kaifeng's night market sizzles with hand-made noodles and local delicacies. It is this kind of cosmopolitan variety that still brings in curious hordes from all corners of the known world, for as I sit down to dinner at a market stall that night the familiar tones of Australian English pierce the air. And then more of the same, mixed now with other varieties of English, and one or two other 'West Ocean' tongues. 'Xiexie mother one Australian says genuinely as he collects his meal from a frumpy forty-something stallholder. Australian irreverence meets the inherent, sometimes dormant know-how of the Chinese. And it was the self-same know-how, and a genius for civilization that allowed the Chinese to build cities such as Kaifeng.

Its location proved a double-edged sword. Kaifeng must have been, before the massive dykes were built last century, one of the most flood-prone cities in the world. Whole layers of ancient Kaifeng are buried in the yellow earth like submerged museums to human endeavour. The city once had sizeable and integrated Jewish and Muslim communities whose members were distinguished, perhaps with innocuous local humour, as the 'blue caps' and the 'white caps' respectively. They were among the pathfinders of transcontinental trade, the Jews in particular thought to have originally journeyed from Persia.

In another temple I picked up a copy of a mural, which I will one day proudly mount, depicting Kaifeng in its twelfth century splendour. Henan seems a land long-ravaged by the repeated trials of history, its dense population and intense farming—a place whose soul is anchored, as much as any Chinese province, firmly in the past.

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