Incredible Journey

Review of Tao: On the Road and On the Run in Outlaw China by Aya Goda. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts. Published by Portobello Books.

The painting reflects the artist, Young Number Four Son. If you want to paint, you must start by building your character. Paintings are the artist’s soul. If a person has no soul, his paintings will be worth nothing, no matter how good his techniques may be.

Yu Ren (Cao Yong’s first art teacher)

In 1988 a twenty-six year old Japanese student named Aya Goda was backpacking on the Silk Route in Western China. In Kashgar she crossed paths with Cao Yong, an art teacher from Tibet University. (In case your pinyin is rusty: Cao — the surname — is pronounced Tsao). They journeyed together, she became his girlfriend, and when her holiday elapsed she vowed to return to China and meet him at the next opportunity.

Aya duly fulfilled this promise, and the extraordinary events of the next nine months — from February to November 1989 — were the subject of a memoir, that she published six years later. Tao is the Chinese word for the character that means ‘escape’ in both Chinese and Japanese. But the subtitle adopted for this newly published English translation says it all: On the Road and on the Run in Outback China. Life on the run begins almost as soon as the two are reunited in Beijing, where Yong is exhibiting paintings he has brought, in preposterously difficult circumstances, from Tibet. He is a free spirit and an instinctive rebel rather than a political activist, but the pictures are sufficiently subversive to discomfit the authorities. The police haul him in for a harrowing interrogation, after which he opts to flee rather than give them a second chance to incarcerate him.

Together Yong and Aya travel ‘like a pair of vagabonds’, as the cover blurb puts it, through the wildest regions of China. This mostly involves endless journeys on trains with excruciating wooden seats, in her case often combined with the agony of altitude sickness as they ascend into the Himalayas. They intend to lie low in Tibet, but as luck has it martial law has been declared there, so they are again obliged to escape, crossing a perilous mountain pass in a decrepit truck. And so it goes on.

It’s clear from the beginning that Yong is a larger than life character. He is endowed with superhuman strength, stamina and resourcefulness. He can walk vast distances and cross mountains carrying a gigantic backpack, survive for months in the wilderness by hunting birds, and prevail against a gang of thugs in a market-place melee. There is a hint of divine intervention too: we learn that as a child he was brought back from the brink of death by a blind healer; later he survives being swept kilometres down a flooded river, and, en route to Beijing with his paintings emerges unscathed from a fatal bus accident. As if circumstances did not throw enough obstacles in his path, he constantly seeks out new challenges that will build his character — as per Yu Ren’s advice.

Cao Yong in Tibet. More Pictures.

The first half of the book is a ripping yarn, but the real art of Goda’s exposition is only revealed fully in Part Three, when she switches from present to past tense for an extended flashback to Yong’s childhood. If the story to this point seemed a tall tale, it’s hero’s deeds the gushing of a naive girl’s pen, the history that she now reveals makes Yong fully plausible and his motives intelligible. We focus here on the horrors he witnessed during the Cultural Revolution, and his battle to learn painting and gain a university place in the face of concerted obstruction from petty officials and jealous peers. It’s intelligent storytelling — pile on the improbable events and dare your readers to doubt them; then fill in the background facts when we’re ready to grasp the significance of them.

The book paints a vivid picture of a China rapidly receding in the wake of frenzied economic development and mass tourism, but still only two decades away and vivid in the memory. Life is almost as harsh and precarious for ordinary people as it is for our protagonists, battling daily bureaucracy humiliations, negotiating the landscape of spies and informers, and all the while wondering where their next meal will come from. In this context, the occasional acts of random kindness take on an intensity which, along with Yong’s superhuman drive and the overpowering Tibetan landscape, gives the book its spiritual dimension.

Three very Chinese themes that permeate the book. First there is food. In the course of the story, Goda recounts perhaps dozens of meals, some bought on the road, others prepared at home. She details their ingredients and preparation, stressing their social importance as well as the imperative to store up calories and proteins when the weather is freezing and you don’t know when you’ll eat again. Then there is entrepreneurship — again, a matter of survival, even in a communist state and even for an artist. When he is not selling paintings, Yong supports his work or his family by trafficking in peacock feathers or smuggling goods across the border with Nepal. Finally, there is bureaucracy. The list of thirteen letters Yong needs to obtain a passport is straight out of a Monty Python sketch, but it won’t raise a smile from a reader who by now feels the rage and despair that these demoralising regulations inflict.

The narrative flows in a surprisingly effective blend of literary styles, alternating between travelogue and biography, personal diary and sharp journalism. Though she can’t have been equipped with a tape-recorder, Goda allows herself licence to render a few long anecdotes, from Yong himself or third parties, in direct speech; but this third narrative device is an effective part of the mosaic, and I for one was willing to suspend disbelief.

A couple of passages in particular are worth the price of the book, and would stand as brilliant essays in their own right: the Kathmandu chapter, where Yong’s escapes from destitution by teaming up with an enterprising American down-and-out; and the amazing story of Yong and the Tibetan sky-burial masters. Then there is the section in the final chapters, featuring a family of eleven stray dogs, a striking metaphor for freedom on the edge of survival. ‘They eat rubbish and excrement to survive’, Goda writes, but she is ‘sure they’re far happier than dogs in Japan, who spend their whole lives stressed, under-exercised and chained up,’ she writes. And it’s clear enough that she isn’t just thinking about dogs.

Afternoon Tea, from Cao Yong Editions.

It would have been a challenge to convey the Japanese flavour of Goda’s perceptions while ensuring that Western readers would fundamentally identify with her point of view. Tao’s translator Alison Watts is an Australian who has lived in Japan for twenty years. Compatriots will enjoy her occasional sly choice of an Aussie colloquialism; but the language in general reassures us that our storyteller sees the world in general — and China in particular — through eyes pretty much like yours and mine, rather than those of some baffling oriental.

As far as Japanese flavour is concerned, it is certainly striking, the degree to which Goda chooses to play down her own emotional responses and skip over the more intimate aspects of her relationship with Yong. It was not clear to me whether this is because of cultural prohibitions — Aya is, after all, not exactly your archetypal passive and conforming Japanese woman. It may have been simply a decision to focus on Yong and his story, with a view to shedding some light on his art. This is, above all, a book about an artist; as one herself, Goda is anxious to convey the vitality, originality and emotional power she finds in Yong’s paintings, and that seems to be her motivation in writing about him.

Nevertheless, the book is not meant to be a work of art criticism, so there is very little technical discussion of the pictures, and no reproductions. Therefore, I was driven mad with curiosity to see some of the paintings. (Two tiny photos here were all I could find.) Cao Yong now lives in California, and some of his more recent work can be found on the web. They’re formidable pictures, but there is not much trace in these glossy, idyllic scenes of the hunger and torment that supposedly cried out from his earlier work. William Blake has apparently turned into Sir Joshua Reynolds, or is it Goya’s creative journey played backwards?

Anyway, it’s a wonderful book: a genuine page-turner, and a fascinating glimpse of China at the same time. Colin Thubron compares it to Ma Jian’s Red Dust, and I share Rory MacLean’s hunch that it would make a great film, though I don’t know whether he has documentary or drama in mind. I’ll be buying a carton to distribute at Christmas.

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