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Living and Writing in the Natural World

How I Escaped a Chinese Dungeon

While researching exotic locales for scenes in my novels is one of the best parts of being a writer, it sometimes involves privation and discomfort, not to mention the occasional threat of incarceration. I came within a hair’s breadth of being arrested in Beijing in the spring of 1984, for example.

My travel buddy Kyle and I were gallivanting around China, visiting places where I would set scenes for my first novel, Jade and Fire, and generally having a good time. Having arrived in Beijing after a 27-hour train ride in “standing only” class from Hangzhou in south China (worthy of its own story), I was trying to find and photograph the ancient “Water and Cloud Pavilion” which stood in the waters of the Zhong-nan-Hai (“Central and South Lakes”).

I had read that the pavilion had a stone column in it inscribed with the phrase “T’ai I Ch’iu Feng,” which translates as “Autumn Winds Coursing Over the Sea of Life.” I would use the cryptic, evocative inscription and the romantic pavilion in my novel.

One problem: the “Central and South Lakes” portion of Beijing is where rulers of China have resided since Kubilai Khan excavated the lakes and built palaces there 700 years ago. Then and now, said rulers value their privacy. The whole area is like the White House, Pentagon, and CIA’s Langley, Virginia headquarters rolled into one. Prohibited to the max, and surrounded by high walls to boot.

I approached the south and east gates to the complex, and was brusquely gestured away at 50 yards by soldiers with submachine guns. I make it a fixed rule to always obey men with submachine guns. Disappointed, I walked over the bridge defining the north end of the area, and was delighted to see that here, the high wall consisted of chain link fence. And I could see my pavilion from it!

Of course, I also noticed that soldiers were posted along the 60-yard bridge. One at each end, and one in the middle. Again with submachine guns, and closely scanning passers-by. And I noticed as well that the pedestrians and bicyclers on the bridge studiously averted their eyes from the lake and its environs as they passed.

But there was my pavilion, perhaps 50 yards away. I circled the complex to permit the guards to forget about me, then strolled across the bridge a second time. Half-way between the west-end guard and the middle guard, I quickly brought my Pentax Spotmatic single lens reflex camera up to my eye, focused the lens, and snapped a shot of the pavilion through the fence. Then continued walking, as casually as I could muster.

No reaction; the guards hadn’t noticed. My heart racing, I walked past the guard in the middle of the bridge. This eastern half of the bridge was actually closer to the pavilion. Should I chance another photo? Halfway between the guards, I again took a quick photo.


Immediate shouts from both directions indicated I’d been seen. The two guards converged on me and hustled me off the bridge, to a plaza on the eastern edge. More soldiers converged on me. “Your camera!” they demanded, in Chinese. I smiled, and played dumb—easy to do, given my level of fright. Quickly a crowd of perhaps a hundred gathered around us. The people helpfully shouted at me, “Give them the film in your camera!”

I feigned ignorance of their demands. No way was I going to give them my camera or the film in it. The film was a long roll, 36 or maybe 72 shots, and had not only my coveted pavilion on it, but all my shots of tea plantations in Hangzhou as well. I smiled at the guards like an idiot, and offered to take their photos.

The soldiers were not amused, nor the people surrounding us, who did not seem to be taking my side. Quite the contrary, the crowd seemed to be eagerly anticipating a bad ending for the skinny white foreign devil surrounded by burly Chinese soldiers. But at least the soldiers had their submachine guns slung over their shoulders, rather than pointing them at me. I wasn’t going to get shot. Just thrown into the deepest dungeon in China, probably. Clutching my camera and film.

Suddenly the crowd quieted and parted. An older, grizzled soldier strode up, his only weapon a pistol—clearly an officer of some sort. He stopped in front of me, and after listening to the soldiers, he clearly pantomimed my taking the film out of my camera and giving it to him. Again I pretended not to understand.

The officer stood there calmly, in the middle of the crowd, now shouting again, and the angry, exasperated soldiers, staring straight into my doubtless frightened eyes. Clearly he had authority, and clearly he was coming to some sort of decision. I didn’t think I was going to like that decision, so in an incredibly stupid move, I forced a smile, waved to all, and walked past him, shoving my way through the crowd.

Sudden silence. Everyone, including myself, was waiting for the officer to nail me. I fully expected to feel a rough hand on my shoulder. But I found myself on the edge of the crowd, with no hand on my shoulder. I dodged traffic across the road, occasioning much honking of car horns and ringing of bicycle bells.

Still no hand on my shoulder. As I got to the other side, I realized my legs were trembling so badly I could hardly walk. I stumbled on, across a foot bridge onto the island in the middle of the North Sea, where Kubilai Khan had built his main palace next to a tall white Tibetan pagoda, called the Dagoba. Kyle and I had arranged to meet there at noon.

Staggering to the Dagoba, I saw Kyle on a bench. I made it to the bench, and collapsed on it. “What the hell is the matter with you?” Kyle helpfully asked.

I unstrapped my camera, and tried to manually reroll the film in it. Impossible, given the shaking of my hands. I handed the camea to Kyle. “Reroll the film,” I croaked. “Get it out of the camera.” Kyle did so, and made to hand the canister back to me. I shook my head. “Put the film in your backpack,” I asked. “Then put a fresh roll in the camera.” I fully expected the grizzled officer to find me, still, and wanted to have a roll of film to give to him that I didn’t mind losing.

As I collected my wits, with my beloved film safely stowed in Kyle’s backpack, I told the whole story. Kyle reaction? Hearty laughter.

“Hey. It’s not very funny, really!” I claimed, a bit ticked off.

“No, it is,” Kyle replied. “Because I just came down from the top of the Dagoba, there.” He pointed to the tall structure behind us. “You can see all over Beijing from there. I put my zoom lens on, and got plenty of pictures of your pavilion in the Middle Lake!”

I felt sick. But I recovered. You can read about the pavilion, and the mysterious significance of “the autumn wind that courses over the sea of life” in Jade and Fire.

A day later I discovered why the soldiers and the officer were so reluctant to rough up an American tourist and confiscate his film, perhaps throw him in a Chinese dungeon for blatant spying on the Middle-South-Sea complex of China’s rulers. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it turns out Kyle and I weren’t the only Americans in Beijing. President Ronald Reagan had arrived two days earlier, along with Nancy and 600 journalists, for talks with China’s President Li Xian-nian.

Evidently it would be a bad time to throw an American tourist in a dungeon, with America’s President in town and being shown a good time. So Ronald Reagan kept me out of a Chinese jail. And I hadn’t even voted for him in the election.
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