Daily Archives: 11 February 2007

China Train Trips: Via Nanjing to Jingdezhen

After an idyllic few days in Hangzhou during our Chinese New Year getaway vacation in 1988, the Far Outliers boarded a train for Nanjing, sitting on hard-class seats. We had decided to bypass Shanghai, which was dealing with a cholera outbreak. But throngs of people were heading in that direction anyway. The crowd on the way to the wickets and platform was so closely packed that we were afraid our two-year-old daughter might fall and get trampled.

We arrived in Nanjing that evening and found rooms at a somewhat dilapidated grand hotel a short taxi ride from the train station. The weather was foggy and rainy and the streets were snowy and wet, so instead of walking the city the next morning, we killed time in the warmth and luxury of the Jinling Hotel, trying not to spend any dollars. For lunch, we walked down the street to a place specializing in Mongolian hotpot (lit. ‘firepot’, 火鍋 or 火锅 huoguo), where we could spend renminbi.

Although the hotel complex overlooked the Yangtze River, thick fog prevented us from ever seeing either the river or the bridge. However, we did spend a lot of time listening to languages from all over the world in the sprawling lobby. One lady we chatted with challenged us to identify the language she was speaking with her friends. Her intonation sounded Scandinavian, but I couldn’t recognize any Germanic cognates, so I correctly guessed Finnish. She was sure I had relied on nonlinguistic clues.

As soon as we had arrived in Nanjing, we had booked soft-class sleeper tickets to
Jingdezhen for the following day, then sent a telegram to our friends awaiting us there. They were fellow teachers at Sunwen College in Zhongshan City in Guangdong Province, who had provided me with a Chinese-character telegram template into which I was to write the day and time of our arrival. The telegram worked fine. I felt sorry for the clerk who had to translate each character into a 4-digit Chinese telegraph code for transmission, but she had probably memorized most of the codes for times and well-used place names.

Jingdezhen in 1988 (pictured above) was a muddy, gray, dilapidated industrial city without any tourist hotels that we noticed, despite its long-standing fame for producing some of the finest porcelain in China. It gave us a feel for what life was like away from the coastal cities and a bit off the beaten track. Our friends had arranged for us to stay at a guesthouse for visiting delegations and they gave us a walking tour of their hometown. Among the things that struck me as we walked past storefronts were tinsmiths that repaired pots and pans, and television vendors offering video games on black-and-white sets. But there were also a large number of porcelain shops as well as street vendors selling “factory seconds,” from whom we bought several small vases and tea sets with hand-painted designs.

Among the highlights of our visit was the chance to share lunch and xiuxi (‘rest time’) in the home of one set of parents near the city hospital where they worked, and dinner in the home of the other set at the edge of town across the river. The father, who had only seen Americans on Korean battlefields, was overcome with emotion when recounting his experiences. Only my youngest uncle served in the Korean War—as a sailor aboard a submarine tender. (All my older uncles, except the eldest, served in World War II, but only one served in the Pacific.)

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Pamuk on Religion and the Secular Elite

My first trip to a mosque helped confirm my prejudices about religion in general and Islam in particular. It was almost by chance: One afternoon when there was no one home, Esma Hanım took me off to the mosque without asking anyone’s permission; she was not so much burning with a need to worship as tired of being inside. At Teşvikiye Mosque we found a crowd of twenty or thirty people—mostly owners of the small shops in the back streets or maids, cooks, and janitors who worked for the rich families of Nişantaşı; as they gathered on the carpets, they looked less like a congregation of worshipers than a group of friends who had gathered to exchange notes. As they waited for the prayer time, they gossiped with one another in whispers. As I wandered among them during prayers, running off to the far corners of the mosque to play my games, none of them stopped to scold; instead, they smiled at me in the same sweet way most adults smiled at me when I was a young child. Religion may have been the province of the poor, but now I saw that—contrary to the caricatures in newspapers and my republican household—religious people were harmless.

Nevertheless, I was given to understand by the high-handed ridicule directed at them in the Pamuk Apartments that their good-hearted purity carried a price. It was making the dream of a modern, prosperous, westernized Turkey more difficult to achieve. As westernized, positivist property owners, we had the right to govern over these semiliterates, and we had an interest in preventing their getting too attached to their supersititions—not just because it suited us privately but because our country’s future depended on it. If my grandmother discovered that an electrician had gone off to pray, even I could tell that her sharp comment had less to do with the small repair job he had left unfinished than with the “traditions and practices” that were impeding “our national progress.”

The staunch disciples of Atatürk who dominated the press, their caricatures of black-scarved women and bearded reactionaries fingering prayer beads, the school ceremonies in honor of the Martyrs of the Republican Revolution—all reminded me that the nation-state belonged more to us than to the religious poor, whose devotion was dragging the rest of us down with them. But feeling at one with the mathematics and engineering fanatics in our own household, I would tell myself that our mastery did not depend on our wealth but on our modern western outlook. And so I looked down on families that were as rich as we were but not as western. Such distinctions became less tenable later on, when Turkey’s democracy had matured somewhat and rich provincials began flocking to Istanbul to present themselves to “society”; by then my father’s and my uncle’s business failures had taken their toll, subjecting us to the indignity of being outclassed by people who had no taste for secularism and no understanding of western culture. If enlightenment entitled us to riches and privilege, how were we to explain these pious parvenus? (At the time I knew nothing about the refinements of Sufism or the Mevlana or the great Persian heritage.) For all I knew, the new class denounced as “rich peasants” by the political left held views no different from those of our chauffeurs and cooks. If Istanbul’s westernized bourgeoisie gave support to the military interventions of the past forty years, never strenuously objecting to military interference in politics, it was not because it feared a leftist uprising (the Turkish left in this country has never been strong enough to achieve such a feat); rather, the elite’s tolerance of the military was rooted in the fear that one day the lower classes would combine forces with the new rich pouring in from the provinces to abolish the westernized bourgeois way of life under the banner of religion. But if I dwell any longer on military coups and political Islam (which has much less to do with Islam than is commonly thought), I risk destroying the hidden symmetry of this book.

SOURCE: Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006), pp. 181-183

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