With a song in our hearts

A misty December morning at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Touring mainland China with a college choir stirs the spirit.

The consciousness of divinity is divinity itself. The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand, and multiply it on earth, the more “God is on the field.”—Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (page 40; reviewed previously)

I’ve just returned from ten days in mainland China, touring with Otterbein University’s choir, which gave concerts in Beijing, Tianjin, and Xi’an. We got to see more of China, and a different side, than I imagine most western visitors experience. We toured a kung fu boarding school with 2,000 students, many of them orphans, some of whom performed for us, and we for them. Our fifty students sang two Chinese folk songs in their sets, and in each venue the crowd’s reaction was amazed delight. It was a joy to witness. As was hearing Chinese choirs reciprocate: a “medley of American folk songs” that included John Denver’s apparently immortal hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; the ever-lovely “Shenandoah”; and, inevitably, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

We all were charmed by one of our Chinese guides, adorable twenty-nine year old “Kathie”—just a Xi’an girl livin’ in a Beijing world—and she seemed smitten with our polite, talented, flirty choirboys and girls. She even spent a night singing with them in a karaoke bar, and on one of the buses taking us to the airport Friday she broke down, weeping, when she tried to say goodbye. “Don’t tell the other bus I cried,” she pleaded, “because I have many male concubines on that bus!” We were so touched by her, and I’ll never forget how we connected as humans, regardless of our nations’ political differences and difficulties.

All the same, it was a terrible time for me to be away from my desk. I’d just begun writing the last quarter of my memoir, fourth version, and facing issues (primarily of resolving narrative threads) I’d never imagined. The going was hard, but productive. Now I’ve returned jet-lagged, ill, and puzzled how to resume. Part of me wishes I hadn’t gone—I’ll pay dearly in time and suffering—and it’ll be a long time before I travel again. And yet the trip grew my spirit as it shrank the world.

China is astounding. It’s a vast, jarring country, and its sprawling cities, as rumored, do teem with people. Young adult Chinese speak good English, having begun learning the language at age twelve; now, kids are started at age three. New buildings erupt everywhere—built with America’s debt. What’s happening seems to be the rise of the world’s eventual sole economic and military superpower. It’s humbling to behold this boom. America must have seemed like this, a rawboned giant thrashing its legs, a hundred years ago. Empires wax and wane. How old is America, again? China was unified about 2,200 years ago by the warlord Qin Shi Huan, who started his peasants building the Great Wall, which I climbed with the choir members, who, gaining the rampart, broke into our school song, “The Otterbein Love Song.”

After the ruthless Qin (pronounced “Chin,” from which derives “China”) took power over one kingdom, he amassed 3,000 concubines and began building his tomb, really a palace for his afterlife, which is still unexcavated because of mercury contamination and concerns that air reaching it will destroy it. We gazed upon this flat-topped hummock, and saw nearby the “Eighth Wonder of the World” he also created, circa 210 BC: terra cotta soldiers, part of an estimated 8,000 somewhat larger-than-lifesized figures, plus gorgeous prancing clay horses and bronze chariots, all arrayed in battle formation in parallel trenches. An advisor had persuaded Qin to use models instead of entombing human soldiers, as was the custom. Some farmers digging a well in 1974 found his underground army. Annie Dillard, an early visitor to the dig, writes so well in For the Time Being about this archaeological treasure that, rereading it upon my return, I felt I was asleep by comparison. Her language, as always, is beautiful in its poetic precision:

That morning by the emperor’s tomb in Xi’an, that morning beyond the trenches where clay soldiers and horses seemed to swim from the dirt to the light, I stood elevated over the loess plain, alone. I saw to the south a man walking. He was breaking ground in perfect silence. He wore a harness and pulled a plow. His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.

We don’t know what call Qin heard, other than his own raging ego, or what he worshipped, other than the notion that he, as supreme ruler, would thereby rule in the afterlife. But after going through the trouble of conquering China, he died at forty-five, having presided only fifteen years. Despised by his subjects for his brutality and taxation, he may have been poisoned by a eunuch who wanted another man, Qin’s second son, to assume the throne. Instead, upon Qin’s death a peasant uprising carried away the entire dynasty.

With these matters in the foreground, what I brooded about in China—between helping send back video clips and other material for the university’s web page on the choir’s trip—was this: religions’ and believers’ general inability to include the Other under the umbrella of their God. It’s an old irony: soldiers from warring armies crouched in opposing trenches praying to God. That is, to be spared by their God and to be helped by Him to kill their godless foes. But if there is “a God,” how can this be? It can’t, unless there’s been, in fact or in effect, no transcendent God—just group-specific deities. Defining this God you believe in, or don’t, seems a lonely adult task, and it matters whether you place this entity outside of people or inside them. To me, God appears to be within, and growing, or evolving, as the human spirit itself enlarges.

Our Xi’an guide Kathie, in her Minnie dress

Just as I believe that China’s repressive government will fall, eventually, or gradually moderate, I believe that one day we and the Chinese will share one God. Both sides will realize we’re in it together on this green and blue mote of dust swirling through the black cosmos. This may sound sappy, or like New Age nonsense—perhance an overwrought symptom of jet lag—but look how long it took for white Americans to grant black Americans the same God. For starters, 200 years of wild-eyed abolitionists crying in the wilderness for a kinder world (Otterbein was founded by the United Brethren in 1847, with women on the faculty and women admitted as full students, though it would take more than a decade to hazard a black student); then came a bloody Civil War over slavery; after a hundred more years of tears, came the civil rights movement and legislation. We now have a black president, who has pledged to God—presumably still limited to America and its allies—to preserve this union.

Last Wednesday, Troy Burton, a black Otterbein senior from Louisville, Kentucky, led the choir in its final performance in China, on the stage of the Xi’an People’s Art Theater; our school’s gifted conductor, Gayle Walker, had been felled by illness. Troy wore an easy smile with his tux, but the singers knew he was nervous—an undergraduate conducting in China before a full house of 1,200. The choir rose, their eyes upon him, their voices soaring with uncommon strength and grace. When they left the stage, the audience applauded, wildly for China, and as that wave subsided, a Chinese woman called out to Troy from the darkness, “Obama!” We laughed, of course, but her shout was more than a joke. The Chinese people have seen something, and grown somehow closer to us, from afar.

The crowd that night, as always, loved the Chinese folk songs, the rollicking “Buffalo Gals,” and the Christmas carols, especially “Silent Night,” which caused them to whisper in recognition. But it was the Otterbein Concert Choir’s powerful performance of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. This verse says it all:

He delivered Daniel
From the lion’s den,
And Jonah from the belly of the whale,
And the Hebrew children
From the fiery furnace,
Then why not every man?


Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, narrative, politics, religion & spirituality

9 responses to “With a song in our hearts

  1. David Bailey

    They were very lucky to have a writer of your talent documenting how trips like this contribute so much more than millions spent by governments on diplomacy and military aid.
    One of your best posts, which is really saying something. You transported me from a dreary Monday afternoon to the other side of the world.

  2. John

    Truly inspiring post, Richard. You lit up a dank, rainy afternoon for me, Thank you. -John

  3. Thanks, guys. This is one of those posts in which I feel I’ve nailed something that’s gnawing at me, but then can’t wait to put something else up, faintly embarrassed, perhaps by trying to do something a blog post isn’t suited for. The blogs I admire usually consist of short messages, brief letters, that catch a sensibility at a key moment. Then I go and do something like drag my view of God into it! Two people immediately unsubscribed.

    I’ve gone back to the post twice since, clarifying what I think I mean—and eager to be less ambitious (overwrought?) in my posts. All the same, wrestling with this mess did clarify some things for me—the post wasn’t so much planned as discovered, and I do believe discovery is key to writing. A blog post, however, even if it yields surprises for the writer, is going to be rough compared with essays that gestate longer.

  4. Oh, I am sleepy after a long day of actual real-world letter-writing. I’ll come back to enjoy this special reading treat early tomorrow morning with coffee.

  5. Beth Sears

    Beautiful post Richard. Glad you made the trip and I understand the sacrifice of being away from your work. I’d love to hear more about the issues you’re having with your writing. I too (I think) am working on the final quarter of my memoir and I’m struggling to reach the finish line. Perhaps I don’t want it to end?

    I don’t see anything wrong with sorting out your thoughts on God in a blog post. You certainly aren’t preaching.

    • Beth, thank you. I am having trouble wrapping it all up! In essence it is a problem stemming from having hitched my tale to narrative: How to keep the unfolding going, wrap it up, and then stop it? Narrative chronology wants too much connective tissue in spots—how to leap over without awkwardness? I am reading a great novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, that is told in three time periods with basically the highlights of each; this makes it rather hard to follow the story, but there’s no feeling the writer was having to walk lockstep through the narrative, either.

      In reading a lot lately, I’d say to you what I say to myself, however great the urge to wrap it all up and call it done: Don’t rush.

  6. Two people unscubscribed immediately? Amazing. I would subscribe twice more if I could after reading this post! And not because of the presence or absence of some sentences about God, but because of the honest, wonderfully written window on the world of your visit to China, and your reflections on writing and the human condition.

    Thanks for the link to the trip videos. Marvelous to see the cultural exchange, the joy, eagerness and good will on everyone’s face.

    The Summer Palace photo is so lovely.

    I am betting you will find that this trip, rigors, illness and all, will nourish your writing in perhaps unexpected ways. Maybe it already has.

    • How kind of you, Beth. The subscription function for me is a double-edged sword; it’s neat when I get an email saying someone has subscribed, and strangely distressing when someone unsubscribes. In this case, it may have not been timing but the odds, since no one had unsubscribed in a long time. I wonder if I can give up that notification feature?! Or kill subscriptions. But despite RSS feeds some people like emails, and to follow a new blog now I just about have to go that route myself because my RSS feed to my Google page doesn’t work for some reason.

  7. Daiva Markelis

    I’m behind all of my reading because of finals–I’m glad I read this. It’s hard to write about God, and it’s difficult to write about visiting another country. You do both well in this blog post. Makes me want to visit China and/or possibly join a choir.