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China’s Spectral State
Tradition and Modernity, 2021 (Bill Wilson Studio)

Yunnan, 1914

It is summertime in the lush hill country of southwestern China, and the air is suffused with a damp mist and with the discordant songs of cicadas and laughing-thrushes. Here, in this teeming, preternatural paradise, we encounter the Mission archéologique Segalen-Voisins-Lartigue as it wends its way through the chasmic intermontane valleys and verdant terraced hillsides of Yunnan province, cataloguing at every opportunity the mausolea, tumuli, and other ancient monuments that have for centuries lain half-buried in the undergrowth. With the aid of their guides and porters, the three Frenchmen after whom the expedition is named — Victor Segalen, Gilbert de Voisins, and Jean Lartigue, all students of the celebrated Sinologist Émmanuel-Édouard Chavannes — painstakingly ascend from tropical to subtropical to alpine zones, traversing the broad strips of moss-cloaked forest that separate what the aboriginal Hani people of the Ailao Mountains distinguish as the “human space” and the “ghost space.” Victor Segalen has no qualms about delving into this spectral realm, pregnant with history. Indeed the very point of his journey, as he will later recount in his epic travelogue Equipée: Pékin aux marches tibétaines, published posthumously in 1929, is to survey the literal and symbolic terrain that “divides into two polar opposites: what has been done. And what is to come.”

If we are to make any progress in understanding the age-old Chinese confrontation between tradition and modernity, between the dead and the living, between the shades that haunt the Chinese diyu, or “earth-prison,” and the exorcists, well-meaning or otherwise, who seek to banish the ghosts of the past, we would do well to fall in behind Segalen as he plunges ever deeper into the unknown.

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It was at one crucial juncture of that expedition, in a locale nestled against the steep slope of an obscure Yunnan valley, that Segalen chanced to find himself walking along the dividing line between what has been done and what is to come. The archaeologist had been strolling through the Village of the White Salt Mines, a “great market town,” and then down a “mossy, dead road that no one seems to take anymore,” when he met a party of graybeards coiffed in Ming-era chignons instead of Manchu-style braided queues and wearing skirted, flowing robes instead of plain-sewn Ch’ing-era changshans. “These people,” Segalen marveled, “are from another era … living as though it were three hundred years back in time,” with their “drawn-out Ming gestures, the style and ancestral bearing that goes back six or seven generations to the old Ming dynasty. Gestures that were long ago captured, glazed and fired onto Ming porcelain.” Surrounded by these living fossils, the Frenchman was told that he had stumbled upon Hei-yen-ch’ang, the “Ancient Town of Black Salt Pits,” an “elusive sub-prefecture the history books declared was destroyed in ages past,” a sort of long-lost yīn to the modern village’s mundane yáng. Segalen had run across this mysterious place previously, albeit in a dusty tome that alluded to a town said to “have fallen” and to “no longer exist,” its “prefectural rank downgraded, the city destroyed by order.” The elderly gentlemen arrayed before Segalen existed all the same; they were, by all appearances, descendants of the quixotic generalissimo Wu San-kuei, self-proclaimed emperor of the “Great Zhou Dynasty,” the “King Who Pacifies the West,” and the strongman best known for a foolhardy rebellion against his Ch’ing masters. Wu had perished back in 1678, his cadaver torn into strips and scattered to the four winds by a vengeful K’ang-hsi Emperor. Wu’s heirs, it would seem, had secreted themselves rather more securely in the rugged hills of Yunnan.

Segalen knew to tread lightly, familiar as he was with the Ch’in- era poet T’ao Yüan-ming’s beloved story “The Peach Blossom Spring,” which told the story of a Wu-ling fisherman who, like the French scholar, came upon a hidden settlement where “imposing buildings stood among rich fields and pleasant ponds all set with mulberry and willow,” where “the air was filled with drifting peachbloom,” and where “white-haired elders and tufted children alike were cheerful and contented.” The enigmatic inhabitants of the spring explained how their forebears, “fleeing from the troubles of the age of Ch’in, had come with their wives and neighbors to this isolated place, never to leave it. From that time on they had been cut off from the outside world. They asked what age was this: they had never even heard of the Han, let alone its successors the Wei and the Chin.” The astounding story ended with a stern admonition: “Do not speak of us to the people outside.” To do so would inevitably prove fatal to the community’s blissful repose, and to its very survival. Segalen intuitively understood that the denizens of Hei-yen-ch’ang must likewise be shielded from the knowledge that their culture had, unbeknownst to them, been cruelly disfeatured, subjected by the invading Manchu to the same abuse as the carcass of Wu San-kuei, and that now

every man in the Empire today is subjugated, forced to let his hair grow down to his ankles! And they would know that all the others had had their throats slit. They would know that their right to live has expired, that their lifestyle is invalid, that their city, once proclaimed in law, is now declassified, no longer legally exists, is no longer considered necessary. Perhaps these gentle, trembling old men would crumble into dust at my feet.

As an archaeologist and a medical doctor by training, Segalen was mindful of the fragility of cultures and individuals in an inhospitable world, and of the ineluctability of decay and destruction in this vale of earthly life. In his 1912 poem “To the Ten Thousand Years,” he lamented how “nothing stationary escapes the hungry teeth of time,” but trusted that “the immutable dwells not within your walls, but in you, the slow men, the continuous men,” men like the mysterious elders of Hei-yen-ch’ang.

And so Segalen beat a hasty retreat, leaving the people of the Ancient Town of Black Salt Pits to their devices. He told his colleagues that his encounter had merely been “a dream of the walk, a dream of the road, as I slumber on two lolling feet, drunk with fatigue, at the end of this stage of my journey.” So Segalen’s story was either a reverie brought on by over-exhaustion, an antiquarian’s fever dream, or it was a brush with the supernatural, like so many in Chinese literature (visits by envoys from the Country of Drifting Ghosts, shopping trips to midnight spectral markets by the sea margin, and other vignettes that fill such spine-chilling collections as Feng Menglong’s Stories to Caution the World or Pu Singling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio). In any event, Segalen had conjured up a tale worthy of T’ao Yüan-ming, and though he could be accused of toying with his readers, it had been with a definite purpose in mind. The people of the Ancient Town of Black Salt Pits did exist, though their polity was downgraded and destroyed by the merciless K’ang-hsi Emperor. Is the name really all that remains? Or is there something more we can still glean from the ghostly utterances of the men of Hei-yen-ch’ang? Their voices, thin and reedy though they may be after all those years lost in the wilderness, still carry over the hills of Yunnan.

Peking, 1949

It is thirty-five years later, and much has changed in the span of a mere generation. Victor Segalen is dead; the last emperor, Puyi, has been ejected from the Forbidden City; the Ancient Town of Black Salt Pits has again succumbed to obscurity; and the Chinese Communist Revolution has been unleashed. The depredations of the Ch’in or Ch’ing will pale in comparison with the enormities to come. “Nothing collapses more quickly than civilization during crises,” wrote Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and “lost in three weeks is the accomplishment of centuries. Civilization, life itself, is something learned and invented … After several years of peace men forget it all too easily. They come to believe that culture is innate, that it is identical with nature. But savagery is always lurking two steps away, and it regains a foothold as soon as one stumbles.” Victor Segalen appreciated just how quickly a fire stoked for centuries could be snuffed out in an instant, as did another western Sinophile, the American David Kidd, author of Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China, who memorably described the sad end met by a collection of bronze incense burners once possessed by the Ming Dynasty’s Hsüan Te Emperor, a poignant reminder of the tragedy of cultural genocide.

When Kidd and his Chinese wife, Aimee, moved into the Yu family mansion in Peking in that fateful year of 1949, they found the building’s Eastern Study crammed full of precious artifacts ranging from silver fingernail guards and gold-filigreed snuff jars to black lacquer zithers and rosebud-painted spittoons. None of the curios, however, possessed even a fraction of the value of the seventeen bronze incense burners proudly displayed therein. As Aimee explained, it was during in the reign of the Hsüan Te Emperor that “one of the palace buildings, in which were many gold images, burned to the ground. The building was a complete loss, its smoking ruins later yielding up only numerous lumps of melted gold.” By sheer happenstance a tribute from Burma had arrived at that very moment, providing a windfall of red copper, and then another shipment from Turkestan, laden with ground rubies, followed suit. One of Hsüan Te’s officials, sensing a certain serendipity, counseled that all was not lost. “May it please your Majesty,” the mandarin said,

gold is no more or less valuable than its market price. Copper ore, unrefined, is no better than the common soil with which the empire abounds. Even ground rubies, although of some medicinal value, can be put to use only occasionally. However, mixed together by the alchemist’s art, and combined with various other substances that are also plentiful and at hand, bronze objects of unexcelled beauty can be created. As there is no greater evidence of virtue than the proper observance of rites and ceremonies, and as the palace is at the moment in great need of incense burners, I take my life in my hands and tremblingly suggest that Your Majesty order the most skilled artisans to produce incense burners with these ingredients.

The resulting objets d’art were “each more beautiful than the last.” Some were red, others “speckled with iridescent green or with twinkling bits of ruby or gold”; one “had a smooth gold surface, incredibly bright and shining.” But the value of the Ming-era burners went far beyond mere aesthetics.

Kidd was astonished to discover that these incense pots, forged in the fifteenth century, had never completely cooled. Hard as it may be to believe, thousands of minuscule bricks of charcoal, one after the other, had been kept smoldering for five centuries, filling the rooms of the imperial palace, and then the Yu mansion, with an intoxicating scent. When Aimee produced a burner from the cabinet, one “of exquisite shape, but of a dull, brassy color,” she demonstrated how “once the burner is allowed to grow entirely cold, the color fades and no later heat can bring it back.” The effect of this revelation on Kidd was profound, all the more so given the presence of iconoclastic communists just outside the mansion gates. It was a memento mori of sorts:

The cold, empty-bellied little incense pot seemed tragic to me. Because I knew what it must have been like when it was alive, I could see that it was dead, and I was able to understand for the first time that the rooms in which I lived, the tiny ivory shovel, the porcelain wine cups, and the silk-stringed harp were dead as well. Never having seen them alive, I had failed to see that this was so.

Within a matter of days, a vindictive servant doused the burners with water, leaving the pots “the color of a brass doorknob.” Aimee was “completely demoralized,” and Kidd himself was “staggered … not only at the thought of the beauty that had been destroyed but at the idea of five centuries of tending and firing wiped out in the space of seconds. The incense burners were no longer an anachronism in these rooms. The last illusion of a link with the past had been broken, and all the emperor’s horses and all the emperor’s men couldn’t put the old China together again.” The symbolism was almost too on the nose — a somber end to the dazzling glories of imperial China, a harbinger of the brutal oppression that would attend Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and a stark lesson in the constancy of impermanence. The endless struggle sessions, purges, religious persecutions, ransacked museums and manor houses, environmental catastrophes, and tens of millions of corpses made the same point, though on a far more ruinous scale.

Yunnan, 1959

Ten years on, and the Great Leap Forward has arrived at the isolated village of Zhizuo. The local communist party committee has launched the “Sputnik Field Movement,” named after the Soviet satellite and designed to “destroy superstition, create miracles, and release the suppression of sputniks throughout the land,” whatever that meant. A local informant by the name of Li Zhilin later asked the anthropologist Erik Mueggler, who was studying the indigenous Yi people of the Baicaolin Mountains, “Why did working all day and all night produce so little food?” Li answered his own question: “It was to produce words.” Mueggler interpreted this to mean that “the state was an empty mouth crying out in hunger for words and grain, driving men and women to labor ceaselessly to satisfy its exacting and mutable palate. It was a spectral state.” Superstition, if you insist on calling it that, was not destroyed but reinforced. The regime, shocked by the tenacity with which people clung to the old ways, redoubled its efforts against political, cultural, and religious conservatives, deriding them as niugui sheshen, “cow monsters and snake demons,” or as devils, vampires, monsters, and apparitions. “Mao Zedong Thought” was termed a zhaoyao jing, a “demon-exposing mirror.” Villagers, meanwhile, cleverly learned to distinguish between so-called black gu, “wild ghost officials,” and white gu, “wild ghost victims.”

Another of Mueggler’s informants, Li Wenyi, explained how “the black gu are sent down from the sky. They are wild ghost officials who kill live, healthy people, destroying them with hunger or suicide. Their victims are the white gu. These are ordinary wild ghosts who wander the earth with no power to kill; they afflict with illness, but they don’t kill. When you speak to them, you address first the black gu, then the white gu, one after another.” Such beliefs understandably flourished in places like Chezò village, where during the Great Leap Forward seventy-five of the six hundred residents starved to death, and others languished in forced labor camps, while the Party cadres notoriously “ate meat, eggs, and honey.” Those who died were condemned to “wander the fields and paths; they waylay their descendants and demand gifts of grain and meat; they are always starving, always greedy. These days we perform exorcism after exorcism, far more than ever before. But few exorcisms are successful for long; those ghosts keep coming back, and their descendants keep falling ill. That is why some call this the age of wild ghosts” — a fitting name for our epoch.

The Cultural Revolution came to a nominal end in 1976, but the campaign of cultural destruction never really stopped. Consider the fate of a modern-day “Peach Blossom Source,” located near the confluence of the Zhangjiang and Gongjiang rivers in China’s southeastern province of Jiangxi, where lies the island of Taohua, or “Peach Blossom.” Part of the Dahu River Water Golden Tourism Course, the islet is a popular sight-seeing destination, particularly when the orchards are in bloom, providing a hint of what T’ao Yüan- ming’s hidden spring might have looked like in its prime. The nearby Taohua village, clinging to the banks of the Minjiang River, is a humble hamlet, inhabited by refugees from the Wan’an hydropower station reservoir project. Back in 2017, these villagers, in an outpouring of filial piety, cobbled together around one million renminbi (around $140,000) to be put towards refurbishing the ancestral hall of the Luo clan. Within three years, this charming traditional hall, with its gleaming white walls and multi-inclined vermilion roof, would be gratuitously torn down by local communist authorities.

Early in the morning of May 1, 2020, as reported by the online magazine Bitter Winter, “Over 300 police officers in dozens of vehicles were dispatched to Taohua village,” where “they cordoned off two roads leading to the hall, preventing anyone from approaching to prevent the demolitions, and blocked communication signals in the village. In a few hours, the building was leveled to the ground.” Other ancestral halls, including the Cai clan hall in Ningbo city and the ancestral hall in Yantai, have been spared outright destruction only by their conversion into propaganda bases. “The government demanded to convert the ancestral hall into an exhibition center promoting the Communist Party, or it would be shut down,” one Yantai local complained. “This used to be a place to remember ancestors, but the government ordered Party members from surrounding villages and institutions to study there. This is controlling people’s thoughts.”

“Of all the human soul’s needs,” Simone Weil argued, “none is more vital than … the past.” But the past is now being systematically eradicated all across China. In Xinjiang, mosques are demolished and provocatively replaced by public toilets; in southern Mongolia, students are forbidden from learning their traditional script; in Henan province, the four-faced Guanyin statue atop Qingfeng Mountain, built in 2012 to replace a predecessor lost to the Cultural Revolution, came tumbling down once again in April 2020; and in Shanxi province, the Shrine of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows was knocked down in the autumn of 2019 because “it had too many crosses and statues.” These are but a few examples, which must be viewed with a wide lens that also includes the sprawling internment camps, prison farms, and infamous laogai, all filled to the brim with Uighur dissidents, members of the Church of Almighty God, or those simply caught in possession of religious books or audio Bible players.

What is left after such a comprehensive and long- lasting campaign of cultural and spiritual destruction? László Krasznahorkai, in his book Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, an evocative account of the decline of Chinese traditional culture, cites the calligrapher Tang Xiaodu, who in his own telling

grew up in a world, after Mao, in which nothing was important. We had no clear goals. My generation’s way of thinking really oversimplified things. We were indifferent to everything. And we did not confront the real problems. What was essential in the ancient world was that everything we call culture was somehow applicable to everyday life: How can poetry, music, painting, calligraphy be made personal, transmuted into the essence of everyday life, that is, how can all this become life itself — will it become my life, in the final analysis, and am I capable of leading my life according to the concepts of a highly refined tradition? In ancient tradition, art, philosophy and life were not sharply differentiated. In today’s world, the connection between tradition and everyday life has been shattered.

Without these traditions, Chinese public life threatens to become one long quagmire of technocratic sludge, marked by an intrusive social credit system, the all-seeing panopticon of the surveillance state (typified by the “Sharp Eyes” project, with its “full coverage and no dead ends” both outside and even inside homes), monumental corruption, scholarship subjected to the utterly Orwellian Central Network Information Office Reporting Center for Illegal and Undesirable Information, a proliferation of valueless “ghost cities,” fatal levels of pollution, and a demographic crisis that will produce a society with as many eighty-five-year-olds as eighteen-year-olds in a matter of decades. None of these developments are unique to China, which, for all its “advanced socialist culture,” is merely leading the way as the manufactory and economic engine of sterile modernity. GDP growth is not spiritual growth, and the human soul will always need the past, and the stability of timeworn traditions, to situate itself in the present and maintain any hope for the future. This immutable truth is one China will eventually have to confront, as will the rest of the world.

Yunnan, 1914

It is only fitting that we end this journey in the company of Victor Segalen, who soon after his retreat from the Black Salt Pit wound up in a lonely valley featuring what seemed like a statue, albeit one eroded down to a “shapeless sandstone lump.” “All its contours,” Segalen despaired, “have disappeared, all the living lines have fled. This place is unsparing. This really is it, more disappeared than lost, for the forms that gave it life have departed, been licked away and absorbed; all that is left is a pebble, matter, coarse-grained sandstone.” He could have moved on, but instead he lingered in that harsh place and began to sketch the relic, “with almost superstitious reverence, and out of habit.” Gradually the lost outline of the statue began to reappear in his notebook — it was a Han-era tiger, with its “supine body,” “vigorous torso,” and “arched neck,” notable for its “collar- bone’s haughty recoil.” “The appearance of an ancient shape as it emerges out of a dull block of stone,” Segalen understood then, “is a magical, logical evocation,” replicating the “movements made by the original sculptor in another time, as he struggled with deliberate taps of the chisel on the faithless stone — efforts the stone did not bother to preserve.” “This,” he concluded, “is how I succeed in carving the fluctuating fortunes of the worn stone once again, giving it substance in this pure imaginary space. The harder of the two is not the perfidious sandstone.” For a moment it was just as if, say, one of the Hsüan Te incense burners were glowing once again.

What we know has been lost, or nearly lost, can still be reconstituted or rescued. What we do not even know to be lost — the unknown unknown — is necessarily gone for good. Such is the true horror of cultural destruction, which forever impoverishes our collective cultural patrimony, leaving us in a state of benighted ignorance, vulnerable to the vulgar appeal of barbarism and despotism. Even the most unprepossessing lump of sandstone may represent an invaluable bequest from generations past. Victor Segalen struggled to forestall the disintegration of these relics while warning us of how, without intervention, “faithless stone” will steadily erode until any vestige of its former glory has dissolved and its “living lines have fled,” leaving only an “unsparing place.” We have largely failed to heed his advice. Today there are no hidden paths to the Peach Blossom Spring, no mossy roads to the Black Salt Pits. There remains only that perilous line separating “what has been done” and “what is to come,” and the corrective voices of white ghosts, and black ghosts too, guiding us along, if only we would listen.

Victor Segalen’s own living lines fled on May 21, 1919, in the rock-strewn Breton forest of Huelgoat, not far from a place called la grotte du diable, “the devil’s grotto.” The Sinologist died, the coroner concluded, “under mysterious circumstances,” and whether his end was self-inflicted or per misadventure will never be known. By his side lay an empty goblet, a pocket watch — stopped precisely at midday, the ancient “hot and holy hour of ghosts” — and an open copy of Hamlet. One last ghost story, appropriately enough:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

Even in our secular age, we remain haunted by the past and bedeviled by the spectral state. But the indigenous Yi people of Yunnan, among others, have come through to the other side, the ever-present menace of wild ghost officials notwithstanding, and to this day they sing:

His ears are millstones
His eyeballs stars
His arms iron pillars
His fingers iron bars

When you meet him
That king of death
Don’t you hesitate
Don’t be afraid.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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