I could have seen Zibo.
I felt my throat burning soon after the plane touched down in Qingdao. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d already seen the heavy grey skies of North China and I knew what they meant for those down below.
In a strange way, I missed the place. Was it because I’d never lived and worked north of the Yangtze and as a result I knew the region only as a traveller could? Or because it was just such a heady mix of diverse religions, heavy industries, overbearing cities, and empty landscapes?
Whatever the reason, the sentiment was one sided. Qingdao seemed intent on making me uncomfortable, from the choking air to the freezing cold to the hotel I’d booked which on arrival turned out not to allow foreign guests.
But I wasn’t staking all my hopes on Qingdao. There was so much more to see, and do, and think about in Shandong and other provinces. I had plenty of time to leisurely travel back south, taking any trains that were available and stopping at any cities and towns along the way that caught my eye (on condition that the hotels there allowed foreigners, that is).
A German church built when Hitler was in power, its tower pointing at the immobile clouds. A hillside park that offered views of the smog blanketing the city. A beach exposed by low tide where seagulls soared into a feverish sunset. A bottle of Tsingtao beer, as pale and bland in its famous birthplace as anywhere else, reassuringly cold to my fingers. A small stubborn cough that I quickly got used to. That was my Qingdao, and I loved it.
Two days later I found myself on a train. Six hours on yingzuo (hard seat) filled with looking at unadorned faces of my fellow passengers and unadorned landscapes outside the window. Station signs with names of towns and cities that sounded so refreshingly different than those in guidebooks and on websites. And finally, my destination – Tai’an.
The hotel receptionist took my passport without batting an eyelid.
The next morning, I walked through the streets towards Mount Tai. It was supposed to be a high, imposing edifice of sacred rock, and yet I couldn’t see anything beyond the cityscape. The map was adamant I was walking in the right direction. When the sun finally rose high enough and a bulging reddish mass emerged, forebodingly hunched over the rooftops, I realized it had been there all along, shrouded in airborne filth.
As I walked up the thousands of steps leading up to the summit, there were barely any views to contemplate. Once I finally made it to the top, my knees shaky and my breath short, the only thing I cared about was food and drink. But when I took a winding path leading from the Temple of Confucius through sparse vegetation to a rocky hillside and stood there at what must have been a prime vantage point once, a thought that had pestered me all day came back.
We can’t go on like this.
Mountaintop views are almost by definition supposed to be stunning. And yet from the top of Mount Tai on that February day there were no views to stun anybody. The upturned eaves of nearby temple buildings framed a blurred outline of the land below, drowned in ubiquitous greyness. Surely nothing like what the generations of emperors who made pilgrimages to Mount Tai must have seen.
I took the cable car halfway down and then went on to walk the remainder of the distance through the darkening landscape, in solitude and silence broken only by my own persistent cough. When it got really dark, hopeful sunrise watchers started climbing up with the help of smartphone torch lights. I hoped the view from the summit at the break of dawn would be worth their risky overnight trek.
A few months later I was at home in Poland, reading a viral article by David Wallace-Wells in the New York Magazine. The Uninhabitable Earth paints an alarming picture of the way we are wrecking the climate, and how bad it can still go. It’s a long, unsettling and fascinating read, and I felt sick in my stomach when the reality of it all hit me. I became nauseatingly certain that we really could not, must not go on like this.
“Over the past decades,” observes Wallace-Wells, “our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety”. The real threat lies in what happens off-screen – runaway emissions of greenhouse gases, insatiable resource extraction, pursuit of profit and pleasure at any environmental cost – but we are unwilling to face it, and Hollywood channels our subconscious climate anxiety into safely far-out scenarios.
In trying to find out why so many of us “suffer from an incredible failure of imagination” and refuse to engage with the reality of climate change, Wallace-Wells enlists the expertise of Amitav Ghosh, an Indian novelist, who “wonders why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction”. As Ghosh puts it, “the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.” Ghosh wants to see more works of fiction taking on the threat of the ecosystem collapse, but are they forthcoming? And would they make a difference?
The problem with Ghosh’s otherwise laudable attempt to raise the alarm is that he chooses to overlook the actual literature on the ground, that is, on readers’ bookshelves. Not only heavyweights like Margaret Atwood have brought the issues of climate change and environmental degradation to the fore. The past several years have seen the rise of cli-fi –climate fiction – especially in the Young Adult section of the market. Yes, there is still not enough of it in the mainstream, but given the fact that it is the young generations that will bear the brunt of the climate future, and given that it is them that even now can push their decision making parents to make better decisions, Ghosh’s perspective on what really matters in literary output is unhelpfully narrow.
Still, he has a point. There is a question mark over human capacity for making a connection between what we do and how we suffer. Cognitive biases of all kinds conspire to help us enjoy being wilfully oblivious to how our actions impact others – and ourselves. Examples? Driving a diesel car and then coughing when exposed to the fumes and smog. Reflexively grabbing free shopping bags and then complaining of beaches being littered with plastic. Eating meat and then wondering why rivers are so murky. Or smoking and then bemoaning the unfairness of being diagnosed with lung cancer.
A novel or film about real consequences of what we are doing to the biosphere, of which we are a part, would not generate enough sales, Ghosh and Wallace-Wells seem to say. Escapism pays better. And it must necessarily be the variety of escapism to be found on a screen or a page. Trying to find refuge outdoors, say, on mountaintops, can be counterproductive.
Weeks later I was back in China, in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou. It’s never as bad here as in North China – or so I believe – but air pollution does shoot up sometimes and you can feel it in your throat. Wearing face masks has not caught on here yet, as it has in Beijing and elsewhere, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
One of my go-to places in Guangzhou is a huge book centre in Tiyu Xilu. A foreign language bookshop Page One is down in the basement (it used to be on the top floor) and on one of my recent visits I picked up a short selection of stories by Pu Songling. I’d already heard of this prolific Qing Dynasty author and read some of his horror stories, but only now, with a glance at his (shortest possible) bio on the pleasantly coarse paper, I found out which place he called home.
Born 1640, Zibo, China
Died 1715, Zibo, China*
Zibo had been on my Shandong itinerary the previous winter, a place I wanted to see somewhere between Qingdao, Tai’an, Qufu, and the provincial capital of Jinan. Then my plans changed. I had to leave the North sooner than I expected to meet someone important all the way down south, in Sanya – the Chinese tropics. A place had to be sacrificed. And so, I abandoned Zibo.
Now it came back and with it, the memories and thoughts of that grey week in Shandong. And while I was reading Pu Songling’s nightmarish, ludicrous, and insane stories, many of which seemed to have no point other than throwing random weird occurrences at the reader to try and make sense of, there was a little string of code running in the background of my mind, busy making associations.
And finally, it dawned on me.
Pu Songling wrote about climate change.
No, not directly. But there was a way of seeing his works through the ecological lens that made more sense to me the more I let the code run.
Take “The Giant Turtle”, a story so short, today it would qualify as flash fiction. “An elderly gentleman called Zhang” warns his wife and daughter “not to fry any strong-smelling meat during his absence, for fear of provoking the turtle-demon that lurked in the water.” They predictably ignore his admonitions, and the “vicious creature” duly finishes them off.
Grief-stricken Zhang, seeking revenge, asks local monks for information on the monster’s “strange ways”. But they are appalled:
“We live with the turtle every day, in constant fear of the devastation it is capable of causing. All we can do is worship it and pray to it not to fly into a rage. From time to time we slaughter animals, cut them in half and throw them into the river. The turtle jumps out of the water, gulps them down and disappears. No one would be so crazy as to try to seek revenge!”
Hearing this, clever Zhang knows just what to do. He hires a few locals to “set up a furnace on the hillside above the river”, smelt “a large lump of iron”, lift it, red-hot, “with a great pair of tongs” and then “hurl it into the river.” The turtle gulps it down and spectacularly dies. Zhang is worshipped as a water god. The end.
Where’s climate change in that?
Look at what the monks say. Now, replace “the turtle” in the first sentence with “the spectre of climate change” and let it sink in. Then keep on replacing: “worship” with “ignore”, “pray to” with “hope for”, “fly into a rage” with “turn out as bad as we are warned it is”. Revise the two subsequent sentences to the following effect: “From time to time we” can’t help but notice how the effects of climate change “slaughter animals” and decimate biodiversity in general, as well as destroy the lives of the poor and powerless, but then it all “disappears” from our view, while we’re busy going about our lives. Finally, follow “revenge” with “on those who perpetuate the system that is guaranteed to get us all killed.”
How about the whole iron smelting thing? Easy – that’s a brilliant technological fix that too many of us hope will come just in time so that we don’t have to change our precious lifestyles nor disturb our entrenched hierarchies. And the admonition “not to fry any strong smelling meat” is pretty much self-explanatory.
There you have it.
We indulge in fantasies of superheroes saving us from outlandish disasters, we keep on enjoying our wasteful lifestyles, we don’t want to heed the warnings not to burn all those fossil fuels for fear of provoking the climatic demon that lurks in the air. Catastrophic climate change – what George Monbiot calls “climate breakdown” – looms over us, and yet most of us keep living our lives as if things were going to go basically as they are now. Except that they won’t.
Ghosh is right and wrong at the same time. Works of fiction can be helpful in waking us up to the reality, but we don’t need to rely exclusively on contemporary fiction for that. With the help of tools developed by ecocriticism and plain old common sense, there is a way of reinterpreting our literary (and cinematic, artistic, perhaps even musical) heritage that allows us to grapple with that reality, in anything that we read, watch, listen to, and admire.
Now, a year on from my aborted Shandong adventure, leaving home on a hazy Guangzhou day, when my weather app warns of dangerously high levels of air pollution, I can’t help but be preachy. We can’t go on like this. Either we end our excesses ourselves, or the climate will end them for us – by ending us. But if we could learn to see climate change even in a 300-year-old story of a giant turtle killed with molten metal, then maybe, just maybe, we could learn to see it everywhere around us and in everything we do. And take responsibility.
Including for taking a flight out of Jinan all the way down south to Sanya, spewing carbon dioxide into the heavy grey skies over North China.
Dawid Juraszek is a lecturer in literature and culture of English-speaking countries at a university in Guangzhou, China. His academic background is in English, translation studies, educational leadership, international relations, and environmental management. A published novelist, his fiction, poetry, and journalism have appeared in a variety of outlets in his native Poland, Japan, and the United States.
*This and all subsequent quotes from: Pu Songling, Wailing Ghosts, translated by John Minford, Penguin Classics 2015