by guest contributor I-Yi Hsieh
Boarding on the Siberia train, in the mid-1930s, the German Sinologist Ernst Cordes traveled across the Manchurian-Russia border to the cities of Harbin, then Manchukuo’s “New Capital” (formerly Changchun), and Mukden (Shenyang). Cordes went south through the border at the Manchuria Station to Harbin and finally set foot in Beijing, the final stop of his trip to China. In his travelogue The Youngest Empire: Sleeping, Awakening Manchukuo (Das jüngste Kaiserreich. Schlafendes, wachendes Mandschukuo), Cordes drew a picture of what he saw as the sophisticated, big, serious nation of China in the 1930s. Dissatisfied with the xenophobia and colonial mentality toward the Far East among his fellow Europeans at that time, Cordes considered his travelogue as an opportunity to showcase the color of China, its landscape and the city people’s everyday life in its vicissitudes. For the most part, his travelogue reads like a classic perspective painting contemplating the horizon from afar, giving you a penetrating look into the panorama. Yet from time to time, Cordes’s lens zoomed into something, taking up a curious, sometimes rosy, and tender tone. Arriving in Beijing in the summer, Cordes described one city evening that emerged out of the heat exhaustion and busting out with vivid hues of color:
It was in such a hot summer evening, close to nine o’clock, as the air started to cool down. The sun was like a big bloody fireball dropping against the West Mountain. I was just strolling around the Beipin city wall. The view one sees from there is unique, nothing like this can be found anywhere else in the world. The cityscape [of Beipin] is of a straight and simple grid, setting up a background of balance and harmony. Accompanied [the cityscape] are the colors of dark green, the golden yellow, and the blue of glazed glass roof. It is a grandiose, beautiful picture that renders [the view] an unforgettable scene. The scenario even condenses into a dreamy milieu of this old capital of China, giving out an even deeper [feeling of the city].
Interestingly, this piece of Cordes’ writing on the time he spent in Beijing was later excerpted and translated by Ling Shaung into Chinese and published in a local Beijing magazine, the Monthly Journal (Yue Bao), in 1937 under the title of ‘The Walnut Rubbing Chinese’ (PDF: 揉核桃的中國人 月報1937第一卷第一期). Translating this piece into English, I was fascinated by the journal centering it upon Cordes’ detailed description of his encounter with a Beijing gentleman who carried himself in a noble manner with a pair of walnuts on his palm. Cordes writes:
I took a close look at the man’s toy when he was not paying attention. They are two very smooth walnuts. The ample color [of the walnuts] looked so deep, almost turning into red. With his slow swirling rhythm his fingers play, he seemed to touch and caress [the walnuts] with love. The surface of the walnuts’ shell was uneven and with cracks, therefore the rubbing of the two walnuts created a slight sound – as if the grinding sound of food with teeth.
Curious about this rubbing and swirling of walnuts, Cordes struck up a conversation with the Chinese man. After exchanging courteous words, Cordes mustered his courage and asked, “Sir, what’s the thing that you are playing with on your hand?” Pulling his hands out from behind his back, the Chinese man showed him the two walnuts he’d been treasuring for years. Speaking to Cordes, he explained:
These are normal walnuts. They are no different from the normal walnuts that we eat. Just that they have smoother shell. These two [that I have here] happened to be very old walnuts. They had been played since my great grandfather was alive. The habit [of playing walnuts] is an ancient custom. I can’t tell you how ancient it is. But it must have existed for more than a thousand years. You probably have read about this kind of walnut in old Chinese books. The older they are, the more valuable they become. But they have to be kept perfect, avoiding being damaged. In order to achieve this goal, we have to hold on to the walnuts everyday, to touch and play with them. This would render the scent on our body onto the walnuts, in order to bath them with it. They eventually would be filled with our lives. As the time goes by, they [walnuts] would become the part of us naturally. We would never want to part with them. For this purpose, it’s the most difficult thing to purchase a real old pair of walnuts. You know that we Chinese people are superstitious. If you lost or damaged such a walnut, you took it as a bad omen. Those old walnuts displayed in the antique shops are not real ones. They are counterfeits, produced to cheat foreign tourists. Of course, if you are lucky, sometimes you can buy a real pair of walnuts. Yet that would cost you a great fortune! They are as expensive as jewelries.
Mesmerized by this eloquent speech, Cordes urged the gentleman to further explain this walnut-rubbing hobby. “My friend,” the Chinese man replied, “if one has never played with this kind of thing, it’s hard to understand the wonder and mystery of it. This thing carries the function of cultivating your soul.” With this manifesto, the Chinese gentleman elaborate on the ways in which one’s mind and body can be satiated with serenity through such a form of self-cultivation. Cordes recorded this conversation faithfully as it continued:
“Yes, it can function as cultivating your soul.” He repeated the phrase, while pointed his forehead as if there exists the secret of soul. “ The slow motion, the rhythm of rubbing walnuts makes one’s spirit feel relaxed and comfortable. When I feel exhausted, unhappy, and the worrisome ideas catch up with me, depriving me the rest I need, I’d always pick up this pair of walnuts. Look, I rub them in this way: tender, smoothly, slowly, with complete focuses poured onto the two walnuts. Therefore I throw out any mundane problems above the sky. When you rub the walnuts for many hours, you’d feel a slight stinging sensation on your palm. Following that, the stinging sensation would climb up to your shoulder, and finally you’d feel as if your brain is given a massage by a woman with her tender hands. This would make all your worries go away. Both your mind and body would be bathed in a limitless feeling of relief. You would feel the comforting sensation of relaxation as if you just took a hot bath. Oh this thing of walnuts is a real magic of massaging your soul ….”
The mixing of the stinging sensation of numbing pain, created by one’s rubbing of the pointy shell of walnuts, and the relaxing feeling arising afterwards centers the Chinese gentleman’s illustration on the gestalt of such an urban hobby. In the 1930s, Beijing found itself in a political void as the Republican government moved its capital to the southern city of Nanking in 1928—ending Beijing’s more than six hundred and fifty years of being designated as the country’s capital. Various forms of urban hobbies began to emerge and prosper in the period, alongside the folklore marketplace mushrooming in the city. Before the Communist government reassigned Beijing as the capital of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing enjoyed a unique historical time when its urban identity seized its chance to fully emerge, filling people’s everyday live with teahouse theaters, folklore story-telling, street performances, and those devoted personal, intimate hobbies such as the cultivation of walnuts. Outside of the serene city walls, it also proved a time of great historical turmoil for China.
Reading Cordes’ words printed in Chinese, on a yellowish newspaper page in the Spring of 2013, I was fascinated by this man, his sojourn across borders from Europe to Beijing, but mostly on his acute caption of the poetics wrapped up in a trivial urban hobby deeply embedded in the city milieu at that time. If the archive is to tell us something richer and subtler alongside the day-in and day-out scholar labor we spend facing rubrics of documents plucked from a microfilm in a basement reading room, it is only possible through discovering the unexpected wonder such as Cordes’ travelogue gently folded in the archive. Is the cultivation of the walnuts a personal escape from the serial of wars and political upheavals stuffing China in the early twentieth century? Perhaps especially so as it reflects upon Cordes’ own endeavor to escape the Europe simmering in turmoil in the 1930s into a China filled with colorful hues? I sit inside of an office building on this November day of 2015, looking at the smog-infused grey sky of Shanghai outside of my window and my pair of walnuts lying on my table, wondering.
I-Yi Hsieh is a teaching fellow of Global Perspectives on Society at NYU-Shanghai. Her research sheds light on the intersection of urban material culture, UNESCO’s world heritage program, and the rise of folklore markets in Beijing. She maintains an academia.edu page.