by Andrew Arnett

I was sitting on Peter’s sofa, sipping a Starbucks (instant) coffee and staring at a ceramic sculptor of a snake head.

“This morning we’re going to climb Snake Mountain,” Peter said.

“Where’s that?” I ask.

“Snake Mountain is behind the University.”

“Why is it called Snake Mountain?”

“Because it’s full of snakes.”

“Pardon me,” I sputtered, “My coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. Did you just say there are snakes up there?”

“Of course there are snakes. So be careful where you walk. Try to stay on the path. This is not a joke. Even on campus they have snakes.”

Shantou University is encircled by a serpentine ridge of hills. The campus is a veritable Garden of Eden in the midst of unchecked urban growth. The snake thing put a decidedly Biblical twist to the proceedings.

“I didn’t know that,” I said.

“The point is to keep on the path,” Peter said. “And if you walk off the path, just look carefully in the grass. The snakes basically take off. They’re not interested in attacking but you don’t want to stand on one accidentally. There are poisonous varieties and other kinds.”

Peter began teaching at Shantou University in 2008. Founded by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing in 1981, Shantou U. was designated from the start to operate on “freer lines.” In other words, they courted the west’s more open approach to journalism.

“I first met Li Ka-shing in my first year at Shantou, in July 2007,” Peter said, “He had arrived for a two-day traditional visit to preside over the annual commencement celebrations. He was very polite, shaking my hand, and saying in English that he appreciated my presence on the J-school faculty. He suggested that we meet sometime in HK, his headquarter’s city, for breakfast.”

Li Ka-shing at Shantou University (Photo © 2007 Peter Arnett)

Peter’s apartment, located on campus at Faculty Quarter B, was crammed full of his latest antique acquisitions.

“This is my form of recreation,” Peter confessed as he unrolled a Chinese scroll.

“This is my way to unwind, have fun, decompress from the pressures of journalism. While my co-workers and peers turned to other vices, like heavy drinking, or womanizing, I would be out there collecting objects of art. This is my addiction.”

“I remember our apartment in New York,” I said. “I basically grew up in a museum.”

“When I was working in Baghdad, I spent all my spare time in carpet stores. I eventually bought hundreds of them. My co-workers thought I was crazy. They thought I was obsessed. They couldn’t understand my behavior. Meanwhile, they were drinking themselves to death. Every night, they would drink a bottle of vodka each. And then, they would wake up the next morning, bleary eyed and hung over, barely able to speak, let alone work.”

There was a ring at the door.

“That must be Lisa,” Peter said. “Lisa is one of my students. She said she would be our tour guide for the hike today.”

Introducing us, Peter explained, “This is Lisa, not Neesa.”

“Who’s Neesa?” I ask.

“Lisa’s western name is Garfield. She doesn’t look
like a cat so I insist on calling her a version of her
Chinese name, which is Neesa.”

“I see.”

“Well, we’re all here,” Peter said. “Let’s get going, shall we?”

We headed out across campus to a road on the other side of the University walls leading to Snake Mountain.

Peter, Lisa and Andrew on the road to Snake Mountain, Shantou (Photo © 2011 by Andrew Arnett)

The day was hot and humid. It was good to be outdoors. We didn’t have to walk far before we came upon the first gravestone, situated near the side of the road. As we hiked up the trail, we could see gravestones embedded in the hillside.

“The whole thing is a cemetery,” Peter said. “I didn’t realize they were everywhere. No one explained this to me. You talk to people about this and they don’t tell you what it is. We’re living next to a cemetery. The ghosts walk at night. But they’re good spirits, right?”

“Ghosts are good for girls,” Lisa said, “not for boys.”

“How does that work?” I ask her.

“Because the dead belong to the Yin energy and females are Yin. So we are fine. But men belong to the Yang, so that is harmful.”

“Negative vibes,” Peter said. “OK Andrew, let’s go back home then.”

“Not so fast. I want to learn more about this Yin Yang business.”

Lisa explained how the concepts of Yin and Yang played a part in the art of Chinese geomancy known as Feng shui. In Feng shui, buildings and tombs were oriented in an auspicious manner so as to gather Qi, an invisible force which binds the universe.

The origins of Feng shui date back to 4000BC China. Billed as a ‘pseudoscience’ by the west and at times, banned outright by the PRC, which considers it a “feudalistic superstitious practice,” Feng shui is, nonetheless, revered in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nary a building in these locals are constructed without strict adherence to the guidelines as prescribed by this ancient Chinese system.

Road to Snake Mountain, Shantou (Photo © 2011 Andrew Arnett)

“This area has a special Feng shui,” Lisa explained, “that is why the University was built here.”

“What makes it special?” I ask.

“The lake and the mountains are important.”

There was a magical quality in the air, no doubt about it. It was peaceful and serene. No surprise then that people buried their dead in these hills. It was a perfect resting place for their eternal sojourn. Walking by some graves, Lisa commented, “This grave says ‘man and two wives.'”

“How romantic,” Peter said, “It would be nice to go through eternity with two wives.”

“This next one says ‘man and three wives,'” Lisa said.

“What are the rules in China today?” I ask, “Can a man have more than one wife?”

“No,” she said.

“One of the big problems,” Peter said, “is that there are fewer women than men in China. Many Chinese men have to go to neighboring countries, like Thailand or Vietnam, to find even one wife.”

The shortage of woman in China is the result of the government’s ‘one-child policy.’ Implemented in 1979, this policy levied fines and punishment against couples who had more than one child. As a result, male children were favored, and a fetus would often be aborted if it was female.

As we continued on our way, the trail got steeper, turning into dirt steps. We came upon some brightly colored pieces of paper scattered on the steps.

“You see this, Andrew?” Peter said, “Paper money. They take this and they burn it with the josh sticks. It is propitious to the ancestors. You see it in many pagodas. They burn it in big ceramic drums.”

At the next ridge, we came upon just that, a temple with a large ceramic drum.

Ceramic drum on Snake Mountain, Shantou (Photo © 2011 by Andrew Arnett)

After hiking for a couple hours I was getting winded. Peter however, kept up the pace. Indeed, he was setting the pace. I remarked on his agility.

“As you get closer to the top you get more adrenaline,” Peter said, “You get less tired because it is more exciting.”

We neared the summit of Snake Mountain but the path didn’t go straight to the top.

“I think the path is winding around and I think it is best we stay on the path,” Peter said.

“Ah yeah,” I said. “Although I’d love to get a picture of a snake.”

“A snake coming at you? Sure. The last photograph of Andrew Arnett.”

We found a pagoda near the top and decided to stop there.

“This is a memorial to the Mountain God,” Lisa said.

We ate our mangosteens as Lisa related a somber tale.

“There was an old woman who wanted to be buried with her birth family. But her family said that when she dies, she needed to be buried with her husbands family. That was the tradition. She was so determined to be with her family that she committed suicide while visiting the family grave and they buried her there.”

“That’s a sad story,” Peter said.

“Where did that happen?” I ask.

“It happened here. That’s why I told you that. It is a written legend associated wth this mountain. I asked my teacher and she said it is true.”

“Well, the legend becomes fact,” Peter said. “Let’s head back down to campus and get some dinner. Call Warner and have him meet us at East Gate. I’m in the mood for some razor clams.”

Shantou student and author at East Gate, Shantou University (Photo © Peter Arnett)

East Gate is a collection of restaurants and convenience stores situated just off campus. What it lacked in sanitary standards, it made up for in taste and quality.

Warner is one of Peter’s teaching assistants. Warner and a couple of other students were  at East Gate when we arrived. We sat down at a table with short plastic seats and ordered a feast of razor clams, steamed fish, oyster pancakes and noodle soup.

“There is a tradition amongst students,” Warner said. “If someone loses a Mahjong game, they have to go up to Snake Mountain at night and copy the words from a grave.”

“That way they can’t cheat,” Peter said, “They make a rubbing with pencil on a piece of paper.”

“Yes, and then the next morning his roommates will go and check it in the daylight.”

“That is funny, a great tradition,” Peter said. “In the U.S., if you lose a game you drink 10 pints of beer. Here, they copy a headstone from a haunted grave in the dark.”

After dinner I wandered back to the ACC. It was dark out, and I looked up at Snake Mountain. I could see lights moving around the summit. Were they Chinese lanterns? Orange orbs? Perhaps, a loser of a Mahjong game in search of a tombstone.

Who knew for sure? China was filled with mysteries. There was no telling what we would find next.