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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Darwin's Champion in China, Part 2: An Evening with Ye Duzhuang

Helper, Ye, Ye's wife, Barnett, Zhou, and Yu

I knocked on the door of Ye Duzhuang's apartment at the Academy of Agricultural Sciences compound on Beijing's northwest edge.

Ye answered the door himself. Before me stood a tall man, over six feet, lean, with jet black hair above a calm face with a strong nose. He was 70 years old, but still alert, and moved with little trace of his age.

“Dr. Ye?”

“Come in, Dr. Barnett, come in!” he said affably. I walked through a short hallway. A small room opened to our right, Ye’s study. Ahead was an even smaller room crowded with a table and surrounding chairs. From a room beyond this, evidently the kitchen, a handsome woman in her forties or so emerged, an older helper peering out behind her.

“May I introduce my wife, please?” Ye said. I shook hands with her.

“You are a scientist also?” I asked, noting her quick look of intelligence.

“A physician,” Ye answered for her. “Western-style physician.”

She smiled, although she looked somewhat harried. “My English…it is not so good,” she announced slowly.

I switched to Chinese, saying that her English was much better than my Chinese.

“She is very busy with preparing dinner, Dr. Barnett. Would you join me in my study?”

We walked back to the small study, which was perhaps seven feet by ten. Ye excused himself for a moment, and I noted the simple couch against one wall, a desk and several chairs at the other end of the room. Bookshelves lined the wall opposite the couch, with the other walls crowded with calligraphy hangings and landscape paintings. The books included a large section devoted to Charles Darwin, his life and his work, as well as many volumes of science, especially botany. There were as many books in English as Chinese. Most of the Chinese volumes on Darwin had the characters of Ye’s name on the cover.

I was trying to decipher the titles in a large section of what appeared to be books of Chinese poetry when Ye returned, moving slowly yet gracefully. He carried a tray with a glass of amber liquid, ice tinkling in it.

“Johnny Walker Red,” he announced with a hint of pride as he handed it to me.

I accepted the drink, surprised and bemused, but failed to completely dissemble my glance at the ice cubes.

“The water, and ice, in our compound are quite trustworthy,” he informed me solemnly.

A knock on the door drew Ye away, as I wondered what a bottle of Johnny Walker Red scotch must cost in China. Excited voices came from the doorway, and soon three folks swept into the study and were introduced. Leading the way was a vigorous, ebullient fellow with a handsome face and black hair just barely streaked with gray. I judged he was in his mid fifties or so (later learning that he was in fact 66 years old). This was Zhou Minzhen, the Director of the Beijing Natural History Museum and the former, long-time Director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, the IVPP. The IVPP and the Beijing Natural History Museum were the official sponsors of my talk on Darwinism several days hence.

“So glad to have you here!” Zhou boomed as we shook hands. “May I introduce Dr. Zhang Miman , our current Director of the IVPP?” His English was fluid.

Dr. Zhang was a lady in her forties with a serene but somewhat sad face. “Pleased to meet you” she said somewhat haltingly.

“And your interpreter for your talk, Yu Xiaobo,” Zhou continued. I shook hands with a young, beaming fellow in his late twenties, black hair pleasantly disheveled, large glasses in front of his twinkling eyes.

We all sat, quite filling up the study, as Ye left for more glasses.

“What aspect of evolution do you work on, Dr. Barnett?” Zhou enquired. Evidently English was to be the tongue of the evening, to my relief, since my spoken Chinese was only functional, and certainly unequal to the task of scientific discourse (hence my request for a translator for my talk).

“Ecological and evolutionary interactions between plants and herbivores,” I answered. “Oaks and squirrels, in North Carolina. Insect-eating birds in Hawaiian forests.”

“Ah, you deal with living creatures,” Zhou smiled. “I’m afraid you will find us three quite dull—we deal only with fossils of long-dead vertebrates.”

“Indeed. Including mammals?”

Zhou’s eyes lit up. He proceeded to tell me about his expeditions throughout China, and the fossil mammals he had discovered. He was particularly proud of an intriguing lower jaw from very early in mammal evolution, the early Mesozoic. We had a stimulating discussion on the evolution of mammals from Therapsid reptiles, and the old question of whether the origin was monophyletic (one ancestral stock) or polyphyletic (several ancestral stocks). Zhou argued that the existence of the Monotremes in Australia certainly indicated polyphyletic evolution, no matter what you might think about the rest of the mammals, and that Triconodont molar patterns seemed to corroborate the notion of a polyphyletic origin.

Zhou’s work had led him progressively back in time, to the very moment of the mammals coming into being from evolutionary changes in their immediate reptilian ancestors. “I began working with mammal fossils from the Cenozoic,” Zhou beamed. “Then I moved back into the Mesozoic, further and further. Soon I will run out of mammals altogether, and then I will go extinct too!”

By the quick laughter from the others, I gathered this was a favorite saying of Zhou’s they had heard before.

Ye returned with a whole tray of scotch, from which Zhou promptly claimed a glass, with a warm smile. “My friend Ye deals with living creatures, like you, Dr. Barnett,” he mentioned before he took an eager sip, savoring the taste.

“Oh, I thought you spent all your time translating Darwin,” I said to Ye.

“No, translating Darwin is a second occupation for me these days,” Ye responded, slipping into the well-worn chair before his desk. “My main occupation currently is reforestation and prevention of soil erosion. I spend much time on the loess plateau of Shansi, advising on grasses and trees to plant and so forth.”

“Better you should have translated Huxley,” Zhou commented, examining his glass. Dr. Zhang joined Zhou and Ye in soft, rueful laughs.

“Huxley?” I asked, puzzled at the apparent non sequitur.

Ye remained silent, so with a quick look at him, and receiving no disapproval, Zhou explained. “The Cultural Revolution. His Darwin helped get my friend Ye into trouble with the Red Guards. Too Western. He was ‘struggled,’ and his precious books of Darwin burned by them—English as well as Chinese translations. Then he was imprisoned. Very bad.”

Silence in the room. Ye’s face was impassive—though not hard, or angry. I had heard of the infamous “struggle” sessions with the Red Guards, which could range from harsh verbal harassment to psychological torment to vicious physical beatings.

“And Huxley?” I enquired again.

“Oh yes, Huxley,” Zhou boomed. “Chairman Mao asked me to translate Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics for him early in 1970, along with Lecomte Du Nuoy’s Human Destiny. I of course did it, very promptly, managing to involve the entire staff of the IVPP in the project. Since we had performed a service for the Great Helmsman himself, we were beyond the reach of the Red Guards. Thanks to Huxley.”

“Not entirely beyond the reach,” the young Xiaobo commented, with a glance at Dr. Zhang’s sad face.

Zhou smiled forlornly. “Well, who was entirely beyond their reach?” He looked at me. “I was ‘struggled’ by them, but not as viciously as others, including my friend Ye. And Dr. Zhang here was called back from Sweden, where she was doing work on Devonian fishes, and sent to the countryside for two years of manual labor.”

More silence. “But all in all,” Zhou resumed heartily, determined to dispel the gloom, “all in all, the IVPP and those of us there came through the Cultural Revolution rather well, compared to others.” He turned to Ye and pointed with his glass of scotch. “Much better to have translated Huxley than Darwin, old friend!” he said jovially.

Ye smiled, a bit sadly, and noticed that Zhou’s glass was empty, probably the reason Zhou had pointed with it. He rose and went for a refill.

I turned to the young man. “So you are to be my interpreter, Dr. Yu?”

His open face broke into a grin. “I am not yet a Doctor, sir. I am still a student, working on fossil fishes from the Devonian era, like Dr. Zhang.”

“Indeed. At Beijing Daxue?” I asked, naming the most prestigious university in the capital.

“Oh no. I am in the Ph.D. program at Yale University.”

“Yale? That is where I went to college!”

“No kidding,” he answered, the phrase sounding odd coming from him.

“But what are you doing back here?”

“Visiting my family,” he answered.

“Oh, your mother and father.”

“Oh no, my wife. And my son.”

“They are still here?” I asked incredulously.

A cloud passed briefly over his face. “Yes, they are.”

“Ah. How long between visits?”

“A year, usually. Sometimes longer. But since I had never seen my son yet, and he more than a year old, I have returned.”

I shook my head, trying to imagine not seeing my young daughters for a year, and failing.

“Returned for how long?”

Another cloud. “Several weeks.” He shrugged.

“Xiaobo is a very promising paleontologist,” Dr. Zhang commented with a proud smile on her sad face.

“We rescued him from a ball-bearing factory!” Zhou interjected with a laugh, between sips of his newly refilled scotch.

“Indeed?” I said, directing my puzzled gaze to Xiaobo.

He blushed, then stared at the floor, and spoke softly. “My love of English literature in high school made me suspect to the Red Guards. I was sent to a factory to strengthen my respect for the laboring masses. There I spent over a year. Until I saw an advertisement for a translator of articles from English into Chinese, for the IVPP. I was fortunate to be selected to translate some articles for them. Then they honored me by selecting me for a graduate program associated with the Institute.”

“He applies for position, and we are fortunate to have him,” Dr. Zhang added. “We see his intelligence, and soon he is one of us, studying our fossils with us.”

“It is important for us to have western-trained scientists,” Zhou added. “Most of our biologists until 1960 received their training in Russia, and were indoctrinated in Lysenkoism—very bad science. It is only since 1976—and Deng Xiaoping--that we’ve been able to send our promising students to the United States.”

“Yet you appear to have studied in America yourself, judging by your excellent English,” I commented.

Zhou beamed at the compliment. “Yes, I was a fortunate one. I obtained my Ph.D. at Leheigh Unversity. Very happy years for me. I made many American friends. By the way, how is Stephen J. Gould doing?”

I knew only a little about the gifted Harvard paleontologist who wrote dazzling monthly columns in Natural History magazine. “Still alive, at any rate,” I answered. “He may well have beaten the cancer.” (Gould did indeed survive his initial abdominal mesothelioma.)

Zhou beamed. “Good. Very good. At any rate, our plan is to send promising students to America for first-rate training in biology. When they return, we keep them a year or two at the IVPP or the Beijing Natural History Museum. Then we send them out. Each province of our country has a Natural History museum, and the major cities as well. We send our well-educated biologists out and in several decades we will have a solid base for sound biological sciences throughout the country.” His eyes shined at the prospect.

“Do you go to other places in China after Beijing, Dr. Barnett?” Dr. Zhang asked.

“Well, I’d really like to see Zhoukoudian, where the Peking Man skulls were found,” I admitted.

“Indeed!” said Zhou. “The site is maintained by the IVPP. Perhaps I could arrange a visit. Would you care to come, Ye?”

Ye smiled. “I have not been to Zhoukoudian in…well, many years. Yes. Let us go there and renew our acquaintance with Homo erectus, Zhou.”

Zhou turned to me. “I’ll see if I can arrange it, and get in touch with you.”

“Why, thank you. Thanks a lot, Dr. Zhou.”

“Not at all. But surely you are seeing more of China than Beijing and Zhoukoudian—it’s not 50 miles from here.”

“Well, yes. I have already climbed Huang Shan—“

“In Ye’s ancestral province, Anhui!” said Zhou.

“Oh, really? Yes, it was quite beautiful. Reminded me of Yosemite, in California. And after my talk here, I’m continuing on to Sichuan, to climb Emei Shan.”

“Ah, the sacred mountain,” Dr. Zhang observed.

“And monkeys!” Xiaobo said puckishly.

“Be very careful of the fierce monkeys,” Zhou intoned, with what I took to be mock seriousness. “They drop onto pilgrims and attack them, scratching eyes and robbing food!” He imitated the clawing motions of the monkeys savagely, provoking us all to laughter.

“Why do you visit a sacred mountain?” Ye quietly asked.

I shrugged. “No particular reason. Mainly for the adventure of it, and the exotic location,” I answered. “But there’s one thing I was wondering about—what makes Emei Shan or any other mountain ‘sacred’?”

The two younger biologists sat with blank faces, then glanced towards Zhou and Ye.

Zhou removed his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief from his pocket as he spoke. “In ancient times, we Chinese believed that certain places connected Heaven with Earth. These were places of extreme—” He searched for the word. “Potency. Extreme potency. Almost all of these places were mountains, of course, since mountains reach high toward Heaven. The ancients called these special mountains ‘Cosmic Pillars.’ The people made sacrifices to the strange and powerful beings on these sacred mountains, believing that these creatures sent the rain down from the clouded mountains, rain upon which the people’s crops and thus their lives depended.”

With a wry smile Zhou replaced his glasses on his nose and glanced at me. “Very superstitious, of course. But even today the custom remains, of visiting mountains to secure plentiful Qi energy for your health.”

Ye’s wife appeared briefly and silently at the doorway of the study.

“Dinner is served, my friends,” Ye announced, rising effortlessly and leading us into the tiny dining room. The six of us filled the room to brimming.

“In honor of the occasion, a dry white wine, from China’s western region,” Ye announced, uncorking a bottle. I sipped the first pouring; it was quite decent. Because Ye’s wife understood very little English, and Dr. Zhang not much more, we slipped into Chinese for the meal. I understood only part of what was said, and contributed infrequently. Most of the conversation revolved around activities at the IVPP, and news of mutual friends.

Ye was an active host, taking dishes from his wife and serving everyone, popping up constantly to pour more wine, or serve more from a dish if he saw an empty corner in a plate. Ye’s wife kept bringing dishes until nearly a dozen filled the center of the table, most of them (other than the ubiquitous soup) involving steamed or lightly friend vegetables, with tofu, chicken, or shrimp, and heavenly sauces. The shrimp had the heads removed, but the tails still contained the legs and the shell. Everyone simply popped them into their mouth and chewed them up, shells, legs, and all. Sheltered as I had been, it had never occurred to me to eat shrimp in this manner. But when in Rome …They tasted no different eaten thusly, although clearly one is adding a goodly amount of fiber to one’s diet. (To this day I prefer this method, if nothing else for the shock value to my family and friends.)

After profuse praise of Mrs. Ye for the meal, we all retired back to the study with a large pot of Chinese green tea, and sat sipping it quietly for some moments. Ye picked up two jade balls from a side table and absently-mindedly began to roll them around clockwise in his large left hand, by coordinated movements of that hand’s palm and fingers.

I broke the silence. “The calligraphy on your wall is lovely, Dr. Ye.”

He nodded, accepting the compliment.

“My written Chinese is even poorer than my spoken. What is the subject of the long one there?”

He glanced over at it. “A poem by an old friend of mine, written during a moonlit evening admiring stars and plum trees in blossom. He presented it to me for my critique of his calligraphy and poetry. Of course, it was beyond me to criticize him.”

“He is a poet and calligrapher, then?”

Ye smiled. “Actually, no. He is a prominent member of the Communist Party.” Another sad smile. “We were both young when this was written.”

I observed the moment, then indicated the other poems and the books on the walls with a sweep of my hand. “Darwin and poetry, together. Very unusual.”

Zhou roused himself. “Oh, not at all. Science and poetry are often together. What is it that Shakespeare says? ‘We shall talk away the time, until we all grow old and the stones turn to barnacles.’”

I turned in astonishment to Zhou.

“No, no,” Ye murmured. “Isn’t it more like ‘Time rushes on, and at the end of time we shall all become barnacles’?”

They turned to me to adjudicate. I raised my palms in helpless ignorance. “Your Shakespeare is superior to mine, gentlemen,” I admitted, genuinely embarrassed that my two semesters of Shakespeare at Yale did not raise me to the level of these two scientists quoting the bard in a language not their own.

(It was only 27 years later, reviewing my notes with the aid of Google, that I was able to trace the line Zhou and Ye were remembering. It occurs in the first scene of Act IV of "The Tempest", and is spoken by Caliban, who is becoming nervous at Trinculo and Stephano lingering over Prospero’s enchanted wardrobe rather than stepping up to murder Prospero. Snappishly, he says to them, “We shall lose our time / And all be turned to barnacles or to apes / With foreheads villainous low.”

So Ye was closest to the quote, after all. To this day I am not entirely sure what prompted Zhou’s memory of the quote, though it must have had something to do with my request to see the Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian—Peking man being Homo erectus, a hominid ape whose forehead is in fact somewhat, though surely not villainously, low. And of course, Charles Darwin, who had figured in the conversation earlier, wrote a huge monograph on barnacles that has not been matched in the 150 years since he penned it.

It remains incredible to me that these two Chinese scientists should subsume our random conversation on Peking man and Darwin into the entirely apposite quote on apes and barnacles from a play not in their mother tongue. I also think it likely that they quoted not just the “barnacles” portion, apropos of Darwin, but the “apes” portion also, apropos of Peking man, and I simply mis-remembered the entirety of the quote as I wrote up my notes of the evening’s conversation later that night.)

In the somewhat embarrassing silence following the revelation of my ignorance of the Shakespeare quotation, I noticed that Ye was now turning the jade balls counter clockwise in his hand, just as smoothly as before.

“Actually, I have an interest in modern Chinese history,” I offered, resolved to broach the topic of my novel in case my hosts could add any flavor to the book research I’d done. I was satisfied with my visits to locales in which scenes of my novel were to be located and described, but my interviews with older Chinese historians had left much to be desired. “I’m rather interested in the Communist takeover of Beijing in 1949. How they persuaded General Fu Tsoyi to surrender the city to them.”

Ye and Zhou, particularly, gave me very peculiar looks. Ye, as host, broke the uncomfortable silence.

“It was impossible not to know something about the warlord Fu if one lived in Beijing at the time. What sort of things are you interested in knowing about him?

I shrugged. “How did he contact the communists to negotiate with them?”

Ye’s eyes narrowed, looking for all the world like he was wondering how much to tell me.

“He had many contacts. His Lao Shi, his teacher, was after all a communist.”

“No kidding!” I exclaimed, and whipped out my notebook to jot down the revelation. “Any more close connections to the communists?”

Ye paused, glanced at Zhou, then cautiously continued. “Some said that Fu’s daughter was involved with the communist underground movement in the city.”

My eyes bulged, and I furiously scribbled. The plot of my novel began to change.
“And the actual negotiations?” I asked. “I believe the philosophy professor Chang Tungsun was the go-between?”

Another narrow-lidded look from Ye. “No. Chang was merely there for show. Fu’s aide Chou Peifeng, did all the negotiating. The communists in fact locked Chang into his room in the villa where the negotiations occurred, to keep him out of the way while details were worked out.”

I was still scribbling furiously. The novel changed some more. I looked up at Ye. “How do you know these details?”

Something slammed shut in Ye’s eyes. He smiled politely. “The communists had many contacts with the intelligentsia,” he said simply.

One more question, and I would quit. “I haven’t been able to find any details of when Fu died, or how.”

Ye merely smiled. He was not adding anything more.

“It was while the Gang of Four were still in power,” Zhou abruptly declared. “Probably 1975, or so.”

Ye looked at me closely. “I believe you are more interested in history than in science, Dr. Barnett.”

I shrugged. “It is difficult not to be interested in modern Chinese history. The Long March. Chiang Kaishek’s kidnapping at Xi’an. So many interesting events.”

A dreamy look came over Ye’s face. “Xi’an,” he whispered, and then quoted a couplet of lines in Chinese, evidently from a poem mentioning Xi’an.

To my surprise, Zhou continued the poem, apparently picking up where Ye left off, then finishing it.

“General Chiang survived the Xi’an incident,” Ye observed. “Much as Cao Cao survived the treachery of the Battle of the Red Cliffs.” He was referring to a classic episode from the ancient Romance of the Three Kingdoms, describing the turbulent several centuries after the fall of the Han dynasty a thousand eight hundred years ago.

Zhou smiled. “The Red Cliffs,” he mused. He then intoned a poem apparently describing the Red Cliffs, from the scattered words I understood, in a rich, melodious voice.

“And let us not forget Dr. Barnett’s sacred mountain,” Ye added. He recited one of Li Po’s poems from twelve hundred years ago about the misty heights of Emeishan mountain.

For the next ten minutes Ye and Zhou engaged in what seemed to be a rich game, mentioning prominent places in China’s five thousand year history, challenging the other to recite some poem which mentioned that location.

I sat silent, marveling at the intellectual and emotional range of these survivors of Red Guard “struggle” sessions, equally at home discussing Triconodont molar patterns, Shakespeare, loess erosion, warlords, ancient poetry, and pivotal battles in China’s long history—in two languages yet.

A warm golden glow descended upon the room. Ye switched his two jade balls to his right hand, and began the clockwise circuits. It was Zhou who roused himself from our common reverie.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, nodding his head decisively. “It is getting late. We must be going, old friend.”

Ye raised his eyebrows, and nodded sadly.

Xiaobo insisted on some photographs before we broke up, for which I was very glad.

“Dr. Barnett, we are eager to hear your talk on Monday,” Zhou declared after the pictures, shaking my hand. He looked me straight in the eyes. “I will see what I can do about Zhoukoudian, and contact you. And be alert on Emeishan. Monkeys and all that.” I nodded with a smile, unsure if he was joking or not.

After shaking Dr. Zhang’s hand, I turned to Xiaobo. “I have taken the liberty of jotting down some of the more technical terms I’ll be using in my talk. Would you like the list, to be sure you have the proper Chinese equivalents on the tip of your tongue?”

Xiaobo nodded vigorously. “Good idea.”

I reached inside my jacket and handed it to him. Turning to Ye, I began to thank him for the evening and take my leave as well. He declined to accept my departure.

“Stay a bit longer, Dr. Barnett. There’s no rush.”

Puzzled, I acquiesced, and joined him in saying goodbye to Zhou, Zhang, and Xiaobo. We returned to his study. He joined me on the couch, where we sat in silence for some moments.

“The Cultural Revolution was a difficult time for all of us,” he finally said. “A very difficult time.”

I vaguely realized this must be an understatement, though little did I dream just how huge it understated Ye’s experience. Quietly I asked, “Do you worry that something like it might happen again?”

He smiled sadly, and stared at the poetry on the wall. Finally he answered, softly. “No. I do not worry. If it is to happen again, then we must enjoy these moments of clarity while we have them. If it is not to happen again, there is no use to be anxious about it.”

Another silence, the jade balls in his right hand now traveling counter clockwise. We spoke briefly about John Hersey and his novels. Again, Ye knew more about this branch of English literature than I. He spoke with feeling about the dearth of rigorously trained biologists in China, and the great need for them, to advance science in his country. About the importance of knowing Darwinism and understanding it clearly.

I saw that he was beginning to tire, so I took my leave, realizing with some embarrassment that his earlier insistence that I stay was most likely a courteous convention only, and that I should have indeed left with the others. Much to my chagrin he insisted on escorting me not only to the door but clear across the Institute grounds and out to the bus stop. Despite my protestations he stood with me in the night until a bus came, some ten minutes. I thanked him profusely for an unforgettable evening and his many kindnesses. He nodded serenely, shook my hand warmly, and helped me onto the bus.

The bus pulled away. I stared in his sad eyes as he receded into the darkness. He stood beside the road until the bus was out of sight, his tall, lean figure straight and sure in the lamplight against the night.

Two days later Ye and Zhou secured a car and rode with my travel buddy Kyle and myself out to Zhoukoudian, the site where Peking Man skulls had been unearthed in the 1920’s. Halfway there we stopped at Marco Polo Bridge, where the 1937 skirmish occurred that began the active part of the Japanese overrunning China during World War II.

At the excavation site, we toured the museum and the cave in which Homo erectus populations had lived for a quarter million years, then sat over tea in the reception room of the museum. Again, the conversation covered many subjects with insight, ranging from hominid evolution to World War II in China to the role of natural history museums to the role of poetry in Chinese culture. In English, yet.

I saw Ye only once again after my talk at the IVPP, a brief occasion in California when he was visiting his daughter, a student at UC Davis not far from my home in Chico. But the images I retain most vividly of Ye Duzhuang are from my first evening with him, Ye sitting in his culturally-rich study rotating the jade balls in his palms, then later standing tall and straight—unbowed, I now realize—in the Beijing darkness as my bus pulled away.

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