"The Path Itself" by Gabrielle Burton

Gabrielle Burton

Gabrielle Burton

Gabrielle Burton is a writer and filmmaker. She won the Thomas A. Wilhelmus award from Southern Indiana Review for best non-fiction essay “East of East” about the giant turtles of Malaysia. She also won 2013 Ohio Arts Council's Individual Excellence Award. Gabrielle has a poem in the current Los Angeles Review and three in “The Burden of Light.” After Harvard and Berklee, she won a Rotary to study film in France, then founded FIVE SISTERS PRODUCTIONS with her sisters (www.fivesisters.com). Burton’s current film is a documentary on drag. She recently gave a TedxTalk on gender (http://youtu.be/YOkyc91eY90).

The Path Itself

One who does not travel does not know the value of people. 

—Moorish proverb

Travel’: same word as ’travail’—’bodily or mental labour,’ ’toil, especially of a painful or oppressive nature,’ ’exertion,’ ’hardship,’ ’suffering.’ ’A journey.’

—Bruce Chatwin


In Beijing, we go to see “The Last Emperor.” I hadn’t seen the film in the States, which came out a year ago. Though it has Chinese subtitles, running vertically through the right third of the picture, the sound-track is in English. The cavernous auditorium is packed; the old seats are lumpy, and the floor is dirty. The audience talks throughout the film, commenting among themselves in murmurs.

We found seats all together, which is rare for my family; five daughters and two parents usually get split up. I like sitting in the middle, feeling subtly unbalanced and vulnerable on the end. My sisters also want to be next to our mother and father, or as near to them as possible. Sometimes it strikes me, with things like that—wanting to be close to the parent, to the protector’s touch—that humans are just animals after all.

In the middle of the film, there is a scene of Red Guards marching through the streets. It is a terrifying image of brainwashed youth, out of control, making me and my family cringe in our seats. The idea that a country was so caught, so embroiled in propaganda—all our Western fears of the Reds, the Commies—captured and visualized in large scale and bright color. My body freezes as I watch the Little Red Books raised, the chanting and the uniforms, the singing of Mao’s quotations. It seems endless, and I think about the similarities in the religious conservative movement at home; but then I slowly become aware of another sound, not from the movie.

It is laughter. My family and I look at each other, at the laughing people around us. It is a strong laughter, full-bodied, and it seems to say, “Look at what fools we were.” Though I will think later that perhaps it was the Asian laughter of nervousness and discomfort, at the time, it seems to lighten the image on the screen, to give it historical perspective and a sense of reality. To us, the scene is an American’s nightmare—the absolute loss of personal difference and independent thought and action. With the laughter, the Red Guards look more real, more familiar; we can see they were children floating along within a political movement, simply caught up in the furor of peer pressure and condoned, institutionalized rebellion against authority.

With the laughter, we can also see the aftermath in perspective. Time has passed. The children have grown up. Mao has died. Kentucky Fried Chicken has built a three-story restaurant across the street from Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. The line outside it is nearly as long as the one for viewing the body of Mao, the father of the People’s Republic, the institutor of continual revolution. Continual revolution has brought the outside world back into China. It has returned the strong bonds of kinship to dominance. It has made one full revolution.


We go through the mausoleum twice, once on each side of Mao’s corpse, hoping to distinguish which ear it was that recently fell off. Allegedly, the ear was sewn back on, but none of us can see stitches. Perhaps they used glue, my oldest sister suggests. The room is silent but for the shuffling of feet on carpet and the “s”’s in my sister’s whisper. Stone-faced guards in PRC green uniforms stand erect at the head of the glass tomb. They make sure that no one steps outside the path’s ropes and that the line keeps moving. No one is allowed to look for long, and a cased-in row of flowers keeps visitors from getting closer than a couple of yards. The single line moves too quickly to register the connection between this pale embalmed corpse in a gray uniform and a glass casket, and the world he created outside. To us, the changes Mao brought to China are immeasurable, permanent, inexcusable; but the Chinese do not see it the same way. In Asia, such changes are expected, a normal part of history. A ruler’s demise is inevitable. Violent transition is common. Change is standard. There is nothing so stable as constant change.

Gold writing covers the white wall behind the soldiers. Potted bushes stand neatly against the wall. The red floor echoes the muted shuffling of pilgrims, admitted in limited groups at a time. The mausoleum’s austerity seems to contrast with the power of its purpose. From the high ceilings hang harsh neon lights; the cheap wooden walls make everything ugly and institutionalized. Postcards sold in the back room, past Mao’s body, capture the feeling, their thin shiny print in unnatural colors reflecting the vague uneasiness the building creates. Mao in his clear case looks plastic; his red and yellow flag faded to a dull orange. There is an irony, perhaps, in this indestructible building with its preserved corpse and its discardable paper mementos, but it is not quite tangible, and instead leaves the visitor disarmed and on edge.

Outside in Tienanmen Square we are silent, fingering our admission tickets, hearing clearly the click of shoe soles against white marble steps. The majestic Halls of Culture and other departments for the People are located around the Square, each within wide courtyards of stone. Everything is dull white, gray, or brown. Billboards proclaim the importance of the Revolution. Everything is utilitarian and large-scale.

Across the street, within the fast-food atmosphere of neon lights and plastic forks, a medium-sized cup of Coca Cola with Colonel Sanders’s smiling face gives me a relief I would not have expected. In the air conditioning, we can feel safe from the hepatitis-filled air outside. The streets are hot and dirty; summer is not the best time to visit China. It rains every day, which cleans the air of dust and pollution, but this means that our feet are constantly sloshing inside our sneakers, and the fear of water-based flukes and other parasites lurks always at the back of the mind.

The streets are filled with people at almost any time. China’s population of one billion people shows; there is never an empty space, never a spot where someone isn’t near. Even at 6:00 a.m. in the park, one can see shapes moving through the trees, only a few feet away. There is no privacy, no solitude. The movie theater presents an escape, a form of mass hypnotism which helps one forget about the presence of others, until they start laughing at the image of chanting Red Guards destroying an ancient temple.

I am reading Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Ching. I thought it was a fitting book, even though I didn’t plan to read it here. Each person in my family brought one book on this trip, which we have shared. The only requirement was that each book had to be of general interest; but that was not really necessary to specify. My family is liberal arts through and through; even my father, the scientist, prefers Maxine Hong Kingston to research logs. My book was Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, about the Aborigines’ practice of “singing” the land into being as they migrate. They believe the song creates the land each time it is sung; the songs are precious and can be dangerous, must and can only be sung by the traveler. My sister recommended this book, saying she thought I would relate to it. Chatwin describes being a permanent traveler. Though I have not finished it, I’ve begun Life and Death, which gives me Chinese history and cultural information. Both are dense, but now I’m into the Ching book, and I savor the Chatwin in bits.

Ching describes imprisonment and beatings she suffered for the sake of the People. She recollects dates, visual details, and entire conversations without a blur. I envy her her memory. Mine fades and overlaps, so that I cannot know for certain where I saw a particular temple, cannot later distinguish one passing sight out of a train window from another. She recalls names and dates with clarity. Though I realize that I grew up under an educational system which valued the individual’s opinion and understanding over storage of facts, I regret not knowing my country’s geography or not really understanding its system of governing.

There is not much time to read. I don’t like missing any second of detail here. I have grown accustomed to Asia, to women carrying baskets on shoulder-rest poles, to bent figures deep in water, replanting rice shoots. I read on the trains sometimes, when I feel too hot and irritable to be any good to the world. The reading calms me, forcing my eyes into a repetitious rhythm, and though I may miss a boy riding a water buffalo as my train passes, I am more likely to fully see him after looking at words. Otherwise, images blur as they happen; I miss the details; shapes and shades are taken for granted. It seems the temporary contrast of black type makes me notice color more.

Maybe it’s just that it cools my blood pressure and quiets my brain. More likely, it’s the temporary escape. I stop noticing the cramps in my legs as I sit in the aisle; I tune out the hacking and spitting; I forget the press of human heat all around me, passengers crowding onto seats, every floor space filled, people lying in the luggage racks above. I read to think of other people’s lives, other people’s thoughts.


I think I would be happy in the place I happen not to be, and this question of moving house is the subject of a perpetual dialogue I have with my soul.  

                                                                             —Baudelaire, ’Any Where Out of this World!’


Baudelaire has struck upon something I know, something I feel: the internal burning, or wandering fever. It strikes at inopportune times—sitting in a classroom or in a meeting, in the places of responsibility and ties to others. Wandering fever is the desire to not be, to be something else, other than flesh and bones, to be movement, to be flight.

I love airplanes, at the moment of takeoff, when the earth tries to pull you down in vain, when the sky is open and empty for you, when you push upward, higher, and nothing, no one can stop you or call you back. The roar deafens the echo of things behind, of things on the ground. In flight, in mid-sky, time stops; there is no connection to anything solid. Motion is everything; movement is all that happens, all that is real, the only constant.  

Growing up, I always wanted to be an astronaut. I couldn’t verbalize it, but what I wanted was to go further, to leave the pull of gravity entirely. One can resist this force in planes, but it is always there, and the knowledge of imminent return, of giving into the downward pull makes the time resisting it sweeter. It is not just on planes that I feel this exhilarating escape of gravitational force, but trains, cars, anything with speed and distance between the feet and earth. Movement over ground without connection is a delicious feeling.

On the train, a Chinese woman coughs and spits next to my foot. A heaviness saturates the air. I breathe it in, in a sigh. My sister sleeps on my lap, her head propped carefully so her hair will not fall against the floor. The woman hacks, clearing her throat down to her bowels, and brings sputum up gradually; I can hear it move through all the passages in her intestines and throat. The yellow thick spit falls near my shoe. I move my foot slightly, but these floors are covered with dried mucus. Hepatitis is rampant; travelers have to be careful to use their own chopsticks everywhere. Though the Chinese know the disease is highly contagious, they spit constantly and anywhere.

Days after this train ride, we are in a hospital in Shanghai. There are spittoons with signs above them saying: “Please to spit in the bucket. Do not spit on floor.” That the sign is in English strikes me as amusing, but I don’t have time to ponder it; my mother’s pink eye oozes, and we have to find the foreigner’s section of this hospital. We find out that we are in it. The doctor tells her she has “red eye,” a common illness in Shanghai this time of year. He gives her a tiny vial with pink liquid, and we have to trust that she will not go blind using it. Her eye is swollen, and we think it is only a temporary conjunctivitis, but you can never be sure in these countries.


. . . in the East, they still preserve the once universal concept: that wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between [humans] . . . and the universe.

                                                                                                                       —Bruce Chatwin


Traveling in Asia makes one hungry for something, for a fulfillment to some basic question. In the States, or in Europe, the call is muted, hidden by the press of social mores, but in Asia, the desire runs free. In Asia, the possibility of catching the intangible seems close, so close. One keeps moving after it. Gautama Buddha said, “You cannot travel on the path before you have become the Path itself,” and this is the philosophy that haunts travelers in Asia. They move in search of the invisible, to gain the knowledge of a philosophy they do not understand. The road always seems to promise the answer: in escape, the capture of fulfillment; in movement, internal stability. Travel may be unpleasant: pink eye, and globs of phlegm at every step. Food always the same colors—browns, dark reds, grays, and yellows, sometimes greens, all of them dulled. Bureaucracy thick and immovable. And always the heat, even in the monsoons, drying the streets which had moments before seemed miserably and permanently wet, only to replace the rain with a sticky humidity which drags down the soul. But somehow, the traveler keeps moving, like a mad dog in the afternoon sun. The connection is always almost reached, as if the Path lies just ahead, only a few hours more down the road.

It is continuity which creates the weight, the burden, the feeling of heaviness deep in bone marrow. After the stifling heat, the rains seem to lighten things, cleaning the sky and washing the dirt and spit away; but when your socks are wet, and you sweat underneath the plastic pink raincoat pull-over you bought at a temple gate, the rain grows tedious. Its end comes as a sweet relief, but then the humidity returns, and the sun seems hotter than before. So it is in the first moments of change, of transition, that the feeling of lightness lies. It is the transformation, the passage from one thing to another, the motion of direction which lifts the heart. One travels from these moments to the next. The continuity in between brings gravity and fatigue––Asia seems too hard; the desire to just go back home is strong––and then the rains come again, and for a few moments the promise of escaping the pull back to the earth, of becoming the movement seems near.

It is wonderful to read a confirmation, a verbalization of this feeling I have tried to resist since I can remember. I had written it off as my wanting to escape responsibility; and maybe it is, but now it seems to be a phenomenon that others share, this urge to go.


Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.     

                                                                                                                     —Pascal, Pensées


My sister drools on my leg. The clear watery spit sinks through my pants and tickles my thigh unbearably, a tiny spot of focused sensation. I don’t want to move. Drool on the leg is a lovely feeling; it is like a sacrifice, a sign of affection, of trust. Drool means complete vulnerability. My sister’s eyes flicker, watching ghostly scenes she will not remember. She lies completely absorbed and entertained, entranced by illusions of her own mind.

We have been on the road for two weeks, traveling from Malaysia to China, which we will visit for the summer. My sisters and I take the train from Hong Kong to meet my parents and other sisters in Beijing. It begins as a modern subway, with air conditioning and clean red and orange vinyl seats. I had forgotten this part of the travel to China. Or perhaps the subway wasn’t the same when we were here before.


In 1980, China wasn’t open for free traveling, and my family and I could only get a day’s visa to Shenzhen, a tourist town on the Southeast coast near Canton. I was ten at the time. My mother was incredibly excited. She had grown up in the midwest, in the fifties, where she had learned that Chinese women had vaginas that ran sideways instead of up and down. She cannot remember who told her this, or how she learned the many other absurdly ignorant facts she mentions to us now and then, but she knew deep inside her that they had to be wrong. She became filled with a passion to escape her town, to explore the world and expand her knowledge; now she was entering the country she had read about in National Geographic and, later, novels and histories. China, the land of Marco Polo and Emperors, of long finger nails, elephants, silk, and wooden eating utensils. Now China, the land of the communists, Mao’s Red China.

We took a bus at some point, which crossed over a bridge, where we had to file off and surrender our baggage and passports for inspection. I trailed along with my younger sister; we usually held back in these situations. Someone always took care of everything; she and I followed along like goslings, flexible to any situation. Nothing was too different, nothing foreign; everything was fascinating in our child’s eyes. We had no perspective on what was ours and what was not. Mom and Dad pointed out the bicyclists, wearing circular hats with black crepe hanging off the curved edges. The Chinese wore nondescript clothing, gray or green. Our tour bus was driven to a store where we could buy enamel pins and embroidered purses or starched lacy tablecloths with American dollars. My sister and I stared at the desk clerks, who carelessly threw beautiful handicrafts on counter tops and barked prices. We walked around the dusty streets and soon climbed back onto the bus. I remember only fragmented images: the store desk, the dusty streets with bicyclists in broad hats, a billboard with a patriotic Chinese in PRC uniform smiling and looking toward the sky.

We crossed back over the bridge. Water ran through the deep ditch underneath. Fencing with thickly barbed wire wrapped in concentric circles ran along the length of the ditch on the Chinese side of the border as far as I could see. Guards with machine guns stood at tower posts along the fence, the wire wrapping them and all those they guarded inside, unable to pass through, to see beyond these confines, to go and see the world. Within the sharp spiked wire, everything seemed gray. Like a film that moves from black and white into technicolor, we moved from within the barbed wire to the land outside, and the color seemed to change too. I knew nothing of Communism, save what a ten year old unconsciously absorbs from news clippings and television images. I had no expectations, and I left with no real impressions that seemed unique to me. It was simply a day in the life, a day of travel.

After we got back to Hong Kong and the YMCA, we sat in the restaurant downstairs. The bright yellow formica reflected against the black and white tile floor. Sugary pastries sat on the shelf. The scent of hamburgers and french fries saturated the room. My parents asked each of us to tell our impressions of the day, what we had noticed most. My older sisters spoke of the art, the uniforms, the commercialism ironically situated in the midst of Communist social structure, the people’s faces, and the insipid industriousness. I do not remember this conversation, or any details of temples we might have seen, historic sites, hydroelectric works, or plaques. Each of the seven of us had our turn to speak. It came to me and my younger sister. They say that the only thing we said was “the wire.” They hadn’t especially noticed it.


The subway gathers passengers as it moves toward China. We have to pull closer together, to make room, and watch our bags more attentively. We have not taken such a trip alone before. We usually travel with our parents. It is exhilarating. We clutch our tickets. I don’t feel the least bit scared or worried. My older sister holds my hand instinctively. She is responsible and caring. She will take care of us, I know. I hold my younger sister’s hand with the same instinct. She looks out the window at the industrial grayness outside.

The train stops at a large station, and everyone pushes off and into inspection and immigration lines. Then the reality kicks in. We must take care of our passports and visas, buy our own tickets, find the train to Beijing. I pull out the Chinese guidebook and try to speak some Chinese. We make the right train by a minute; there is only one each day. It will travel a day and a half up to Beijing.

The train is already full. We have to sit on the floor. Four people sit on each wooden bench, which in America would fit two. I put my feet through my bag’s straps and pull my book out to read. I don’t know how far Beijing is, in miles or kilometers. I only know that we have been traveling on this train for a couple of hours.

In traveling, the sense of time gets warped, distance and direction displaced and distorted. Everything is relative, knowable only on a flexible continuum. Something takes a day, a week, a while. It is silly to judge lengths of road or simplicity of a task. A mile could take two hours to travel, mailing a letter, the same amount of time. Southeast Asian time is not divisible and solid. Nothing can be said to be exact. Measurement, if given, can only be in estimates.

The train rocks and jolts on the narrow tracks. The passengers stare blankly straight ahead, eat out of tin cups, or talk in sounds that grate on my ear. Usually I find them beautiful and songlike, but now they sound harsh and cacophonous. Perhaps it is the combination of sounds: the train rumbling, squealing, scraping, the condensed breathing, the nasal tones overlapping and dropping like the rain outside. Thirty-three hours to go.


Most nomads claim to ’own’ their migration path ...but in practice they only lay claim to seasonal grazing rights. Time and space are thus dissolved around each other...                            

                                                                                                                       —Bruce Chatwin


In October 1934, Mao and 100,000 of his fellow Communists set out on the Long March. They walked for 235 days and 18 nights, averaging twenty-eight miles a day. Fleeing the Nationalist army’s extermination, they moved north across 24 rivers, eleven provinces, and eighteen mountain ranges. They finally stopped 6600 miles later in the remote village of Yenan.  More than 80,000 people died on the way.

After the march, the Communists were considered invincible, their rise inevitable. Little account was given to Mao’s political visits to farmers along the journey. People believed instead that the movement’s popularity stemmed from its followers’ spiritual power, their strength to endure anything. 

They were victorious. Chiang Kai Shek was weak from battle with Japan; internal disharmony became uncontrollable. Mao Zedong provided charisma and direction, and China followed. He gave them an answer, and they felt fulfilled. Although some realized that the Chairman was not so idealistic, or perhaps too much so, the realization usually came too late. No one knows exactly how many thousands of people died in the Cultural Revolution. Years of education were lost. Faith was suffocated. History was rewritten. Traditional culture was suppressed.

Old Chinese opera is again performed, and the circus has been revived, and we go to see both in Shanghai. The opera singing pierces my ears along with the clashing of cymbals and the twangy strains of stringed instruments. The theater is packed and smoky, and people come and go throughout the performance. It is not rude, and it provides an additional spectacle, another reflection of old Chinese culture. During the Cultural Revolution, only certain arts were allowed, with proper messages, and attendance and attention was obligatory. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and political partner, controlled the arts. A failed actor, she took her revenge, wiping out groups of artists. The opera singers and acrobats today know only a fraction of the former repertoire, passed down from the underground resistance movement, in whispers at midnight meetings. The rest is lost. In the circus, the acrobats are graceful, but their stunts are elementary. Though they aren’t as trained as they once were, the show goes on, and new Chinese audiences are eager to be entertained by stories about gods and frivolous love, or by white tigers and dancing dogs.


A friend of my father’s, who came to visit us in America ten years ago, invites us for tea in his apartment in Beijing. The room is small and dark. He is a senior professor, considered reactionary by the Cultural Revolution, but favored by the present government. Before he was arrested by the party leaders, he spent weeks in a locked closet. After three years of reeducation in the countryside, he was rehabilitated and traveled abroad, speaking to universities on China’s behalf.

He had enjoyed the visit to my family’s house so many years before. It was the first time he had been alone in an American home. At first, he was guarded and distant. My sisters and I, ranging from six to fourteen, brought him school projects and played piano or violin in varying degrees of proficiency and enthusiasm. He smiled and thanked us politely. He painted our names in calligraphy and talked very little of his country. We made him dinner, took him to Niagara Falls, and he spent the night in our guest room. He laughed when I jumped on his lap and demanded a back-rub, smiled with approval when we sisters tried to impress him with our chopsticks skills that our mother had taught us. He invited us to China. He is happy to welcome us now. He talks freely of the former government, of the Cultural Revolution with distaste and disapproval. His son’s youth was wasted, he says; his son cannot find a job, because he has no education. The son cannot get an education anymore, because he is over the age limit for education set after Mao’s death. Despite his son’s problems, he is happy with the new government, happy with the direction China is taking. He lives with his wife and is wealthy by Chinese standards. He looks forward to more democratic reforms and international exchange.

On the bus or in the street, Chinese approach us to talk about the Cultural Revolution. We barely have to ask; they practice their English and loudly criticize the government. We wonder about the dangers of wire taps or spies, but our fears seem paranoid, exaggerated by American television shows; the Chinese talk openly and with vigor. It is amazing, this new feeling. There is no barbed wire. Though the heat makes it seem drab, there is color all around. People wear patterned shirts, skirts, and shapely pants. One can catch glimpses of the PRC uniform through trees in the park early mornings: old men and women doing tai chi stretch calmly, peacefully; but their functional dress does not seem to carry political importance for them, and their silent ballet overpowers the short history of these clothes. Such uniforms are rare today, but they can be bought in the government-run tourist stores.

Laughter echoes in my memory when we walk through the courtyard of the Imperial Palace. Here stands a monument to decadence; here was the last Emperor’s throne and bedroom; here was where he was taught history by an Englishman; here was where the Empress Wu smoked opium; here was where the eunuchs slept. Now the gates have been thrown open to the commoner, a sign of the People’s progress. We walk up the steps, next to the path cordoned off by rope; only the Emperor walked there. The respect given this history seems contradictory, but that this history was spared vandalism is equally curious. The wide halls with intricate paintings and woodcarvings might easily have fallen to young, impassioned hands fighting for the Revolution’s ideals.

We walk in the sunlight on dry broken cobblestones. I can almost see the Emperor’s procession through the courtyard; the film’s images are fresh in my mind’s eye. Robes like those he wore can be rented for photos. In the dressing room, a picture of Chairman Mao hangs on the wall, and I see the last emperor in a memory from the film, a broken man, successfully reeducated and working as a gardener. He wears a uniform and short hair and fingernails. He cites a phrase from Mao’s book to a passing townsperson whom he calls “comrade.” 

We walk out the front gate. Though the rain has not begun yet today, the air seems light and new. Mao’s picture overlooks Tienanmen Square, but it seems just a formality, another piece of history almost forgotten. An old woman hobbles by, her bound feet in child’s-size shoes. The Revolution forbade the crippling practice, and she is the only living evidence of the ancient aesthetic that we have seen. One more detail fading further into the world’s memory as my consciousness grows. At ten, I knew nothing of bound feet or their significance, and I didn’t know to look for them as anything special. Now I automatically see this woman as something foreign, something different from me; and I also see her as something old in the world, like the Chairman’s painted round face staring down at me. The yin yang philosophy of Buddhism says life consists of continual dialectical revolutions. Though Mao may have tried to rid China of the “four olds”—old ideology, thought, habits, and customs—new ones replaced them; and one realizes that new ones will always replace the old. Liberation will always eventually follow repression, and repression will follow liberation. One must know one to know the other; and this is the understanding that pushes the traveler forward. Asia always carries the promise of inevitable change.

The air feels thick with hope. Pedestrians run to us with phrases of English; they jump at the chance to speak with a foreigner. They ask for news of America and relish the new evidences of capitalism in China. China feels like a land of the future; and Mao and all he represented seems a faded nightmare, like a picture from a movie. In ten months, the People’s army will open fire on protesters right here, killing 1000-2500 of its own people and beginning a new wave of repression; but in the hot air of summer, it feels like the rain is just beginning, like the change is happening now, like the motion is here.