A Grassy Knoll

I have lately been going through old articles and essays that I wrote before the advent of blogging, and thought it would be fun to revive them (well, at least some of them) by posting them here. The essay below was written in 1998, while I was still living in Changchun, in Jilin Province, and before grass was a common sight in China.

China is a grassless land.  For many foreigners who come here, the grassless-ness is one of the things that strikes us first and hardest (after the crowds, mind you).  We look in vain for the familiar blades, but where we think we should find grass (in front of buildings, along sidewalks, on sports fields, or in parks) we only see dirt–hard packed dirt, that looks as though it has been there for thousands of years, which of course it has.  And when the wind blows, the dirt is picked up and flung to another location; into buildings, into nostrils, and up into the air to be carried along and dumped on the next town or province or out in the countryside.

Why is China a grassless land?  Is it because the land is so tired after having been tilled for 5000 years, and just can’t take the extra energy to grow grass?  Is it because the land needs to feed 1.2 billion people (1/5 of the world’s population), and can’t be wasted on something so frivolous as grass?  Is it because some despot (imperial or Marxist) once issued a decree that all the grass should be destroyed? Is it because Chinese people don’t like grass–or perhaps don’t know what it is or what it should look like?

I live in a city that has a very interesting park attached to a reservoir which was built by the Japanese occupying forces in the 1930’s.  By Chinese standards, it’s a nice park, with boats for rent, amusement park-type rides, and a huge tract of woods intertwined with paths for walking and cycling.  But even here, one is still struck by the absence of grass.  In the woods there are only tall weeds.  Along the lake, there is only pavement.

Yet, right in the middle of the woods, in a large clearing, there is a grassy knoll.  It’s a huge field, and if one didn’t look too closely they might feel as though they were in any city in the world, not a grassless Chinese city.  Yet, there is something strangely odd about this field of grass.  There are no children running and playing, no football games being played, no kites being flown, no lovers planning their futures.  On this field of grass there is not a soul, because this field of grass is ringed with barbed wire. Occasionally people wander up to the fence and look at the grass, but curiously no one crosses the fence or even seems to be too interested in this grassy knoll.

Every afternoon my teammate and I go biking in the park, and every afternoon we find ourselves at the barbed wire, staring longingly at the grass, for we are from a land of grass.  We wonder why the field is there. We wonder why there is a fence around it.  And we wonder if the people even know its there, much less care that it is inaccessible to them.  But this is China, where so many of the rights and privileges of life that we take for granted remain inaccessible.  It probably doesn’t strike them as odd that there is a barbed wire fence around a field of grass.  Grass is meant to be fenced in.  It is what a leader has decreed, and that is that.

The grassy knoll generates conflicting emotions in me.  Delight, because there IS a place I can go in this Manchurian city to see grass and soak up the calmness that the color green evokes.  My fellow biker and I always stop for a moment to enjoy the grass, even from the other side of a fence.   But it also makes me sad, because most people in the city probably have no idea it is there, and may never experience the joys of grass.  To them it will always be something on the other side of a barbed wire fence, something that has no relevance in their lives, because China is a grassless land.

Postscript: China is no longer the grassless land that it was when I wrote that. Most cities have benefited from a decade-long “beautify and greenify” campaign so that now where there once were dirt fields there are now beautiful parks.  And the parks have grass in them and they are not surrounded by barbed wire fences. They are accessible to the people, and that is a good thing.

(Photos of People’s Park –what else? — in Shanghai)





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3 thoughts on “A Grassy Knoll

  1. Did this ever bring back memories! That same year (’98) I was in Shandong province, teaching at a university on a beautiful spring day when my classes were cancelled due to a student work day. My students’ assignment? Dig up or pull out all the ‘weeds’ on campus. The weeds, of course, were mostly grass, growing mostly in the places you want it to grow! I’m glad I stayed in China long enough to see the trend reverse. And even happier for the Chinese themselves, who can once again enjoy a grass knoll or the beauty of a manicured campus or park.

  2. LOVED reading this because when I came home to the U.S. after living in the Philippines and China I would always remark about how HUGE the American lawns were between homes. BIG green areas! I marveled. After coming home from Kazakhstan I would always wonder how Americans could fit so much food in their refrigerators. I had gotten over the big lawns and was amazed by colossal sized fridges. I’m glad China has finally gone “green.”

  3. Some of the changes in China are good. Thank you for sharing one example with us.

    Another positive change in China is earlier English instruction. Whereas the students had to wait until 6th grade to learn English, many are starting in Kindergarten.