Nonfiction Contest Winner*

*”Clouds and Rain over Three Gorges” was listed as a Notable essay in the Best American Essays of 2015

Xujun Eberlein

Clouds and Rain over Three Gorges 

The man I’m now married to was a foreigner in 1987, when he and I took a heretical hike along the Yangtze. We went to the mountains of Wushan through which the renowned Three Gorges are carved. According to a Tang Dynasty poem,Water is hardly water after experiencing oceans / Clouds are no longer clouds apart from Wushan’s mountains. Until a dam—said to be the world’s largest—cut the Yangtze into two halves at the waist, those damned words were so poignant that they could make the stoic sentimental. As rumors of the Three Gorges Dam gathered momentum, I increasingly worried its construction might invalidate the clouds before I saw them with my own eyes. I was a graduate student living in my birthplace of Chongqing at the time. Bob, a 28-year-old visiting American scholar, had cycled across China to see me, only to be expelled by my good old compliant father, who feared it was illegal for a Chinese family to host a foreign visitor. When in doubt, kick out. For love, I chose to go with Bob, and on one August evening the two of us found ourselves at an uncharted point in Wushan’s mountains, unwary of the drama ahead.

It was near dusk when Bob and I gave up hope of finding a port, abandoning the plan to take a boat back upstream to our hotel at the county seat of Wushan. That morning, the undulating hills on the south bank had lured us to cross the Yangtze and hike downstream all day. To our surprise, we never encountered another port along the sparsely habitated riverside.

Where were we exactly? Even Bob’s omnipresent map could not give us a hint. Looking down to the left of the hilly riverside trail we’d been walking along, the vast Yangtze had unexpectedly become a thin belt. Its fast-moving waves calmed; the water appeared clear and shallow, as if one might simply paddle across. Ahead of us, amidst endless farm fields and wild vegetation, a small village could be faintly seen, our only hope of shelter for the night.

“Big brother Marx!”

At the crisp young voice, we turned. A boy of 12 or 13, pant legs rolled up to knees, mud-covered feet clad in plastic sandals, was gleefully shouting at Bob in the local vernacular similar to my own Chongqing dialect. The only connection I could think of between Bob and Karl Marx was that the former once read the latter while pursuing his Ph.D. in economics. I was pretty sure the boy knew just four foreigners, from wall pictures: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, in that order, and Marx was the one who had a beard as big as Bob’s.

Bob obviously was fond of his new name—everything in China seemed to amuse him. He smiled broadly at the boy, though I doubted the child could see it through the fluffy blond beard. I asked him where we were.

“Goddess Peak,” the boy pointed to the other side of the river. Following his finger, I looked up at tall, slim cliffs shimmering ethereally in clouds and mists, like a Chinese ink painting. Bob, whose Chinese vocabulary was severely limited, saw the perplexed look on my face and asked what it was.

“That doesn’t look like a Goddess,” I said.

Bob understood right away. “The Goddess in Mao’s poem?”

Hours earlier in the hiking, I had roughly translated for Bob a 1956 Mao poem that ends with these lines:

     Moreover, walls of stone will stand west of the river
     Cutting off Wushan’s clouds and rain
     In the high gorges appearing a placid lake
     And should the Goddess weather the years
     The changing world would certainly shock her

This poem, titled “Swimming,” is one of 37 that Mao Zedong published. They were printed in a pocket-size book with a red plastic cover, the sibling of the “little red book.” When I was ten or eleven, I ardently recited all of them. I can still recite most. My childhood reverence of Mao came largely from those majestic poems, long before my own experience taught me how the reality under his rule belied his poetry. This particular poem was regarded as a prescient blueprint for the Three Gorges Dam. Having become irreverent, I suspected that Mao got a huge kick out of writing the line “Cutting off Wushan’s clouds and rain,” because the phrase “Wushan’s clouds and rain” was an ancient allusion to having sex, almost as if Mao had in mind the image of cutting off some man’s genitals. But I did not say that to Bob, partly because it was indecent for a Chinese woman to speak such things, partly because my English was not up to the task.

I was upset by the government’s plan to build the Three Gorges Dam, not for the scientific reasons that concerned other, more erudite and environmentally conscious, protestors, but because of the area’s cultural significance. Three Gorges is the font of China’s ancient myths. Once the so-called “world’s number-one dam” was built, all the beauty and legends of the region would forever be drowned. It was a most destructive idea, all because some leader wanted to realize the lines of Mao’s poem from three decades earlier, or to have his own name carved in concrete.

The village the boy led us to had stone steps running up between some dirt-walled single-story houses, all built into the hill.  Above them stood the “Goddess Peak Inn,” the only two-story wooden house.  The middle-aged innkeeper, with clothes cleaner than those of the farmers, stopped moving his limbs at the sight of Bob.

“Please, do you have rooms?” I had to ask twice.

“We’ve never received a foreigner before,” he finally said. “Don’t know if we’re allowed to.”

He sent the boy, who jauntily bounced out, to get instructions from the village chief. A while later the chief, a dark-skinned old farmer with somber eyes, appeared. He and the innkeeper took turns grilling me with questions, and then huddled in a corner whispering.

“You two must sleep in separate rooms,” the innkeeper told us, “our chief said so.”

What he had said was at the same time absurd and alarming, since Bob and I had never planned to stay in the same room—more out of fear than for virtuous reasons. Among Chinese males I knew, one tireless topic was how police ambush and catch a pair in bed having an affair. A week earlier in Guizhou, a remote province, Bob and I had checked into two separate rooms at a state-run hotel. Moments after we entered Bob’s room together and closed the door, a middle-aged receptionist kicked it open and bolted in. Apparently she had expected to catch us in bed so she could seize and deliver us to the police. I can still remember her eyes, covetous and menacing like a vigilant tiger, and her angry breathing at missing such a dramatic opportunity: Bob and I were doing nothing but chatting. A few days later in a crowded overnight train to Hubei, our seats hidden behind standing passengers jostling each other for position, I leaned on Bob’s shoulder to steal a quick nap. But the conductor patrolling the train spotted Bob’s big beard right away. He called me into his tiny office at the front of the car and scolded, “What were you doing leaning on a foreign man, young lady? Do you have no sense of shame?” His tone, however, was more that of a serious older brother teaching a naïve sister; it made me confess that the foreigner was my boyfriend. He paused a moment in disbelief, then said, “Even so, it’s improper for a Chinese girl to lean on a foreign man in public. Don’t you lose face for us Chinese!” and sent me back to my seat. For the rest of the train trip I maintained Chinese propriety.  Later, the conductor came again to give preferential treatment to Bob the foreigner, selling us two sleeping-car tickets—which we had been told were “sold out.”

Sex had been a big taboo in 1970s China during the Cultural Revolution. That taboo was gradually fading in the 1980s, but the liberalization did not extend to a relationship involving a foreigner. Foreigners, especially Westerners, were clothed in a completely different set of rules, just as they deserved to pay much higher prices for airplanes and hotels. “Foreign” was a more persistent taboo, in whose context the sex taboo gained new strength.

After a simple country-style dinner with the usual greens and pork, which Bob and I, exhausted from hiking, relished, we went to sit on the beach to contemplate the famous clouds. Unnumbered threads of mist rose from the river, the beach, mid-mountain, and nowhere. Pink-tinged and milky white, they wove into sheets of flowing veil, gently swirling around the Goddess Peak, changing shapes as they moved. Sitting there at twilight, alone and enchanted, we did not want the moment to end.  The unnamable emotion when I first read the poem on Wushan’s clouds returned anew. I struggled to render the ancient poem in English, but the poignancy of the lines was lost in translation.

Our reverie was cut short when the ever-present boy, sent by the village chief, came to summon us. Back at the inn, the chief had brought in a crowd of similarly dark-faced men. The village had no electricity. Next to the kitchen, in a large room where several oil lamps flickered, the men surrounded us and carried out an interrogation. Most of the time the chief was the sole speaker; the others just stared. Over and over he asked who Bob was and what relationship we had, and (rightly) refused to believe my claim that we were teacher and student. It did not take long for me to see all his beating-around-the-bush questions pointed to a single interest: whether the foreigner and I had had sex. The interrogation reached an impasse as I refused to answer any more questions, at which point Bob and I went upstairs to our rooms.

In the dimness of the crudely furnished room, a peasant woman sat on the cheap wooden bed across from mine, an oil lamp casting a grossly enlarged shadow of her on the wall. She did not look like a guest and she did not utter a single word. I stepped out to peek into Bob’s room, and saw a similar situation: a coarsely dressed man was sitting across the room staring at him.

“This is for your protection,” a turbid voice from behind startled me. It was the village chief. “What if the foreigner comes to your room in the middle of night?”

When I returned to my place, the peasant woman was already asleep, snoring loudly. It was still early for me, but there was nothing left to do. I blew out the lamp and went to bed.

I awoke to knocks on my door. Outside the window, the sky had only just started to turn white like a fish’s belly. The other woman was gone.

The innkeeper was standing at my door. “My wife has prepared breakfast for you two. Please eat quickly and run!” he said hastily.

His wife? The woman in my room?

“What’s wrong?”

“The chief called the county police last night,” he lowered his voice.

This was China in 1987: a remote village without electricity had a phone line and wire broadcasting. The inn housed the village’s only telephone.

“They are sending motorcycles here to arrest you. They will arrive between seven thirty and eight.”

I glanced at my wrist watch as I ran to find Bob. It was a little past six and his room was empty.

“Where’s the foreigner?” I heard panic in my voice.

Out of nowhere emerged the boy. “Big brother Marx is doing Tai-chi by the river!” he declared.

Grateful, my heart settled back in place. I couldn’t help but ask the innkeeper why he took the risk, telling us about the police. The man’s face flushed.

“You two don’t seem like bad people,” he murmured.

His voice became more urgent as he walked with me to the beach. “Don’t take the road. There’s a trail behind the inn, motorcycles can’t get onto it.”

I felt gratitude and warmth to this kind man whom I barely knew.

On a wet sandy beach at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, Bob’s long arms moved in parallel circles, slowly disturbing the thin morning fog. “Cloud hand” couldn’t have been a more fitting name for the Tai-chi movement he was clumsily performing. Across the river, the Goddess Peak was almost completely shrouded in haze and mist; more fog kept flowing out of the rift between it and the adjacent peak. The air was cool and damp, despite the toasting sun that would soon pop up.

I got Bob back to the inn for a home-style breakfast:  rice porridge, steamed buns, and pickled vegetables. We were hungry – when you are young and traveling and in love nothing can dampen your appetite. But we ate a bit faster than usual. Bob doubted police would bother to come all the way from the county seat, getting out of bed before dawn, riding motorcycles over dirt roads in the dark. “Not much of interest here,” he said. The thinking of a foreigner. Apparently he had not learned his lesson a few weeks earlier—when he cycled across China, he and his American bike were both arrested in a small town near Chongqing. He never figured out the exact reason, other than that he was a foreigner “operating a foreign vehicle.” He was released after paying a two-hundred-yuan fine, one hundred for himself and one hundred for his bike. Not a small sum at the time.

I had no doubt the police would arrive—arresting people was the thrilling part of their job, arresting a Chinese woman with a foreign man even more so—but I wondered what had made the village chief inform on us. It seemed that the improbable event of a foreigner in his village had stimulated all kinds of fantasy for him, one of those probably a promotion opportunity, a departure from the backwater.

Bob and I argued a bit about what to do, and decided to run in the end. We did not have much time to waste on the police nonsense: Bob’s visa was about to expire. The gleeful boy watched us eat the country food and argue in English, tilting his head with a cat-like curiosity. Bob asked him if he’d like to have a steamed bun. “Eaten,” he said.

The boy gladly took the innkeeper’s instruction, brought us to the back of the inn, and showed us the trail. We said goodbye, and I wondered when the police came if he would be showing them, with the same cheerfulness, the path we took to escape.

Bob and I walked quickly downstream, stamping on wild grass, the morning dew wetting our shoes. I didn’t feel the need to run; it was still early and, as the innkeeper had said, this trail was too narrow for motorcycles. When it passed eight and we hadn’t seen a single soul or heard any man-made sound other than our own footsteps and occasional conversation, it gave us the deceptive impression of safety.

For a long while Goddess Peak remained in sight, though the angle slowly changed. I kept looking up at the clouds that engulfed it; they were thinning out a bit.

Bob’s eyes were also on the mist. “Clouds and rain—a curious name for sex,” he said.

That euphemism originated sometime during China’s Warring States Period, coined by Song Yu (301-240 BC) in a pair of prose poems describing the immortal Goddess’ encounters with two successive kings of the Chu Kingdom, first the father and then the son. In the first piece, “Gaotang,” the old king is traveling through Wushan. He drifts off midday, and the Goddess comes to his dream “offering her pillow mat.” He rejoices at the opportunity to bestow imperial favor on her. On departure, the Goddess tells him where she can be found again: she is “clouds at dawn, rain at dusk.” In the second piece, “The Goddess,” the son travels to Wushan after his father deceases, accompanied by the poet, who tells him the “clouds and rain” story. The young king fancies about reproducing his father’s romantic encounter. Sure enough, the Goddess comes into his dream, too. But despite her apparent attraction to the son of her lover, the Goddess gently rejects the young king’s pursuit.

Thus the Goddess became symbolic of a chaste lover. The image of chastity had been steadfast in Wushan’s mountains for more than two thousand years, and only recently began to be challenged—by a female poet no less. Shu Ting, an older contemporary of mine, visited the Goddess Peak in 1981, six years before we did. Her widely cheered poem “Goddess Peak” ends with these two lines:

     Either on the precipice displayed for a thousand years
     Or better, one night’s good cry on a lover’s shoulder

Shu Ting’s poem broke a number of taboos: a woman openly alluding to a sexual relationship, placing love above chastity, valuing temporary pleasure more than the perpetual, and cherishing the human instead of the ideal.

But she did not have a foreign lover, and had not been writing about one.

Bob’s foreignness became increasingly lost on me since he first said “I love you” a few months earlier. Despite the mutual attraction, my impulsive response to his declaration was, “But you are a foreigner!”

“I’m a man; you are a woman,” he replied, apparently baffled by my line of reasoning. His words gave me pause. It did not occur to me he needed to say such an obvious thing, but then, it did not occur to me it was obvious before he said it. I’m talking about the position of the person versus the country.

As we hiked, and the rising August sun baked our hatless heads, Bob endured his thirst and let me drink most of the water. Of course, I was the one who was talking, telling him ancient myths about the Yangtze in choppy English. Despite the endless clouds and mist, the only drinkable water we had was in a one-and-a-half liter military canteen. The timeworn green vessel was a relic from the Cultural Revolution era, when every youngster, boy or girl, longed to be a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, eager to liberate the three suffering quarters of the world, the material deficiencies of our own quarter notwithstanding. In those years of empty stores and barren shelves, when you couldn’t buy the things you needed, you could always find that canteen.  This one, forgotten in my parents’ house for years, came in handy for our hiking trip.

I had filled the canteen with boiled water that morning at the Goddess Peak Inn, but it soon proved insufficient for two hikers under the scorching sun, and we had not found another supply. For several hours, walking along the mountain paths, we had passed only a few small villages, a handful of houses in each. So when we suddenly came upon a tiny port in early afternoon, I skipped and Bob whistled, anticipating a boat ride returning to Wushan. Alas, in order to go upstream we had to go further downstream, and a sampan landed us in the nearest civilization a couple of hours later.

It was a languid summer afternoon in a good-sized town called Badong. Children played on the dusty streets, men an