When I was a little girl, my parents told my sisters and me that if we dug deep holes in the dirt of our backyard, we might get all the way to China. Taking this folk saying literally, we created mountains of dirt with our metal spoons. At dinnertime, when we whined that we didn't want to eat our fish stew, our parents threatened, "We'll send your dinner to the starving Chinese!" No Chinese children crawled out of our backyard hole. Discouraged, my sisters and I put down our spoons. Instead of digging up dirt, I became a folklorist who delves into the intricacies of oral tradition.
After three decades of hearing stories about China from my Chinese college students, I finally took a trip to their homeland. In April, my husband and I participated in a two-week tour of three cultural capitals: Shanghai, Xi'an, and Beijing. None of the members of our tour group had ever traveled to China before. When our tour director asked how many of us had tried to dig holes to China and heard about starving children there, most of us raised our hands. "Times have changed," he told us. "Now you might hear Chinese people tell kids to send their food to the starving Americans." This neat reversal made us think about the progress since Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. My fellow tour-group members and I marveled at the array of fine restaurants and noticed the McDonalds and KFCs springing up like kudzu in the urban landscape. Some of them were open twenty-four hours a day.
At our tour's beginning, I expected to hear ghost stories. My Chinese students had told me so many! Our Shanghai guide, however, explained that modern Chinese people do not take ghosts seriously. "Only superstitious people believe in stories like that," he told us. "People from the country don't know any better. See this zigzag bridge? Long ago, people built these bridges to keep ghosts from following them. Ghosts are clumsy and stupid. They get mixed up easily." I contemplated the zigzag bridge, wondering about stupid ghosts. No matter how inept those spirits were, they seemed to have inspired the building of many bridges.
"Do people still worry about ghosts?" I asked our Beijing guide as he led us through the artfully constructed maze of the Forbidden City.
"Oh, no!" he told us. "Ghosts are no problem now. But long ago, craftsmen polished jade very carefully to keep ghosts away. If you wore many jade bracelets, you could keep ghosts from choking you while you slept."
"Don't some people still struggle with choking ghosts?" I asked, remembering the terrible "sitting ghost" in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.
"No, they don't!" he said firmly. Realizing that I'd been asking too many questions, I stopped, but others in my group asked plenty of others. We were an inquisitive crowd, eager to learn as much as we could.
A few days later, we visited part of the Ming tombs, where a high metal threshold protected the entrance. …