Rotten Axe Handle (For Flux Ache)

Most people probably remember the old American story Rip Van Winkle, in which the title character wanders into the mountains outside his village, falls asleep for twenty years and, after waking up, returns to his village to find that everything has changed; his wife has died, his friends have died, his daughter has grown up. The story, however, is not unique. It has forerunners in the folklore of many cultures, in Hebrew, in the Orkney Islands, in Germany. In Ireland it is the legend of Oisin and Niamh. And in China it is a third-century tale, called Rotten Axe Handle.

Here’s the story:

Wang Chi was a hardy young fellow who used to venture deep into the mountains to find suitable wood for his axe. One day he went farther than usual and became lost. He wandered about for a while and eventually came upon two strange old men who were playing Go (a traditional Chinese boardgame), their board resting on a rock between them. Wang Chi was fascinated. He put down his axe and began to watch. One of the players gave him something – it looked like a date – to chew on, so that he felt neither hunger nor thirst. As he continued to watch he fell into a trance for what seemed like an hour or two. When he awoke, however, the two old men were no longer there. He found that his axe handle had rotted to dust and he had grown a long beard. When he returned to his native village he discovered that his family had disappeared and that no one even remembered his name.

I’ve thought of that story from time to time, wandering the streets of Guiyang. After arriving in July 2010, I’d often walk from my flat on Wenchang Road to the park along the banks of Nanming river. The route took me past a fenced-off area of wasteland, nothing but dust and scrub and stones. By Christmas, however, that dust and scrub and stone was no longer visible. Now rising up all 21st century from where the wasteland had been was a massive multistorey shopping mall, the Hunter Plaza – –  in which you can consume Dairy Queen and KFC. Construction took only five months.

Tall, multistorey buildings that were not there two months ago now scrape the bellies of grey clouds. Where once you had to dodge traffic to cross the road there is now a pedestrian overpass. Things are built quickly here. And so I think of Wang Chi, and how he fell asleep and, returning to his village, saw that everything had changed.

Here in my hometown

things are not as I knew them.

How I long to be

in the place where the axe-shaft

moldered away into dust.

And yet, and yet, the only stable thing is flux.

Heraclitus: Nothing ever is, everything is becoming.

But is there a speed beyond which development – which term itself is weird and perhaps misleading – is just too damn fast?


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