Life and death on Tea Mountain

A former Chico restaurateur learns acceptance and finds joy in a remote Chinese village

The author with a village elder. Most locals refer to Nan Ao as “Long Life Village” because so many of its residents are in their 80s and 90s, Morgan says. “I’m the foreign kid at 68.”

The author with a village elder. Most locals refer to Nan Ao as “Long Life Village” because so many of its residents are in their 80s and 90s, Morgan says. “I’m the foreign kid at 68.”

Photo courtesy of Fred Morgan

Here, in the legendary Bamboo Sea region of China, I am an oddity. I tower over most Chinese, and my hair is silver in a country where nearly everyone colors his or her hair black at the slightest hint of gray. My nose is big, my ears are long, my body looks like a whiskey barrel, and I speak a strange brand of Chinese. The dialects change as often as the towns do, and I have a special talent for mixing and mangling words.

I have lived in China for more than 13 years now, the past seven in this remote tea-mountain village, Nan Ao, on the East China Sea. The surrounding mountains have large plots of Dragon Well Tea, a famous green tea produced for more than 1,200 years, which grows alongside bamboo and softwood forests.

Chinese tourists come here mostly on the weekends to escape the crowded and polluted cities and wander the deserted paths, to drink in the fresh air, beauty, and solitude. They are surprised to see a foreigner in this remote peasant farmer village. Foreigners usually don’t visit a place alone, especially a remote place that doesn’t boast a single famous landmark.

My dog Halle has been here with me most of the time, except for a six-month stretch of amateur but very effective obedience training from a Chinese farmer in another village when the dog’s murderous behavior prompted exile. She had discovered the fun of hunting the neighbors’ free-ranging chickens and dragging their dead carcasses back home to me. It became embarrassing and expensive, as each chicken cost me 100 yuan—about 12 bucks—not to mention the ill will of the farmer.

The last straw was her attempt at goat herding. During a pleasant morning hike to the summit of Dragon Well Mountain, my wife, Xianglin, and I watched in horror as she cut a small goat from the herd and proceeded to rip out its tender little throat.

As I trundled the still-warm body of the dead critter down the mountainside, I realized we were about to lose the dog, too.

Halle has the sleek good looks of a shorthair retriever and the markings and color of a German shepherd. She is precisely the kind of good-eatin’ black dog treasured in this area for the flavor it contributes to yin stew, a delicious, beefy dish usually served in cold weather.

To save her life, I was going to have to send her away and pay someone to keep her. So I did.

Halle is back now, and she sticks pretty close to me and doesn’t bother the chickens—even those that wander into my yard and onto my porch to steal her rice while she sits, puzzled. I reckon the villager who kept her alive beat the living shit out of her every time she so much as nodded at a chicken. She’s paid the price now, and so have I.

Morgan’s dog Halle, the notorious chicken killer, on a village street.

Photo courtesy of Fred Morgan

I hope this cure holds; it was lonely without her, especially since my wife has gone to Hawaii to study.

Halle and I sit together now, staring at the mountains. The willowy bamboo grows big and wild and is nearly worshipped by the locals. The farmers groom and harvest it, providing food, construction material and a surrounding beauty with every shade of green and yellow imaginable.

Many other trees: pine, maple, camphor, cypress, gingko, lilac, tulip, and mulberry—oh, and the lovely, wild red azalea—spread over the mountainsides.

The air is churned fresh daily by East China Sea breezes that push against the mountains. By late February, the bone-cracking cold of winter usually gives way to the crisp sun of spring.

The early blossoms of the plum trees always surprise me. Sparkling white, they blanket our little valley and instantly wipe away the cold, gray fog of winter. The buds on the peach trees in front of my house are not far behind, and will bloom a bright pink just as the plum blossoms begin to fade.

We are reminded here on this mountain of the great circle of life. These crisp spring days have ushered in death to a couple of neighbors. They died in their beds, as happens here in rural China—no rush to the hospital, no heroic measures, just acceptance of the inevitable: the Tao.

One was the oldest woman of the village, born in 1899, more than a century ago. She lay down and died just a few hours after her grandson had fired off about 2,000 rounds of ear-blasting firecrackers to mark the end of the spring festival.

“Oh, this is auspicious!” he is said to have cried, both from sorrow and joy.

The village barn is just down the hill from my place. The barn is a weathered old building of broken stone and wood-pole construction with natural vaulted ceilings. Narrow church windows bring light into its cavernous interior. It is as old as the village, at least 250 years. A large courtyard fronts the barn, which sits at the foot of a hill. The hill is covered in bamboo and tombs.

The barn is a storage place and workhouse and is used by the village as a gathering spot in times of need. When death visits the village, the barn becomes the funeral parlor.

A street scene in Nan Ao.

Photo courtesy of Fred Morgan

My dear friend: dead. Some say she was the oldest person not only in the village, but also in the province. I visited her often, her sunlit courtyard a gathering place for family and friends. Her daughter, at 76, is a delightful, laughing soul, always welcoming, offering tea and a friendly laugh. The old ladies of the village seemed always in attendance to the old woman and her daughter, chattering away, keeping the old one company.

Her face was like a nut-brown shriveled apple, with ancient bright eyes and a ready smile. She always made it clear she was waiting for death and was not happy it was taking so long. Like most Chinese, she exhibited a knowing and stoic weathering of this burden of life. The Way of Chinese spiritual thought, the Tao, permeates everything here, and is always present, like a light mist.

The day after she died, we all gathered in the village barn to begin the process of paying our respects and ushering her toward the next life.

She was laid out on a table, covered snugly with several colorful, fluffy, fat blankets. White muslin draped a frame that had been erected over her and presented her as if on an altar.

Already gathered were the female village elders, murmuring prayers and fingering beaded prayer strings. Some were busy sewing white muslin garments to be worn by grieving family members. White is the color of death here, and all family members are clothed in white muslin jackets, pants, and pillbox hats. Children and siblings of the dead wear single red-dye spots on the toes of their shoes, as well as hemp and cotton necklaces they must wear for 49 days—the first period of the traditional year-long mourning period—and then burn in honor of the dead. Virgin children also wear conical white hoods, signaling their purity and availability.

In the barn, old women were chanting and making paper money to burn. An impromptu village band, with drums and brass gongs, was gathered next to the body, playing temple music for the dead. Fires in small baskets dotted the floor. Beside the altar a group of eight men smoked and played cards. Small children ran around, and people mingled in the courtyard, gossiping and igniting strings of firecrackers; it’s believed explosions chase away evil spirits and keep the grounds holy.

I watched as female family members broke from the crowd, approached the old woman’s body and uncovered her face. They stroked her hair and wailed for some minutes, then abruptly stopped and rejoined the others, resuming their tea drinking and gossip.

The first day of this two-day celebration was concerned with family and village rituals. Monks from the local temple had been invited and arrived dressed in colorful robes, carrying beads, gongs, and cell phones. I am told some new young monks can’t take the separation from family and, oddly, that the phones are permitted.

The elder monk led the others in a chanting meditation, while the family and friends continued their socializing and the men continued to smoke and posture. About midway through the chanting, a cell phone went off from somewhere inside the robes of the monk ringing the gongs. He turned sideways, away from the chanting, and took the call. No one but me seemed offended.

After the prayers the monks were offered cigarettes, tea, and fruit. They resumed the music, and everyone gathered in front of the body. The monks unfolded a large white muslin flag, hand-painted with dozens of Chinese slogans such as “Peace in Heaven!” and “Good Journey” and “Be Rich in Heaven.” The flag was waved over a fire-filled brass pot in front of the body, and it ignited along with silver and gold faux paper money, instantly filling the barn with smoke and ash. It is believed that burning sends the cash heavenward, where it can be used by the dead for walking-around money.

Morgan on the backyard porch of his home in Nan Ao.

Photo courtesy of Fred Morgan

There were no fire extinguishers.

I am fascinated with these ancient rituals, and am told the villagers are amused and honored that I attend. My fascination is with the celebratory atmosphere. These funerals are in every way so very unlike most American funerals; I think the Chinese would be bemused at our solemnity at such occasions.

I was next invited to a large dinner in the village’s dining hall next to the temple. The old woman’s family went out of their way to invite me because of my four-year relationship with their grandmother, and because I made a contribution to her retirement fund a couple years ago. It was a very meager contribution that I had wanted to keep secret, but nothing is secret in this village. Having been so warmly accepted by so many of its residents, I had wanted to follow an old Chinese custom of family caring for its elderly.

It was a great honor to be invited to the family dinner. I was seated with three elderly cousins and made to feel very welcome by their smiles and doting service at the table. Frogs and chestnuts were braised together; chicken feet with chilies were chewed with gusto; whole fish with eyes staring to the heavens were offered. There was tofu, clam and mussel soup; fried snake; a dazzling array of garden vegetables steamed, fried and baked; fried duck heads with bones as crispy as shoestring potatoes; pig stomach stuffed with chicken hearts: The feast was a wonder.

We were given cigarettes and wine, and midway through the meal the eldest grandson came around to all 10 large tables with a handful of cash and gave each person 10 Chinese dollars. I passed the cigarettes and wine on to my tablemates but was not sure what to do with the money. I stuck it in my shirt pocket like the rest of the men.

The body was put into a small windowed van that afternoon and paraded around the village road. All the family followed on foot, still dressed in white. The van delivered the body to the fires of the local crematorium, and the ashes were returned the next morning and placed on the highest table of a raised platform in the courtyard in front of the village barn.

This was to be the final day of celebration and the day of burial. All the rituals of the previous day were repeated, the smell of gunpowder from piles of fireworks masking the ocean breezes coming over the mountains.

Large, oil-drum-sized paper models of a villa and a car also arrived. These were placed beside the ashes on the altar and would be carried later to the tomb. Family members also placed around the altar small trinkets they thought the departed would enjoy in the afterlife, then formed a line by age, from older to younger, to pay a triple bow of respect to the urn of ashes. In the afternoon, a long procession formed as the ashes and gifts were carried around the village and finally gathered together at the tomb.

The old woman’s tomb is tucked into a hillside next to the village barn. Orange trees, plum trees, bamboo, and flowering shrubs surround it.

Chinese tombs in the countryside are usually mounds of earth with a sharp, conical dirt top that comes to a peak and is covered with grass and weeds. They are cave-like, with a stone front that is bricked shut and covered with cement following burial.

Morgan with his wife, Xianglin.

Photo courtesy of Fred Morgan

On tomb-sweeping day, or Ching Ming Festival, held in April, family members groom the weeds and grass and generally spiff up the tomb. It is one of the major Chinese holidays and an important part of the ritual of ancestor worship.

After the old woman was interred, fire and fireworks again exploded at her tomb. The paper house and car and other flammables, including banners and more gold and silver money, were burned at the entrance. It is believed that fire and smoke will transport these necessities to the next life.

The birds are plentiful in the valley this year. The tea fields on the mountainside are showing their first buds. The spring pick of the tea is best and much sought after by affluent Chinese. There are usually four harvests of the tea bush from now until September. The first is by hand, and then the plants are harvested with hedge-clipper-like shears.

I scan the pleasant little mountain valley and wonder if I will ever leave. After several winters and occasional black holes of depression, I am finally coming to terms with the idea that there is a cycle of madness in me I must just ride and accept. I am comforted in this little place of peace and quiet.

The Chinese tell me the meaning of life is in man and nature. It is the Way, it is the essence of the Tao, and it is why it is so difficult for foreigners to grasp Chinese culture.

Even in the darkest winter I can spot a brilliant green-yellow splash of bamboo, or a scarlet of maple, or an imperial yellow of chrysanthemum. To spot a gossamer veil of electric-green fern next to my window can shrink the demons of winter.

I build a fire of the dried woods from the surrounding mountainside on the stone porch of my mountain house.

There is a stench to the wood that saturates my old sweater coat and adds flavor to the haunch of wild pig I place on the fire. The village hunter shot this small wild boar the other day and favored me with a hunk. He owns the only gun around, a 12-gauge single-shot weapon his son gave him. But he is known for his kindness. I know this because my dog killed two of his chickens and lived to bark about it. One very nice farmer and one very lucky dog.

I enjoy cooking outside occasionally, especially in late winter and early spring, when the air is crisp and the sun is shining. Xiang-lin and I like to barbecue outside, and this activity makes me think of her in Hawaii, gives me sweet thoughts of our times cooking together.

I’m a lucky dog too. Although I suffer the loneliness of separation, to be mindfully present in this pretty place and to be accepted and loved is all I really need.

The flames comfort me. The fire never fails me. Those who love and understand fire know that to sit and poke and tend a fire is a meditation of high calling. I cannot stare into a fire without thinking of all the goodness of life and, yes, the suffering too.

The meaning of life is joy in that full circle of life, and glad and courageous acceptance of all it delivers, both its happiness and its sorrows.