A Soiled Tradition

Early Thursday morning, the group got ready to head out for a two-day trip to Suzhou and Tongli, an ancient water village.  We soon realized we were not the only people in China who had the idea to travel to these famous towns during the long, country-wide holiday called Golden Week.  The crowds were overflowing and we could see and hear people in every corner of the gardens, bridges, and restaurants.  There were children, teenagers, adults, and elderly people exploring the towns and taking lots of pictures.  In the midst of these large crowds, especially in Tongli, there were a few clues that gave away who was and was not a local.  One woman in particular drew my attention because she was washing a towel and wiping it on her face.  I saw her exit a small home in the village that was right near the water before coming toward me.

The quotidian act of immersing a small face towel into a river would not have been something to catch my eye on any regular day, but in crowded and tourist-filled Tongli, it did.  I cringed as I watched this woman drop her towel into the river and repeatedly wipe her face with it as I thought about all the bacteria in the water.  I thought about the number of people who had traveled through the river on the boat tours, the number of people who had spit in the water, and the number of sewage systems that directly or indirectly lead into that same body of water.  I looked down at the murky, green water and thought about how it could make her physically ill.  This event was a microcosm of a wider critique by Elizabeth C. Economy in her book The River Runs Black.

In this book, Economy discusses the impact of densely populated China bearing an insufficient amount of resources and, as she describes it, a tradition of using nature to fulfill human needs.  Historically, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all influenced the way people see nature and their relationship to it.  Taoist school of thought in particular teaches that humans are one with nature and that they have a responsibility to create material things out of nature for sustainment.  The high levels of population growth, the pollution that comes as a consequence of that growth, and the policies in place to make China more “productive” make it unsafe for everyday people to use natural resources in their backyard.

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