Herons, eggs, and blood ties: Bertien van Manen in China


An old, sprawling house, empty since Grandma died. During the Cultural Revolution the family had to scrape off all the decorations with a knife and cover the holes with cement. Each New Year they used to gather together to clean the house, it was a festive and happy tradition, with a sad sequel. The house was demolished by order of the government, the land confiscated to make way for a paper factory. The money was divided over the numerous family members, whose xue mai or ‘blood connection’ has been severed now that they have been violently driven apart. In the old days Jane and her family went swimming in the river behind the house, now the water is polluted.

Jane is a young, promising architect. She has great plans for South East China. Jane’s father has brought ripe mangos from the market and shares out big, dripping slices of the soft yellow fruit. The mood is cheerful. Jane translates, for due to the Cultural Revolution her father and mother don’t speak English. The conversation turns to the Cantonese. Someone had told me they wouldn’t be friendly. ‘Maybe the North Chinese are jealous,’ says Jane’s father, ‘things are so much better here, economically. There are many immigrants from the North. They’re better off here than the people migrating to Shanghai or Beijing, where their living conditions are often miserable.’


Hanging around the train station are clusters of men seeking work – folk from out of town, farmers from the provinces, but also Mongolians and Uighurs. ‘They are not our people,’ my guide remarks, ‘they are not Han Chinese.’

My eye is caught by a young girl in a red, flimsy summer dress, her arm gripped by a somewhat grim-looking woman. The girl is beautiful, her expression is blank. The woman notices my interest and pulls the girl aside; they head to the back of the station. I follow them. They go in and out of the public toilet, and it’s quite a while before I get a chance to take a picture. ‘There’s no prostitution here,’ Haoran says, ‘but there’s some strange stuff going on.’

Luo Zhou, Yan Xi Province

In Shanghai I meet Li, who offers to take me to his uncle and aunt in the countryside. Li’s grandfather was once a successful, well-known architect who built for the English – mainly churches and schools. He lost everything during the Cultural Revolution, now Li’s mother works as a street sweeper, his father deals in illegal CDs.

First time I find myself out of town, in a quiet China without tall buildings, traffic, or roads. The air is fresh, there are cows on the dyke. Each cow has her own herder, who leads her by a stick through her nose to the river to drink. Small threshing machines rattle on the fields, a white heron flies overhead, plants with big blue flowers grow in a ditch.

Li’s relatives live in a small wooden cottage with an earthen floor, in a hamlet called Luo Zhou. There are ten houses in all, a communal toilet consisting of a plank with a hole over a dark space crawling with tiny creatures, and a single water pump.

Li’s aunt is going to cook for us. First the stove must be lit; Uncle goes up to the attic to throw down bales of straw, which need to be fed to the fire at regular intervals. We sit on stools in front of the house to eat Aunt’s food, a delicious dish of rice with lots of vegetables, tomatoes, and eggs. After the meal everybody goes off, carrying stools and small chairs, to see a play in the next hamlet. We join them with a torch to light our way in the dark. Unfortunately, my presence arouses more interest than the play, and before long I’m ringed round by villagers.

Upon our return I venture to ask for a little more rice, but it’s finished. Aunt, straight-faced, fetches a bowl of dry rice from the neighbours. It gives me a fit of hiccups, one hiccup after another every two seconds. People stare at me, shocked, and I cringe with embarrassment. The following day two men of authority appear in the village. What am I doing there? How come I speak Chinese? Do I realize that taking photographs is forbidden in the countryside?

Excerpt from Bertien van Manen's diaries from China, 1997–2001, from Archive (2021). Translated by Ina Rilke.

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