My husband has just left me for another woman.
Adorned in festive red silk and a jaunty feathered headdress, he exchanges marriage vows with a beautiful Tujia girl in her native lands, the Wuling Mountains along the Yangtze River, in front of a whooping crowd of wellwishers before ascending to the marital chamber. It’s a blow, especially as I’m six months pregnant and we’re on our final holiday à deux before we become three. The irony is that here in China, we’ve discovered neither of us makes a particularly attractive catch.
The union is short-lived. My husband’s “wedding” is the culmination of a two-hour walk through the Tribe of the Three Gorges, a tourist village in which the phases of the traditional courtship of the local Tujia are staged. Tujia relationships take place via a series of musical compositions. We spy a young man playing a haunting flute melody under a pagoda, hoping to capture a girl’s attention. Further along the waterside path, sitting winsomely in a small boat on the emerald water, a young woman sings to her fisherman beau; he returns the call heartily from somewhere downstream. Finally, a marriage. Singled out from the crowd, my husband bravely croons Tujia words of devotion before taking a gulp of strong corn wine, his arm entwined with his bride’s.
This spectacle of song, dance and hilarity is performed for groups that disembark Yangtze cruises to explore the culture of the Tujia, the eighth-largest ethnic minority in China. I thumb an exaggerated lipstick stain from my husband’s cheek as we wander between two waterfalls. A white flood gushes from the one called Yellow Dragon while, opposite, clear water drops gently from Qinying fall. They’re known locally as Lovers’ Waterfall: two people singing their love to each other in different voices.
Days earlier in Shanghai, where our 10-day Abercrombie & Kent China Getaway journey began, I’d encountered hopeful parents seeking spouses for their adult children at the weekend marriage market in the People’s Park and watched dozens of white-clad brides posing for wedding photos along the Bund in the former British Concession, their elaborate silk trains trailing in gutters while the throng surged past them.
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Over brunch, 37-year-old Shanghainese tour guide Mira explains that in this teeming city of more than 24 million, a man can’t expect to get married unless he has a degree, a good salary, health insurance and a condo. Women, likewise, are required to have degrees, good jobs and relative youth to be a good catch. Mira herself married with practical, though less businesslike, considerations. “My husband was a little chubby. All my girlfriends told me I should find someone better-looking and richer,” she says as we’re served bowls of flavoursome soup thickened with silken tofu. “Now my husband is a fatty,” she grins, “but we always have things to talk and laugh about.”
Mira grew up in a traditional shikumen alleyway house measuring 13 square metres, sleeping at the foot of her parents’ bed in the family’s room until 2000, when the government tore down their inner-city neighbourhood and relocated the family to one of the thousands of new apartment blocks that have sprung up on the other side of the Huangpu River in Pudong. Within a decade, subways crisscrossed the city and the old ways of life had all but disappeared.
We’re in the city’s Xintiandi locale, where shikumen houses saved from demolition have been transformed into high-end Italian restaurants and German beer halls, and the Communist Party headquarters is flanked by international chain stores. With neither property nor the most basic health insurance, it turns out I’m positioned right at the bottom of the barrel, marriage-wise. And I’m eating xiao long bao (soup dumplings) all wrong. “Nibble the corner,” says Mira, instructing me to release the fragrant broth onto my spoon to cool it before putting the whole thing in my mouth. No more scalded tongue.
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We depart ever-rising Shanghai, travelling to the airport on the maglev train – one of the fastest in the world at 430 kilometres per hour – for a slower pace. In Yichang, we board Sanctuary Retreats’ Yangzi Explorer (sanctuaryretreats.com), which carries 124 passengers along the Yangtze River to Chongqing, bound for our final destination, Beijing. Chongqing is the site of the Three Gorges Dam, a hydropower project that, in the name of progress, flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1350 villages and displaced some 1.3 million people. On board, drifting past villages still clinging to the riverside, there’s time to reflect on the rapid change taking place all over the country – and what it’s leaving behind.
Our luxurious floating home boasts the highest crew-to-passenger ratio on the river (one to one), as well as the largest suites, each with a spacious balcony. Cruising time is spent practising tai chi, having reflexology treatments in the spa, learning calligraphy and making dumplings or watching the world go by from a lounge on deck. We chug along the river at night and awaken to a fresh sight each morning, whether it’s unlikely tower blocks rising from halfway up a steep mountainside, with clothes drying on grim caged balconies, or craggy, green-swathed cliffs and rhesus macaques paddling in the shallows.
Despite these wonders, all our fellow passengers want to do is discuss my husband’s transgression. “You’ve got a new wife!” exclaims Frank from New Jersey, all but high-fiving my husband. If we didn’t stand out before by virtue of my pregnancy and our relative youth compared with our fellow cruisers, then my husband’s “nuptials” this afternoon have secured our celebrity: me as scorned wife and he as hero bigamist.
Boarding a ferry in the port of Badong, I notice the hum of shocked voices: a man is swimming in the river, the red buoy attached to his body acting like a beacon amid the floating garbage. But China has a knack for going from unlovely to breathtaking from moment to moment. Soon we’re out of the murky harbour and travelling along the Shennong Stream between the Wu and Xiling gorges, hemmed by steep, mist-cloaked cliffs. It’s where we glimpse the impossible “hanging coffins”. The wooden caskets are wedged into crevices about 100 metres above us, placed there hundreds of years ago – quite how, no-one knows. Linda, our local guide, explains that the Tujia have no written language but record their history through song and, as she begins to sing, a butterfly lands gently on the brim of her hat.
We’re transferred to a wooden sampan, a small, pod-shaped boat manned by Tujia trackers whose extraordinary athleticism belies their size and age. To avoid rocky shoals, these men would leap from sampan to land and use ropes to pull fishing boats upriver, running along paths now mostly submerged by the inundation. These days, they supplement their income on tourist sampans. The eldest currently working is 89; the most senior on our boat appears to be in his 70s, wizened and bent like an ancient root system. When he takes my arm to help me from the boat, his hand is as steady and sure as an oak.
Our final shore excursion is to Fengdu,
a small county relocated in the early 2000s
as part of the dam project. The old city’s 50,000 inhabitants were moved as water levels rose to claim it.
In a tableau of idealised urban life, groups of spry elderly women practise synchronised dance moves in the main square; others idly swing their legs on public exercise equipment. Families sit around makeshift tables for an alfresco breakfast, mothers chopstick-feeding noodles to toddlers and seniors blowing steam off cups of tea. Debbie, our guide, explains that even here the prospects for, say, an impoverished artist are dim. “We have a saying,” she offers. “No money, no honey.”
Finally in Beijing, I’m drizzling honey over a fluffy pancake in the dining room at The Peninsula hotel (beijing.peninsula.com) when a woman lays her hand on the bump that has begun to precede me everywhere I go. “It’s a girl,” she informs me. “Pretty, like you.” I love this woman.
Well, I do until another wellwisher informs me that I’m having a boy – because, it seems, women carrying girls become fat and lazy and have terrible skin. This kind of superstition about pregnancy could be a hangover from China’s one-child policy, which began being phased out in 2015. Its legacy is evident in the demographics: there’s a gender imbalance among those born in the 1980s and ’90s, with too few women to go around.
For centuries, matches were based on family trees, dowries, the zodiac and, more recently, the promise of a better material life. Chinese history abounds with legends of star-crossed lovers. I wonder if these stories still resonate with today’s youth as I watch couples wander, arm in arm, through the twisted lanes of a bustling hutong neighbourhood in Beijing’s Dongcheng District, many dressed in matching ensembles – identical T-shirts with jeans is a popular choice. This sartorial unity signifies a shift: traditional matchmaking is being replaced by a more modern concept of romantic love.
Public displays of affection are still a long way off, though, so young couples wear their devotion on their sleeves. Perhaps, amid China’s relentless push forward and its citizenry’s determined pursuit of economic success through marriage, there’s still room for a little romance.
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