Christmas on a Chinese Mountain

Under the Eyes of Heaven on Tianmushan (a serialized memoir)

Christmas in China lacks the bling and obligation we’re so used to in the West. Which is to say, Christmas in China is almost perfect. In December, in the big cities at least, there’s the sense that something is expected. A tree with miniature Chinese lanterns might appear in the window of a small, local boutique (it might still be there the following June). The fancy malls and department stores take it quite a bit further. Some of the multi-national hotels are dazzlingly decked out for the holidays. Recently, boisterous Christmas Eve parties have become fashionable with young people. Our local Carrefour supermarket played jingle bells relentlessly, but the words were slightly awry: ‘dashing through the snow in a one horse open slide’ . Most retailers haven’t (yet) joined the gift-buying bandwagon, but I did once see a large billboard announcing, “It’s Christmas! Buy Furniture!” Possibly they took their inspiration from the infant Jesus’ lack of a baby bed. On the whole, though, Christmas is inconvenient clutter in the run-up to the all-important Chinese New Year. Why distract consumers with exhortations to buy Christmas presents when they will soon be hit with the obligation to stuff envelopes full of 100 RMB notes for the children, and to present expensive bai jiu liquor to their bosses?

In the countryside Christmas just doesn’t exist.

December is a quiet month on Tianmushan. Many of the farmers and guest house owners descend the mountain to villages in the valley. Nature pauses. Waterfalls freeze mid-cascade and a cold wind sets the bamboo clattering. The last of the squash withers on a brittle vine, and it starts to snow.

In Shanghai it snowed every year of our eight-year sojourn — wet, slushy clumps that resembled “pao fan” — a watery breakfast porridge made from last night’s leftover rice. On Tianmushan snow falls in feathery crystals, like the delicate footprints of sparrows. Snow falls steadily, like a benediction. It blankets gardens and grave mounds; it softens the receding ridges that blur into a dove-grey sky. We see less, and differently; we mark time by the color of snow — purple-white at dawn, dazzling-white at midday, soft pigeon-white by late afternoon. We see less, and our other senses start to compensate. We hear the mew of a hawk in the next valley, and the rustle of its prey in bamboo mulch. It isn’t a dead time of year — it’s a time of poised expectancy.

There is one tortuous road up the mountain to the ‘Kingdom of Big Trees’ where the 1,000-year-old wild ginkgos are found (possibly the world’s oldest of this species). The snows regularly close the roads. I once read in a 1930s guidebook that travel up the mountain on rudimentary paths was impossible most of the winter. We drive our SUV up the treacherous bends as far as I would allow my more daring husband to go, then continue on foot. Our two young sons do what boys tend to do — which is improvise weaponry. They snap ominously sharp daggers of ice from frozen waterfalls and commence dueling.

We build the sort of ‘classic’ jaunty snowman impossible to construct from Shanghai slush. With pebble eyes, berry nose and twig arms terminating in waggling bamboo-leaf fingers it’s the archetypal snowman. It’s so good that later, when we make a Christmas card from a photo of the boys patting its head, friends accuse us of using a fake.

We blaze trails up bambooed slopes, and tumble into drifts up to our hips. The only other tracks are those of animals and birds. China has 1.4 billion people. But we’re the only ones here, having the whole mountain and snow to ourselves, almost.

Later, we hunker down on the heated floor of our apartment, and play with jigsaw puzzles and board games. For dinner we might feast on duck confit with local vegetables, freshly baked bread, and a Christmas pudding we had gleefully acquired from Marks & Spencer, a swank British department store in Shanghai on West Nanjing Road. On Christmas night, like all other nights, we watch the moon rise, and listen to the sounds of rushing water and wind in bamboo. Here we have room to pause, and in the spirit of holidays, to open our hearts and minds.

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