Life in Peking wasn’t all studies. I did much wandering around town on my own. Anyone who liked walls would have loved Peking. We lived behind walls. There was the massive, 12-meter thick outer wall that everyone had to pass through when they entered the city. Then there was a second wall which enclosed the Tartar City, and within that a third wall around the Imperial City. And in the very center of all these walls was another wall; it enclosed the grandest site of them all-Forbidden City.
There were still other walls, like the Whispering Wall of China, a true masterpiece of masonry. You could stand with your ear to the wall and talk to a friend a half mile away. Well, almost. A place I liked to visit was the Temple of Heaven, and it too had a wall around it. In the very center of the marble courtyard was a circular stone and when you stood there, you could hear your own echo while no one else could.
At the university, however, things were not going well with my history and literature classes. The idea behind my attending these classes was not so much for me to study Chinese history and literature as it was for me to practice speaking Chinese. When students in these classes learned that I spoke English, they were very anxious to converse with me. It was the only chance they had to practice their English. As a result, they were learning English and I wasn’t practicing my Chinese. There weren’t many foreigners who spoke Chinese, other than the White Russians, and that was only because of necessity. French used to be the international language, and now it was English. I tried to reason why few Americans speak foreign languages, and the only reason I could come up with was Americans and Englishmen simply refuse to be bothered with another tongue. And why should they? Everyone else is determined to speak English. I guess we can just blame it on laziness.
Nevertheless, I was enjoying meeting all the Chinese students and conversing with them. However, I had to know where to draw the line. Some students wanted to argue and debate issues, and with them I had to be careful. They knew more about politics, governments and economic systems, but I was learning. The more time I spent in Peking, the better equipped I would be to meet with Mrs. Djung and her daughters. In the meantime, students wanted to debate with me and arguments erupted, like the time I mentioned that I had explored the hutongs by myself.
To the students, the hutongs were a forbidden area. I didn’t agree. The fact was in less than a month of living within the walls of Peking, I had learned my way around the city along Hattaman Street and gradually I had spread out into the maze of these back alleys called hutongs. “You can’t go into the hutongs alone,” Su Fung said to me when she heard that I had been there. The other students agreed.
“Why, ’cause I’ll get lost?” I asked.
“No, because it’s unsafe. The hutongs are Peking’s underworld. Anything can happen.”
Like all Chinese, Su Fung and most other students had their opinions, but none of them had been to the hutongs. “You are voicing only what you have heard,” I said. “Why don’t you come with me and see for yourself?”
This is where the argument started. “Why do you want to go to the hutongs?” they asked.
Like Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, I replied, “Because it’s there.”
The students could not accept my premise- because it’s there. “That’s the trouble with you Americans, you want to be the first to do something because no one else has done it. What is your purpose?”
“Because we are adventurers. We like to explore.”
“The Chinese were the first explorers. You must have heard of Admiral Cheng Ho?”
I was traveling on a narrow ledge. I couldn’t admit I knew little about their great naval hero. I said I would take up the discussion later, and hurried back to Hostel No. 3 to my history books. I hastily looked up in the index “explorations,” “fleets,” “China Seas.” Under “fleets” there was an interesting note. In 1907, US President Teddy Roosevelt sent his “Great White Fleet” around the world in a display of American might. It seems even back then they wanted to impress the Japanese. And what a fleet that was-sixteen battle ships, and 14,000 crewmembers. Wow! The fleet visited every important port in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, from Manila to Singapore and then on to Ceylon and India. Even in World War II there was not another fleet like it on the high seas.
I then came to “Chinese fleets.” There was his name, sure enough, Admiral Cheng Ho. In 1407, some 500 years before Teddy Roosevelt’s time, he set out from Canton with 62 ships and 3 7 ,000 men. He had aboard his command ship the daughter of the Emperor of China, and her 500 handmaidens, to be presented to the Sultan of Malacca for her hand in marriage. It mentioned that Admiral Cheng Ho was a Three-Jeweled Eunuch. No wonder he had everything below his belt cut off. With 500 young virgins aboard his ship, the Emperor didn’t want to take chances. That was what you call service to the Emperor.
“Yeah, I know all about Cheng Ho,” I remarked to the literature class the next day during break. “But remember, he was on an expedition for trade, backed by a rich and powerful government. I am talking about individual adventurers.” I wanted to make some wise comment about the admiral being castrated but didn’t know how defensive they might be about their cultural heritage. There were in Peking many eunuchs still alive, living within the walls of the Forbidden City. Like the subject of bound feet, this was a sore spot with students.
They would hardly agree with me. They kept pounding away with questions, and it was times like this that I wished I had Stevenson helping me out. They wanted to know why Westerners wanted to scale the peaks of the tallest mountains in the world and dive to the deepest depths of the seas. Why Westerners set off in small boats to sail around the world. It wasn’t that they were ignorant of the facts. They knew about Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world, and they even knew the name of his tiny boat Spray.
But I was making some progress. “Okay,” Su Fung said. “I’ll go to the hutongs with you, won’t we Mae Chu?”
It was bitter cold the Sunday morning we set out. The biting wind swept down from the Gobi and brought clouds of dust which made the day as dark as twilight. But this didn’t matter I explained; even in a dust storm we couldn’t get lost. There was always a wall to follow. The only traffic we had to avoid were bicycles and pedestrians. The girls were amazed. No, they were charmed. This was their town and they knew nothing about the hutongs. What excitement for them to walk through these crooked, narrow streets and meandering alleys that had no order or direction. We discovered a maze of narrow lanes, with timeworn doors, sagging lintels, shutters hanging on bent hinges, with light filtering down in shades of yellow. The shops were tiny, cubbyholes in walls. Food stalls had counters with space for only three or four stools. The food they served was inviting, freshly-made djow-dzes and noodles rolled and cut before our very eyes. The delicious smells were wild and daring, and we couldn’t resist a bowl of noodles here and a sweetmeat there. Where was the horror of the hutongs that everyone talked about? Here was the heart and soul of the city. Indeed, what horror was this, little old ladies, sitting by the wayside warming themselves in the sun that managed to break through the clouds. What harm were they, the old women of Peking, in somber dark clothing, with gold teeth that flashed when they smiled, bouncing their grandchildren and their great grandchildren on their knees. Some of these older women had bound feet. I found myself sitting with them, talking to them. They laughed and threw up their arms when I spoke Chinese to them. “This foreign devil speaks our language,” one lao taitai said and they all picked it up and joined in the laughter. It was the funniest thing she could have said. Su Fung and Mae Chu were astounded at my audacity, and I was happy that I could be showing them another side of Peking.
Before the week was out I went to Hostel No. 1 to find Melanowski but he was out for the evening. When I got back to my place, the gunny sergeant from George Company was there waiting for me. He announced he was arranging a field trip with beer and barbecue to the Great Wall the coming Sunday and had a couple Motor Pool vehicles lined up. Did I want to go? Did I ever. I had wanted to see the Great Wall ever since I heard my Uncle George talking about it back on the farm in Pennsylvania. He and my father were putting up a stone wall, and they argued about how much manpower it would take to construct a wall two thousand miles long. After our trip Sunday, I could write home and tell them all about the Great Wall. “We have plenty of room,” the gunny said, snapping me back to the present. “Bring along some of your student friends.”