I had not seen the sun in eight days when two raffish-looking women began questioning me on a street in a Sichuan town. I was looking for a tea house. One of them was asking me something, persistently, in a dialect I did not understand. She was like a mother in a Greek play, children all dead, grey hair disheveled, eyes restless. Shen, shen, she repeated, pointing at the sky. spirit? I thought, miming a Buddhist in prayer. She grinned. The younger one’s two front teeth were missing; her hair was in a bowl shape. She looked like a mischievous page caught up in too many scrapes. She opened a bag of oranges and offered them to me, and I refused, baffled. Chinese people do not normally talk to strangers out of the blue, much less offer them things. She held the bag open with a confidential air.
I was tired. I was standing on the curb, wavering between the tea house and my curiosity. The younger one wrote a character, shen, on a piece of paper and showed it to me. Do you believe in shen she asked and I equivocated, wondering at their purpose. I asked if they believed, and they nodded. What god, I asked, and we spent a minute or two trying to tease out what the other was saying. They seemed not to be Buddhists, though the town was not far from one of China’s most storied Buddhist mountains. A pilgrimage route wends up through peaks and valleys, with temples and monasteries on the way.
I noticed a man lingering nearby in the going light of day (what light there was, diffuse, weak). He was listening in just as I was trying to ascertain for certain what they believed. The name Jesus had come up once or twice. Which teaching is best? I asked, and the young woman spoke up firmly, Buddhism! I was baffled. The man drifted away. Another woman appeared, a bit better dressed, with a firmer look and a better hold on Mandarin. The newcomer seemed to be trying subtly to edge the others aside.
I finally concluded that they were talking about Jesus. “That man was listening,” said the young woman at my exasperated look. The newcomer, with the fire in the belly, questioned me about my beliefs, and I told my story: a believer until 19, and then no longer. When asked why, I replied that belief had been a duty as a child, a matter of obedience, which aroused a strong dislike in me.
“Jesus will let you have one more chance,” she said.
“You Westerners are a better quality of person than Chinese, who do not want to believe,” she said. And she said she would show me a disc with proof that would change my heart. For a while she was talking without looking at me, an automatic stream of words. Her face was like a delicate fruit, smooth and blank, and slightly bruised with worry or fatigue. Her gums were red. Just come and I will show you, she said, over and over again amid other things I could not catch.
I was sarcastic. I am going to drink tea, I said, I do not have much time for Truth just now.
“Is tea more important than Life?” she asked. “You have one chance, one last chance.” I was going to be done with her and find my teahouse when I remembered what I am, a spy (in James Agee’s sense), nosing out the oddities and delights that cross my path. I am an anthropologist, too, these few years, but I was a spy long before that. I have a face that gives people with missions or causes hope that I will be imprinted -- I have a face that brings beggars to me. There must be a fatal weakness showing there, a lack of self, a blankness of slate, a youthful uncertainty, that inspires others to talk to me even after it is clear I am not to be won. It is the fixity of my attention that deludes people, perhaps, into thinking I am with them when it is just as likely I am recording, a listening device and a camera coldly and closely deployed to capture every detail of input.
Or perhaps some people crave being recorded, even if it is by a spy.
I can agree to listen, I thought, and for this minimal token of submission or respect this woman will show me everything she values. I will record. And then I will walk away. I will watch 15 minutes, I said to her, and then I will go.
“It is not far,” she said, and we left the other two behind and began walking along the wide road. We entered a residential compound gate and walked through an unfinished building into a kitchen at the rear, where her older sister was busy chopping vegetables. There was no glass in the windows. I sat on a stool and noticed a kitten perched along the rim of a crude stove made of a 50 gallon drum, an inch from the kettle. She ushered me into a small closed room taken up mostly by a bed hung with a mosquito net. The floor was cement, and the walls, where visible behind old shampoo advertisements, was white plaster utterly smudged and stained with long habitation in a place no one would plan on ending up in. The bed, from which the woman’s husband emerged, was molded to years of sleeping bodies, gently sagging like a big hand cupping them against the cold. The quilts were heavy and had breathed in the warmth of their bodies and held the odor. Without hot water or interior heating, the bed was as lived in, as stretched and softened and stained, as a coat hardly ever doffed.
Her husband greeted me, and they urged me to sit on a small stool pushed against the wall. There was enough space for my legs between the side of the bed and the front of a battered dresser on which were laid several books and a jumble of small necessities like combs and tea cups. In the very corner sat the TV monitor, placed askew atop a DVD player with gleaming blue lights. Her husband, with a ruddy face and a Mandarin put laboriously into gear for my appearance, placed the disc in while his wife, clearly the backbone of this small clan, plied me with a book and several photocopied pages of what appear to be tracts telling of conversions. She showed me a small note describing someone called Cai Weiwei, who I mistook to be their leader.
No, no, she said in a rush, opening the book to one of the chapters, entitled, “Jesus Returns Riding a White Cloud.” I began reading, but she tugged my sleeve, saying, “Here, its beginning! Watch this first, then read.”
Amateur video shots appeared of huge ocean waves sweeping beachfront resorts. A man clung to a balcony, the picture shaking. A woman in a sari sobbed, moaned, mouth wide open as if drowning in air, small human shapes under a white sheet on the ground. A woman’s newscasterly voice began describing the effects of the Tsunami. The scenes continued, some repeated, a montage of water and anguish, as the voice spoke evenly on. There was no mention of the hand of God.
Abruptly a mournful hymn emanated from the television, the words appearing at the bottom. The husband and wife sat straight up, having anticipated, and they too sang. She opened a hymnal and pushed it into my hand. The scenes were still of the tsunami. But there was also a view of the Statue of Liberty inundated by a huge wave. I recognized it as a scene from the movie “The Day After Tomorrow.” “Look at that,” she said.
It sounded as if the hymn were recorded in a small bare room full of believers, singing with a chill longing for heaven. The voices droned together, dirge-like, and then individual voices emerged only to subside again. (I did not recognize the tune; none of the hymns were taken from the international canon of Christian music.) The first line was also the chorus, and it stuck in my head: Shijie xiangdang hunluan. It was six syllables, each one evenly timed, so it rang out ponderously, monumentally, ominously, a weary lamentation:
This earth is in cha-os!
The disc alternated between news-story-like reporting, hymns sung to scenes of destruction (real or computer generated), passages of doctrine from the book in my hand, or from the Bible, (read by a male voice), interviews with scientific experts, and a cartoon-illustrated story of Adam and Eve. The focus of the disc was the young Chinese woman named Cai Weiwei, who had personally lived through the tsunami. She described the horrific events in an urban mall patter, chatty, laughing self-consciously.
“There was this doctor, a foreigner – at least, he knew something about medicine – and he had us press the cloth on her wound. But the cloth was, like, too thin, you know? So we had to use a sarong.”
The passages of doctrine appearing on screen were much severer, the male voice telling of stern retribution for those who do not “accept this work.” After each passage, a little sum-up appeared, such as:
“Those who accept the work: life
Those who refuse the work: death”
The woman talked quickly to me when the cartoon story of Adam and Eve appeared, and I thought This, at least, I need no introduction. And I thought, here they seek to convert to Christianity an American whose Chinese is better than their’s! How odd is this modern world.
I skimmed the chapter on the white cloud, thinking, could this be the name of the sect? Or could it be “gaoyang,” or “lamb,” as in the title of the book? But no name of a leader appeared, and she seemed annoyed that I suggest the leader be anyone but Christ himself. The “white cloud” referred to Jesus’ conveyance back up to heaven after the resurrection. Apparently he had been sent back again to earth, only this time without the cloud. Chinese history is bursting with stories of religious movements not approved by the authorities, turning radical, and crushed by the state. The Taiping rebellion of the 1850’s, whose leader claimed to be Jesus’ younger brother, nearly toppled the Qing empire, already weakened in its confrontations with England.
The video ended, and I found dinner waiting on the table outside. “I have eaten,” I lied, wanting to keep my appetite for the brightly-lit Good Eats Street I had passed earlier. Of course they insisted, the woman and her sister and husband and two others who had accepted the work. I agreed to sit with them and nibble while they ate. My fifteen minute deadline had passed long ago.
They were all smiling at my presence, as if my mere being there was a propitious sign for them in those days without sun. When the woman, explaining to a new arrival that “this brother” is from America and he does not believe, I said quickly, feeling their grateful eyes on me, “I need more time to consider the teachings before I can be called a brother.” She exhibited a keen awareness of the larger world beyond China. (One only need look at Falun Gong literature, or that of Supreme Master Ching Hai, to see a similar preoccupation with depictions of converted Westerners).
“Those other two were speaking dialect to him,” she recounted animatedly, “and I said, ‘hey, you’ve got to speak Mandarin to foreigners!’” They laughed, nodding That’s right. “And if we go abroad to preach,” she went on, “It will have to be in Mandarin. We need to be in touch with the believers abroad, I have heard there are 600,000 already.” She acknowledged that the West was more Christian, and far more fortunate than miserable, low-quality China. “We are Noah’s other descendants, so we got the worst of everything,” she said.
But there was also a steely, if implicit, claim to equality, as if she, the leader of a tiny cell of a small Chinese sect of Christianity, had a voice as pressing and world-important as that of any Westerner – and maybe more so. Even they could be a new vanguard. There she sat, chopsticks in hand, telling a foreigner of privilege, “Here you are studying abroad. But are studies in anthropology more important than Life itself?”
Hmm, I responded.
I asked them how long they had believed, and the leader said they had accepted the work for three years now. The woman just moved from Henan said Since coming here, though she had more or less passively believed before that. I failed to ask what their work was, their means of employment, but it could not have been much. Lack of employment would certainly make accepting the work that much easier. She told me about a believer roughed up by the police.
What do the Buddhists think of you? I asked. Do they hate you?
Yes, they snorted, as if to say: of course.
How about Falun Gong?
Oh, don’t mention them, said a couple of them.
But are there any Falun Gong here? I pressed.
Yes, yes, there are, conceded the husband. By this time I was just holding my bowl and chopsticks in my lap, itching badly to be gone.
Its getting late, I said several times.
Oh, just let me tell you about three important things, she said, and read that story from abroad.
I need to go, I said. I was getting desperate to leave. My spy-disguise weighed me down.
Your coming could not be a coincidence, said the husband, again. The Lord arranged it this way. Their ballooning expectations of me which I could not check, the way she was fastening me in place as a crucial figure in their Story of Truth, the way they matter-of-factly awaited the Flood, their joy wrapped firmly and deliberately in this water-logged despair, oppressed me more with each minute. The Henan woman seemed fairly normal, so I engaged her in conversation.
So what do you think of Sichuan? I asked her.
Oh, I like it a lot, better than Henan. But their dialect makes it hard to communicate with people.
For me too, I said. The climate is another hard thing for me. I have not seen the sun in over a week!
It is a sign, said the leader. The time is near.
It was not long after that that I walked out through the dark empty building and paid a pedicab man to pedal me to Good Eats Street, where I tried to shake the gloom off my clothing, but only after she had placed the hymnal and doctrinal commentary in my hand and given me Sister Liu’s number, and told me to show no one the books. Her hands looked red and swollen when I watched her write, as if the blood were hardly moving. I had tried to give her money for the books, but she said These are Christ’s work.
I had spied well, learned much, but it took its toll anyhow. There they meet, in the back of the unfinished building, flitting in and out at night, huddling around the warmth of their shared secret, their heroism known to none. There they wait the Flood.
But more terrible even than the Flood will be the day they wake up, still poor, still desperately weak, see the sun shining, and feel their only strength evaporate right off their skin. In a flash they know the Flood is not coming.
In sunshine they are most alone -- most alone.
<>Shijie Xiangdang Hunluan!