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Fragments From A Lost World

Seven miles offshore from a fishing village called Guanghai (“an opening to the sea”) in Taishan County, Guangdong Province, People's Republic of China are two small islands called Shangshuan and Xiachuan. They are visible out on the horizon. Fishermen told me that they were quite unspoiled, just a few fishing villages on beautiful beaches. But off-limits to everyone. The islands were strategically located on the South China Sea and controlled by the military. The People's Navy did not allow anyone, especially an American, to go out there. Still, I asked.

As my position in Taishan evolved over a few years and many involvements I was given three privileges that got more interesting with each one. The first was at the annual State-of-the-County assembly of the leadership chaired by the provincial governor. He was seated on a raised dais in front of about 200 attendees. I was seated on his left. No foreigners were ever allowed inside the gated, guarded, imposing government headquarters. When I asked the leadership for assistance with my Taishan China Study Program I was invited to meet with them. Inside. That was number two. But the third one actually stunned me.

One morning Feng Yuan Chao, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, told me he had a surprise for me. He took me to Guanghai where a Chinese Navy ship had docked. We boarded and the Navy sailed us out to Shangshuan Island. As we approached the island an old Catholic church became visible!

I was raised Roman Catholic and enjoyed knowing something of church history. One of the inspiring saint stories was about a man born in 1506 into a wealthy family in Spain who chose to became a monk, then was the co-founder of the Jesuits and spent the rest of his life as a missionary to exotic lands. His name was Francis Xavier. He went to India first and then got as far east as Japan. He did well there too but learned that all Asia was dominated by China and that the Ming Emperor had decreed that it was closed to all foreigners. Francis tried to enter China from the Portuguese enclave at Macao. He was unsuccessful. China was closed. Undeterred, he got aboard a merchant ship which was buying fresh water from an offshore island. This Chinese island had good spring water which it sold to passing ships in wooden barrels floated out so as not to allow any ships to land thus obeying the edict. Francis managed to get to the beach but they threw stones at him to keep him away. He came back again. This time he brought with him the most advanced European technology of the time. Matches.

Francis stood on the beach and struck fire from wooden sticks. They let him stay. They soon learned that he was also a healer. He became a valuable and revered member of the community. Over time Francis converted many of the islanders to Christianity. They built a church. When he died in 1552 they buried him in a special grave on the beach.

After they lowered the ramp, but before we walked off, Feng handed me a beautiful manuscript that he had written. My interpreter read it to me. It was the story of Francis Xavier from local Chinese history. It ended by announcing that this was the island where Francis had lived and which he died on. That was his church. And then Feng said to me, “You are the first white man to step foot on this island since him.”

There was a splendid traditional large house in Duanfen Commune which had been built by a wealthy Chinese-American in the 1920s. It hadn't been occupied for many years but it was held in perfect condition by the Commune. It was against national law for foreigners to stay overnight in a Chinese home.  Since it was an American's house, I asked if could I take some of my American tour groups there to spend a night in it without breaking the law? The Commune loved the idea and the Taishan Government gave me permission so I took a group there. 

It was magic. We were eating and sleeping in a traditional house in a Commune, among the people. Speaking of magic, the Commune had a social hall with a pool table and after putting my charges in for the night I wandered over hearing much laughter and noise from inside. When they saw me they invited me to play. Long ago at a university I loathed I majored in chess and pool. This table was old and very used, I stumbled through a game and my last shot was a whole table-long bank shot. It was the best stroke of my life. One bounce and in the pocket! The guys cheered. I took a bow and faded into the night.

The provincial government found out about our overnight in a commune and shut it down. I could still take visitors and show them the beautiful old house, but no more sleepovers.

The Taishan People's Hospital was excellent. The chief was Dr. Huang who had trained in London before the revolution. He spoke accented but perfect English. He was a practitioner of both Chinese traditional medicine and Western medicine. So everybody benefited from his leadership. The only time I was ever sick in China was with an upset stomach. I asked Dr. Huang for something to cure nausea. He gave me some small white tablets. I asked him what they were. He said,  "Cray." I asked him what was "cray"? He said, "earth like cups are made from.”

White Kaolin clay, of course. We have a drug called "kaopectate.” It contains kaolin. The Chinese version was pure kaolin. It worked.

The opening of Stone Flower Mountain Inn was featured on our national news. The morning they were about to broadcast the woman reporter had morning sickness so severe she couldn't work. She asked me to find something to help. I went to the People's Hospital maternity ward and asked the woman doctor if Chinese women sometimes got sick in the morning when they were pregnant? Much laughter from the women staff and patients. "Of course we get morning sickness!” They mixed up a potion and gave it to me in a thermos to keep it hot for her. She choked it down, made a face, and in a few minutes was smiling on camera.

In the Fall of 1981, on my second trip in, I had to schlep Larry Davis’s suitcase because he was carrying an awkward ARCO solar panel into China. Larry got it through US Customs, Hong Kong Customs and the People's Republic of China Customs. What a nicer, simpler, more trusting world that was, long before most people knew or cared about solar photovoltaics. Larry was on a mission to direct China's opening to a low-impact, environmentally sound future rather than to our consumer culture. (Good luck with that. The Chinese are human. Very human.)

Anyway, Larry presented the photovoltaic panel to the Taishan leadership as a gift. He told them that it made electricity from the sun. Expose it to the sun and electricity will flow from it. They were polite, but of course they thought he was either lying or crazy. He asked them to send the ARCO solar panel to Beijing. As it turned out, they did. China is now the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic panels and has the world's most installed solar power.

You never know when your action will change the future.


  1. George Hollister November 25, 2023

    Mike should keep writing about his China experience, and then put together a book.

    • Bob A. November 25, 2023

      Seconded. This is one of the finest pieces the AVA has run. A gem among jewels.

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