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JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s the weekend and I finally have time to blog. So here goes …

October 1 is China’s National Holiday, rather like the Fourth of July. We got a week-long vacation, which I spent traveling to nearby places in Hunan. Officially, the National Holiday is only five days long, but universities typically move weekday classes to the following weekend to extend the holiday. The downside of this reshuffling is needing to teach for seven days straight after a seven-day holiday.

That post-vacation marathon coincided with the beginning of classes for the freshmen, so I had 32 classes from the 8th until yesterday the 14th. Needless to say, I was a little drained by the time I finished teaching at noon yesterday. Next week, I’ll have a more manageable 22 classes in a week, a schedule I only need to keep until the new foreign teacher arrives in a few weeks.

My only plan for the holiday was to visit a friend in Yueyang 岳阳, several hours away by bus or train, and just north of the provincial capital, Changsha 长沙. A couple of days before the holiday started, I dropped by another friend’s shop in Jishou to say hello. We soon discovered we were heading in the same direction. Tina and her husband were driving to his hometown, Huarong 华容, for his sister’s wedding. If I didn’t mind hanging out for a couple of days at the wedding, I could come along, then they’d drive me to Yueyang, 30 minutes away.

So, Friday, Saturday and Sunday were spent in Huarong and Tianyi (the groom’s hometown, right by the Yangtze River (the Xiangjiang 长江) as part of a ginormous wedding party. Though it was the bride’s second marriage, it was still a big affair, with lots of food, baijiu, beer and fireworks.

Tina and Jeremy have been married almost two years. As part of his marriage promises, he had built a small house for the two of them in Huarong. That’s where we stayed Friday night. The next morning we had a big lunch with his side of the family, then drove to Tianyi for dinner with the groom’s side of the family. We stayed there overnight, and after a big brunch with what seemed to be half the town, we headed back to Huarong to fetch our stuff and drove to Yueyang.

the happy couple

The happy couple

Chinese weddings are a big, big deal. I’ve been to several now, and most have been two- to three-day affairs. While the couple have their share of stuff to do, most of the preparation is the responsibility of their many uncles, aunties, cousins and friends, who shepherd the guests around to dining rooms and sleeping quarters. It all seems to go smoothly, I guess because the whole shebang is planned months in advance.

Only one wedding I have attended (Tina and Jeremy’s) included an actual ceremony, during which the couple exchange vows. Most have involved traditional customs, such as bringing the bride ceremoniously to the groom’s home, often with an umbrella over her to ward off bad luck, or watching outside the bride’s bedroom as the groom petitions to see his fiancee, sometimes bargaining with cash “bribes” to her attendants to open the door. A Tujia custom, which I haven’t seen yet, is the wailing of the bride as she leaves her home. Traditionally, the longer and louder she cries to her parents, the more luck will come to the marriage.

The actual marriage occurs in a government office weeks or months before the actual celebration. The couple apply for a marriage license and pose together for an official photo to be affixed to their marriage document. There is no officiant, like a justice of the peace or judge. A clerk just signs off on a document attesting to the fact that Mr X and Miss Y are now husband and wife.

Some marriages are (ahem) quickened by a pregnancy, either planned or unplanned. The wedding party may even be delayed until after the baby is born, if circumstances require it. There is little of the approbrium that would accompany such scheduling in the USA, it seems. More important are the symbolic joining of two families and the birth of a child. The order of events is not so important.

After the wedding festivities, I spent another couple of days in Yueyang to hang out with a teacher friend there. We visited Junshan Island 君山岛, a scenic park in the middle of Dongting Lake, when the chilly rain that started the holiday week finally ended.

Junshan has a number of legends surrounding it. The name literally means Princesses’ Mountain island. The bamboo that grows on the island is unique — its stems are blotched with dark spots. Legends say that the Xiang River Goddesses, who had been daughters of the Emperor Yao (ca. 2356-2255 BC), cried when their husband, the Emperor Shun, died. Their tears fell on the bamboo, discoloring it forever.

Junshan Island bamboo

Bamboo stained by the River Goddesses' tears

Another legend surrounds Liu Yi’s Well. It is said that Liu Yi was a Tang Dyanasty (618-907) scholar who rescued the Dongting Lake Dragon Princess from her cruel husband. Liu and the Princess became lovers against the Dragon King’s wishes, communicating secretly through the well on Junshan Island. The water from the well is especially clear and sweet; locals use it for brewing an island specialty, silver-needle tea.

Silver-needle tea, which is exceptionally pricey, is a variety of green tea. When dried, the leaves roll up into little tubes. When hot water is poured over them, the leaves remain tightly rolled, and then sink stem-end down to the bottom of the cup. They look like a stand of pine trees.

After Yueyang, I came back to Jishou midweek to avoid the holiday crush on the trains and buses. On the way, I got an invitation to visit Sangzhi 桑植, a county near the tourist city of Zhangjiajie 张家界, two hours from Jishou. Sangzhi has two principal tourist sites: the home of the revolutionary He Long and JiuTian Cave. We visited both.

He Long was a contemporary of Mao Zedong, also a Hunan native. After the founding of Communist China in 1949, He Long became a high ranking member of the government, but his progressive ideas ran him afoul of the party members responsible for the Cultural Revolution. He was imprisoned in 1966 as a counter-revolutionary, and died at age 74 three years later, still in prison. It wasn’t until 2009, forty years after his death, that He Long was given an official state funeral and burial. His home in Sangzhi is now a national shrine, and a small museum has been built alongside it.

JiuTian Cave is advertised as China’s “Number 1” cave, but in fact it’s not the largest or longest. It’s the fourth karst cave I’ve visited in this part of China, and I have to say the previous three, especially HuangLong Cave in Zhangjiajie, are better. They all feature garish multi-colored lighting and formations that resemble animals, vegetables or famous figures in history and legend. On the day we visited, the cave was as usual cool and damp, but the air above was warm and dry. So, when I emerged from climbing up a long set of stairs, the sunlight caught the cloud of steam rising from my head. I ran that photo a few days ago.

I was back in Jishou the next day, giving me a day to recuperate, wash my clothes and prepare for the eight classes I had to teach on Saturday. I’ll write about my marathon week of teaching in the next post.

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