My Heart is Still in Tian-Shan Mountain

by Li Shan

The Map of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

It has been more than ten years since I left mainland China, and I have never been back yet. Sometimes as I leafed through the sketches I did then, reminiscence of the old days came to my mind again. I would imagine hearing the ringing of bells hanging on the neck of camels the neighing of horses, and the bleating of sheep mixed with the whistling of mountain gale. So vivid in my visions would be the snow-covered Tian-Shan Mountain, glittering with silvery light as well as the mountain streams flowing of melted snow water. Particularly unforgettable were the eyes of a Kashi oldman as though they were still staring at me.

Last year, on my way to Taipei via Japan, with my face clinging to the window of the airplane, I tried to look toward the direction of mainland China in the hope that I would get at least a hazy view of my homeland that I always dreamed of all these years. However, what a disappoint! What I saw was only a sea of clouds far away!

I was young the first time I set my feet on Tian-Shan Mountain. In late fall 1958 after I had concluded my five-year study at the Zhejiang Fine Art Institute, I was assigned to work for the Xinjiang Pictorial. It was very long journey. First I took a train for three days and two nights, then boarded a bus for two more days before I reached Urumqi City. It was in October. The severely cold wind blowing from the snow-covered ridges swept over the streets raising a cloud of dust smelling a rank odor of sheep. I was accomodated in a mud-built dormitory. At night I could not fall asleep. Still awake at late night, I heard from the side street the hoarse sound of a song probably sung by a drunkard who was on his way home. It came closer and closer, then farther and farther away. Finally the night became quiet again.

There was a mosque on a street of the city, a building with a symbol of a crescent on the pike of its steeple. Sometimes a luxuriously decorated four-wheel carriage would gallop by. There were always several Uygur men with long beard standing around a rectangular charcoal oven, sticking pieces of mutton with drippings into their mouths. Whenever two imams, who wore a piece of white cotton cloth wrapped around their heads, came across each other, they would touch hands, then each stroke his own beard. These kinds of scenes were totally strange and fresh to me, and I felt like as if I were in the world of the story One Thousand And One Nights. Later on, I inserted all these pictures into my book The Story of Effendi.

In the winter 1958, while all people in mainland China were compelled to join the campaign of making steel by using obsolete small ovens, I was assigned to labor in an iron mine of Tian-Shan Mountain. Every morning before dawn, while the stars still high and bright in the sky, a thousand or so workers, each carring a spade or picks, climbed up the mountain to the mine area. Rubbing their half-closed-half-opened eyes, they staggered forward and shivered in the rigid cold. The air they breathed froze on their brows forming tiny icicles. Sometimes a cloud of cold fog would fly over rom a farther mountain, the rigid air piercing through sleeves and collars into the skin. I began to realize the severity of the weather in Tian-Shan Mountain.

In 1961, for the purpose of sketching from nature on the topic of grazing areas, I went to Altay mountain in the North of Tian-Shan. it was in July, the season when grass grew in great abundance. As a rule , the Hasak herdsmen and their wives riding on horseback would drive a flock of sheep while their teenage children rode by side on ox-back and their little children were accomodated in a wooden box loaded on a camel; the tent and other necessities were loaded on another camel. Day by day, they wandered over hills and ridges all the way to the depth of the mountain. At night as the moon rose, they would gather all sheep together and made a fire; with their sheepherd dogs lying nearby, the herdsmen would always keep an eye on them. Also I visited the South Mountain Grazing Field may times. These experiences made me later paint "The Moon Is Rising Over Tian-Shan Mountain", "Childhood on The Camel Back", "Papa And I Entering Tian-Shan Mountain". The last painting, one of my favorites, has been kept in The Fine Art Museum of China after having been displayed at the National Fine Art Exhibition.

Life in the snow mountain was most of the time full of hardships. One year I traveled from Urumqi to Kashi. The journey on bus lasted five days and passed the Kaidu River on the way. According to the legend, Kaidu was the same river once named flowing Sand River in ancient time where Sand Monk had lived before he was converted to the famed Holy Monk of tang Dynasty and became the latter's follower, which was narrated in the famous novel The Westbound Journey. The span of water of the river was broad, but it still had a sandbank along the shore. We passed Kuche, a place which was called Turtle Ferry in ancient time. It was said that this was the place where the Holy Monk of Tany Dynasty ferried across the river on the back of a huge turtle. Looking at the current, we could well imagine, how dangerous the river would, when the snow of the surrounding mountains melted by the summer sun to become many waterfalls poured down in a day. A fellow traveler on the same bus of mine pointed out a place to tell me that it was very closed to Gao-Lao Village where the personalized Pig Monk married the daughter of its owner. In chatting with him, my loneliness was greatly lessened. Yet, most of the time during the trip we went through desolate Gobi desert. We could only see rocks and rocks again as well as the horizon connected with them. It reminded me the poem of Cen Shen the poet of Tang Dynasty.

Don't you see
Beside the Zho-ma River and the Snow Sea
the boundless yellow sand expanse rises up to the sky?
There, in September at Lunte Place,
The Gale roars at night.
In the great stretch of land
Broken rocks as big as the big Dou measures
Are blown out scattering everywhere.

The bumping of the bus made us passengers fall into a doze. Waking up once for a while, the only scene I could see out of the window still was an extensive desert view, even birds disappearing. But occasionally, a cluster of camels dragging along the monotonous desert and heavy foot steps could seen.

I entered Altay Mountain sometime in 1961 and I had stayed there already half a month when an accident happened to me. There, my only food was something made of flour in addition to milk. Since no vegetables could be raised in the deep mountain area, a strong desire of their fresh fragrance and sweet taste reminded me that I might find some kind of eatable wild vegetable which I had had in my home village. So I climbed up the slop and searched eagerly for it. To my great joy, I found it. However, as I cooked and ate it, in the matter of half an hour I was overcome with nausea. Believing I was being poisoned, I tried to throw out by using a chopstick sticking into my throat. Fortunately, it worked out and I felt greatly relieved. Since then I did not dare do such thing any more and had to eat the flour food with milk only. In this way I lived there for a month.

In 1979, I went to Kunlun Mountain, first by bus to Qiaurion Village of the mountains, then riding on horseback further to a grazing area of a higher altitiude. My company was a Tajik interpreter, who rode ahead of me to lead the way. The path was narrow and steep hanging along the waist of a high mountain. On one side, the cliff stretches straight up to the sky, Where as on the other side it stretches straight down to the deep valley. While looking down at the valley from the horseback made me feel dazzling, I had to dismount and lead the horse slowly forward. As soon as I set my feet on earth, I felt a little bit at ease. Once when my horse stretched its neck to touch the other horse, just an intimate expression, it was, however, kicked back by the other one. Frightened and totally unmindful of the narrowness of the path, it turned sidewards as that one of its feet already crushed the edge of path. Myself frightened too, I hurriedly tossed off the rein. For a long while, I still heard the sound of crushed rocks and earth falling into the deep valley.

These impressions-the flying snow over Tian-Shan Mountain, the desolation of the Great Desert, the thawing of a frozen river, the singing of the herdsmen, and, above all, the pathetic sight of the people living there, all of these deeply planted in my memory, and reappeared later subsequently in my paintings.

In 1979 I revisited the ancient city Kashi in the southern region of Xinjiang. One day, carrying my sketch board, I walked through an alley. In the afternoon sunshine, I saw the gate of an old shaky house, in front of which sat an old Uighur man enjoying sun bath. With his eyes staring at emptiness, he appeared to have fallen into his memory. His bronze-colored face looked like a stone weathered by wind, rain, forst and snow for many years, marking his life-long hardships. I have witnessed in mainland China too many this kind of elderly person who toiled and sweated all their lives and the products resulted from their hardwards nurtured all people in the whole country. However, judging from the ragged clothes and the shabby cap the old man wore, we could see, how ill-propotioned his hard labor compared with his reward was. This was a poignant example of all working people in mainland China. In spite of the enormous sweat shedded by them, which, if accumulated, could become a river, they still lived in poverty and humiliation. The oldman's knitted brows, his sparkling eyes, and his thin tight-fisted hands, all these revealed his anger and grievances filling in his mind. And this state of mind prevailed among all people in mainland China. In the thirty years since 1949, especially during the period of Cultural Revolution, people on mainland China had undergone tremendous oppresions and immense tortures. Why do we, after shedding so such blood and sweat, still remain in the state of poverty and humiliation? People began to ask this question. Obviously, the answer was clear in their mind, and that was what made them angry. After ten years, the accumulated rage touched off the Tiananmen Incident that shocked the whole world.

The picture of that oldman formed such a strong impression on me that I elaborately branded it in my mind. Later on, I asked his permission to make his portrait. This is the portrait of "A Kashi Old Man" presented here. Thereafter, whenever I glance at the picture, I cannot help recalling the history of the then generation.

My past experiences in the south and north of Tian-Shan Mountain will be the background materials of my paintings, which should help the reader understand them, specifically, I am sorry that in my paintings prevails so much sadness which reflects the sighs of my subjects, the poor Chinese people I have known. How hard I had hoped that they could live better!

Time flies fast. I have departed my fatherland for more than ten years. I don't know when I shall be able to paint a joyous picture of mainland China, especially my favorite Tian-Shan Mountain. Looking westward I can only see the heavy cloud lowering over the land. Oh, my obsessed homeland! Oh, my missed Tian-Shan!

October 1990 in New York, (Translated by Shu-Liang Lo)

*Note: As a U.S. citizen, Li Shan revisited Xinjiang in 1992.