A Trip to China — Jinjing

by Philip E. Hyatt

            It began innocently enough. I was driving, listening to National Public Radio, thinking about languages.  “Chinese,” the speaker’s words surprised me.  Was it really true?  “Two people speak Chinese for every person who speaks English.”  I wondered. How could that be?  During the radio program I learned English came in third.  That is, Mandarin and Spanish have more native speakers than English (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers).  But I never thought that learning Chinese would result in a granddaughter.  More about that later.

            This story is really a small part of a larger story, the story of my life, Windsong.  My decision on February 26, 2004 to start teaching myself Chinese is part of one of my books related to Windsong that I’ve called A Trip to China.  This part will not be used directly in A Trip to China but will be re-written for that purpose.  So, how did a small Chinese town, Jinjing, come into this story?

            Jinjing, a small town in Changsha County about an hour north of the city of Changsha in Hunan Province, China, has yet to realize its claim to fame.  Jinjing means “Golden Well” or 金井镇.  The Golden Well of Jinjing provided drinking water to the entire town for hundreds of years and can still be visited.  The local people have carefully preserved the concrete basin and visitors can walk into this depression and well site were people gathered water for centuries.  Having lived without running water for four years of my life, that is, having the “run and get it” type of “running” water, I can appreciate the back-breaking effort it takes to carry water from a well to one’s home.  Today, Jinjing Town administers two communities and 14 villages with the Koganei Community as the center of local government.

            Modern life has come to Jinjing in that the well no longer supplies water to the local community and the lifestyle has changed with the advent of a modern water supply system.  A Buddhist temple overlooks the town near the well and the old town center.  Called the Jiuxisi Temple (Stream of Nine Turnings) history records its construction at the beginning of Tang Dynasty.  Yu-chi Gong, a well-known general, supervised its construction, giving proof that Jinjing Town was already an important town at the time.

            You might ask me, “What’s the connection to Jinjing?”  Life is full of random chances, or as my Chinese friends say, “Fate.”  The concept of fate is, perhaps, like the Christian concept of predestination.  That is, things happen for a reason, and I suppose a deeper reason exists for my connection to Jinjing.  As I started making friends with Chinese students at the University of Arkansas in 2008, they led me to QQ, an internet software platform that can be called the Chinese version of Facebook.  Somehow, I stumbled across a website for people who are learning English, a site that no longer exists.  However, the site manager, Julian Luo would become my connection to Jinjing.

            Through Julian’s website and encouragement, I started teaching English on line.  Soon, my profile on his website had more than 50,000 hits as more and more people contacted me wanting me to help them learn English.  In short, one of those people, who calls herself “Moon” wanted me to teach English to children in her town.  Moon’s given name, Yue (the 越 of 张越), sounds like the Chinese word for Moon, Yue (月).  Moon would later marry my son and give birth to my granddaughter.  But that’s another story.

            Julian had created the now-defunct website that started me in teaching English.  Over time, Julian and I discussed working together on various projects.  One of those, teaching English on line, became a weekly event over the next few years.  Julian’s fluent English didn’t need my help.  However, while I went my own way, teaching my class independently, Julian and I remained internet friends.  On my second trip to China, he invited me to visit his home in Jinjing.  My granddaughter, Andie Jo, would be going with me, and I decided to take Julian up on his offer.  We would spend a few days in Jinjing and give Andie an opportunity to see rural China.

            We arrived in Jinjing after Julian kindly arranged for transportation from the train station an hour away in Changsha.  We would discover the town of Jinjing is well known for its high quality organic green tea production. It is widely sold in the USA, Japan and Europe.  The mountains surrounding Jinjing not only create a fine weather for growing high quality tea, but also make it possible to build reservoirs which provide water for the expanding population of the county and the nearby city of Changsha.

            I’ve not spent enough time in China to say that Jinjing is typical of anything in China, but I can tell you what I saw and how it compares with the United States.  Unlike the large cities of China, Jinjing provided an opportunity to get close to rural China.  For example, this town of 2,000 is surrounded by farmland.  The main road from Changsha crosses the town which is also crossed by a main perpendicular highway.  That is, Jinjing is a crossroads, much like the county seats of rural northern Arkansas where I live and have lived for broken decades since 1963.

            Our first stop, Julian’s Country Inn, was still under construction at the time.  Julian had worked as a translator in the past providing a link between American interior designers and the developers of major five start hotels in China.  During our visit in early 2015, he had taken his skills in a new direction and was developing his own five story hotel on the outskirts of Jinjing.  Unlike China’s larger cities, the main crossroads in Jinjing involves a single streetlight with two lanes of traffic in each direction.  If you want to see life in rural China, this is the place to go.  During our week-long visit, I would walk the 10 minute walk into Jinjing several times.

            Jinjing provides a delicious blend of convenience and rural atmosphere.  The main streets remind me of a Chinese combination of 1950s rural America, street vendors of the tourist sites of Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenyang, and what I’ve come to learn is China.  At the crack of dawn, I walked to town one morning, for example.  Much like the old Arkansas towns of Hardy, Mountain Home, and Yellville, or North Carolina’s Franklin, or Kentucky’s Hopkinsville, Jinjing lies at the center of a rural community.  The stores lining the streets look much like American’s small town stores of my childhood; one might have imagined Mayberry, North Carolina of fictional television fame.

            However, the stores have an unusual Chinese flavor absent in the United States.  “How many foreigners have you seen in Jinjing?”  I asked Julian soon after our arrival. 

            “You are the third and fourth” he replied.

            When I walked into town that morning, I took the back road, having traveled the main drag a few times previously.  You can imagine the surprised looks of the local residents as they stepped out to stretch in the morning air, seeing a tall older American walking by their doors.  “I’m on display again,” Andie would often say on our trip.  She felt funny being the only blond in a country of dark haired people.  I loved having the feeling of being a true minority.

            Often, as the small shops opened, the vendors would sit drinking tea on small stools at the doors waiting for their first customers.  I found them very friendly, offering me a cup of the local brew, tea, to start my morning.  While my use of Chinese is limited, and the locals spoke what they called “the Jinjing dialect” of a much broader area with several hundred thousand speakers, I was able to communicate in Mandarin on a limited basis. 

            The local stores sold anything you might need, specializing in a wide variety of items.  If you don’t speak Chinese, don’t worry.  They are glad to point and gesture to help you find what you want.  If you’re building a house, some stores specialize in plumbing or bathroom fixtures, others in household cleaning supplies or construction tools and brooms.  But take a deep breath.  The smell of cooking Chinese food comes from every direction.  Here you can get a real taste of China.  You’ll have to do like I did and wander off the main roads to find the markets the locals prefer, with fresh food and vegetables for sale spread on tables like you might expect in China. 

            However, if you prefer to have everything wrapped in plastic, everything from water to ice cream is available in both small and larger stores on the main street.  That said, many of those shops also sell bananas and local fruits, or if you find the urge, anything you need for a home from leather chairs to bathroom fixtures.  Of course, like much of China, cell phones have become ubiquitous and high tech shops will sell almost any technology you want.

            To get the real feel of Jinjing, I highly recommend you travel the town on foot.  Even if you find a ride to town, you’ll want to wander through the markets and stores and explore on your own.  With my teaching experience, I wanted to go one step beyond the typical tourist stop and visit the schools.

            Julian had no connections with the local school officials, so we simply showed up at three schools on two different days and offered to talk to the students in English.  Moon had encouraged me to do this in the Shenyang area, so I knew what to expect.  I often say, “Everyone in school in China knows three languages, the local dialect, Mandarin Chinese, and English.”  I knew that going to the school would provide many students their first opportunity to speak with a native English speaker.

            My purpose in visiting and talking with students grew out of my contact with Julian, Moon, and thousands of Chinese people I’ve talked to on the internet.  “You are the first foreigner I’ve ever talked to,” I’ve heard many an excited Chinese young person say.  They wonder if I can understand their English.  I give them that confidence, when they realize they can talk to me easily. 

            “If I can teach myself Chinese starting at the age of 51, with no native Chinese speakers in my hometown that I talk to, you can learn English,” I tell the students in Chinese schools.  During our visit, we spent a class period with several groups of eager students.  I try to give them a chance to ask questions, even if their English questions are as simple as, “Do you like basketball?”  My point to them is simple; now you know that I can understand your English easily.  You can communicate in English successfully.  You know that my Chinese is not perfect, so don’t expect perfection yourself.  The goal is communication and you are succeeding at that.”

            Andie had the same experience I had the year before, after class ended.  Outside, she became the literal center of attention with more than 100 eager faces trying to get a chance to talk to the American.  The students were a little more shy on the streets of Jinjing, but I’ve learned to engage them in conversation.  The older residents are glad to talk too, but those over age 30 mostly only speak Chinese.

            “I want to take you to the tiger breeding center,” Julian told us.  I felt surprised.  That’s as if my home town in northern Arkansas had a polar bear breeding center, which it does not. 

            “A tiger breeding center?” I thought?  This is why China makes me feel I live in a primitive country and the China is much more modern with its bullet trains and landscaped highways.  The Jinjing center breeds Manchurian Tiger and is one of the three such breeding centers in China, having a population of more than 20 tigers.  Andie visited with us and as a real cat lover wanted one to take home.  I have to say that having a hungry tiger stalking me as I walked along the electrified fence was a close to unnerving experience. 

            This is not your typical American zoo where, particularly in the past, animals have tiny cages or somewhat limited space.  A few of these wonderful animals shared a space measured in square kilometers not square feet or meters.  As a professional ecologist, I could not help but be very impressed.  As I’ve come to realize on my two trips to China, I have to remind myself I’m not in the China of the past, but in a modern world that blends ancient culture with modern facilities in many places.

            One of the reasons that Jinjing, this city of southern China, was selected to be the home of the Manchurian tiger is the great environment and the beautiful tea planation.  That is, China has selected this region as a future tourist attraction.  Indeed, with the breeding center, I realized we were not the only foreigners to visit the area.  However, I did feel unique. 

            The tea plantations, lakes, tigers and organic farms of Jinjing have been attracting more and more tourists from the city of Changsha, from across the nation and even the world. The County and Changsha are also investing in the tourism industry of the northern part of the local region, which Jinjing Town at the hub.

            Travel from the Changsha airport to Jinjing takes an hour by car. From the city of Changsha itself, it might take a few minutes longer depending on the traffic conditions. A few hotels, including Julian's Country Inn, offer free transportation to Jinjing from the airport, allowing you to conveniently experience the charm of Jinjing, the Town of Green Tea and its famous Golden Well.