An Epic Contest Between Man and Mud

James L. Tyson, the author of this essay, was one of the Monitor's correspondents in Beijing from 1987 to 1992.

DURING the rainy season in China, a traveler who descends from the high dikes along the Yangtze River into its waterlogged villages enters a dark underworld of muck. But I recently went down into the brown ooze of a village and found hog heaven and purification by mud.

I went to a small village outside Shishou seeking a better understanding of Chinese farmers, not a cleansing by mire. I wanted to learn how my host, the doctor in the village clinic, could find reconciliation with his son Kun, a friend studying in the United States.

Father and son fell out after Kun joined the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, insisting that all Chinese are obligated to fight for their freedoms. Dr. Peng, like many farmers, condemns all political activity, saying Chinese should leave politics to the Communist Party and solely devote themselves to "serving the people."

Estrangement like that between the Pengs is common among families with members who have moved from village to city, field to factory, and penury to prosperity. A visit with Kun's father would reveal how the Pengs could find common ground and perhaps suggest how China could overcome the strain of becoming a modern society.

Kun's village also offered a last chance to know intimately a countryside clouded by official propaganda and foreign misperception. During five years in China, in interviews under the mandatory watch of officials, peasants had only dared to hint at their hardship, anxieties, and anger.

During this unescorted stay at the village during the rainy season, I hoped to see farmers in soiled authenticity - free from a scouring by the totalitarian regime and the soft, shading lens of sentimentality.

During the week-long visit to the village outside Shishou, mud brought the romantic notions of party propagandist and foreign observer down-to-earth. It clung to everyone like a permanent badge of common humanity and hardship.

The story of the village is one of an epic contest between man and mud. The villagers expend much of their sweat, money, and time trying to keep the water and earth in safe, fruitful proportion. Their efforts are often in vain. A 30-foot-high dike, a rampart of earth encircling the village, occasionally gives way to the swelling and capricious shifts of the Lotus Pond River from the west and the Yangtze from the east.

The villagers can usually control the balance of water and earth in their fields, even during the rainy season from mid-June to the end of July. They regulate the water flow from the river into a creek, through the village, and into fields of jute, tangerines, plums, rice, cotton, and sweet potatoes. When heavy rains bring too much water, they pump out the fields.

Outside their fields, however, the villagers throw up their hands and abandon all but the most critical efforts to keep water at bay. Everything assumes a coat of mud: smeared, caked, swiped, smudged, or glopped. It covers children from heel to hair and chickens from feet to comb. It outfits man and beast in drab, transforming everything animate into an army of the humble and vulnerable. It seems to ooze up walls and across thresholds, reinforcing the siding and packed earth floors of the wattle-and-daub

dwellings. The sweeping bed of mud is the earth's reply to the ubiquitous cluck of chickens, quack of ducks, grunt of pigs, and the giddy, fresh, and fecund air.

To the villagers, mud symbolizes their penury and backwardness. Its coming every year reminds them of their constant helplessness before nature. A flood in 1943 swept away Dr. Peng's house and forced his family to spend a sodden, bitter winter huddled on a dike. A surge of the Yangtze in 1954 that killed 33,000 people swept away the duck flock of Mrs. Peng's father and drove her family from their ancestral home in Hunan Province.

Some villagers said they will migrate to the city of Shashi not just for higher pay but for higher ground, to rise from muck to macadam. The stark contrast in ground between village and city made Kun's differences in values with his father seem all the more extreme. It also made his jump out of the village through arduous study appear more heroic: a leap in social evolution similar to the climb from dark, primordial mire to sunny terra firma.

Despite the village's debasing mud, it was easy to be carried away by lyrical sights of man and nature, especially one morning during a 90-minute journey by foot from the Pengs' home to the village of a relative. The land offered impressions of romantic excess worthy of an ode to rural China.

Little girls with black, twinkling eyes peeked at the foreigner from the gaps in the jute webbing and caked mud of their wattle-and-daub homes. A red pony raced before us up the bank of a dike, tossed his head, and bolted into the soft mist. On high ground, we turned together toward a distant horn sounding from a ship gliding far away down the Yangtze. Across a narrow paddy, a squash vine sprouting fuzzy green leaves skimmed up the red brick wall of a farmer's dwelling and crowned the brown thatched roof

with large yellow flowers.

Further on, the song of a cuckoo and shouts of children rang from a light green grove of feathery water cedar trees. Below us, in a little meadow, a cowherd boy dozed belly down on the back of a grazing water buffalo as a bawling calf tripped to its mother. As we arrived at the Yangtze, a boy turned cartwheels on the muddy riverbank.

If the journey from the Pengs' village was a celebration of the sublime, then the return home was a revel in the ridiculous. It inauspiciously began with a steady drizzle. Great-grandmother Peng, her silvery hair glistening on the dignified black tunic worn by many elderly farm women, waved goodbye, slipped on the mud, and slid down a slope on her backside with a raucous, gap-toothed cackle.

I was next to go sliding, walking up a slope to the summit of a dike that surrounds the villages. Dr. Peng and his sister-in-law grabbed an arm each, helping me up the embankment and along the muddy homeward path. I repeatedly assured them I could walk by myself, but they gripped tighter still, eager to protect my dignity, and their own. Dr. Peng would lose face if he walked home through his village with his guest - the village's first foreign visitor - drenched in mud. I yielded to the lesser humiliatio n of letting a man 20 years my senior lead me like a wizened relative on the last journey to his ancestral home.

As we walked on in the rain without a word, our shoes seemed to mock our messy lot with an unending chorus: "Sluck, sluck, sluck...." I began to regret my visit. I had put out the Pengs, like countless round-eyed, long-nosed foreigners who have imposed on the long-suffering Chinese. The gapes and stares of farmers as they made their way on the path with ease compounded my feelings of regret and alienation.

A young boy, with a gleaming sickle swinging lazily in his hand, loped by astride the steaming and bristled gray back of a water buffalo. He looked down with half-shut eyes at the foreigner slogging in the mud beneath him.

Farmers shouldering bamboo poles strung with buckets filled to the brim with night soil bobbed their way in rapid, mincing steps through the mire. As a swaying bucket brushed by us, its venomous contents suddenly crested like a cobra's hood but quickly withdrew without striking.

Two barefoot teenage girls appeared on the pathway from out of the mist, sharing a white umbrella and wearing clean cotton blouses of pastel yellow and pink. As they passed, they turned away from the eyes of the muck-smeared foreigner with a giggle and a fling of their long pony tails.

Compounding my humiliation, a Chinese friend from Shanghai seemed as at home in the muck as a farm boy. He slipped once in his black Oxford shoes but performed a pirouette worthy of Fred Astaire and alighted on the mire with a high-pitched laugh. The rest of us skidded, stumbled, and slid forward, our feet moving in a rapid flutter and kicking up a steady splatter of mud. Dr. Peng, maintaining a deadpan mien, held tightly to his reluctant partner and led the frenzied fandango.

Around a bend, a diesel water pump blocked the path, roaring and seething like a mean, squat gremlin. Passage on the left side posed danger. A five-foot-long belt whirled from the engine to the pump, threatening to yank off any wayward sleeve, braid, or appendage. We could try to crab beneath the pipe limbo-style at the center of the path and risk a slow, contorted, and ignominious slump into the muck. Or we could leap over the thick jet of water on the right side and try to land on a small island of tur f in a sea of mire.

After briefly sizing up the obstacle, we looked at one another through the drizzle and laughed. Our concern over appearances was absurd; from scalp to toe, we all wore identical drab uniforms of ooze.

Mud is a great equalizer, besmirching everyone without favor. It blots out all artifice, ostentation, and presumption, all differences in wealth, status, and race. Once soaked by mud, everyone looks pretty much the same.

Mud is also a powerful bonder. Like other elements of the simple and austere life, mud buries the distractions and comforts that detract from life's inherent joys: sharing, sympathy, an intimate awareness of mutual dependence. Mud promotes a sense of common humanity, a feeling that could reconcile the new with the old, the modern with the traditional, and Kun with his father.

These thoughts seemed to strike us together as we beamed silly white grins at each other from mucky brown faces. Dr. Peng released his grip on my arm. We looked at the machine again.

The belching engine broke the peace of a paddy field with a thundering din. The mud-conquering device epitomized the regimented industry that disrupts the intimacy and fellowship of village life. It was a reminder of the impersonal society that many city dwellers along China's thriving coast are rapidly embracing, and where I would soon return to at the end of my assignment in China.

With these thoughts, and the laughter of my hosts who guessed my path, I raised the umbrella high above my head and made a squashy, running leap over the machine and into the mud.

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