Chinese Diary

My grandfather, Lumír Jisl, was a passionate climber, diligent archaeologist and oriental studies pundit. An adventurer with great literary sense, which he immortalised in his books and personal diaries.

“I climbed opposite the head of colossal Avalokiteshvara. Fierce wind began to blow. Rainstorm, hail. Gods rise up. The wind is slamming a broken gate, I'm waiting for the temple to collapse any second. Little bells at the corners of curved roofs clink in the gale and sound the alarm. Slow demise all around. Walls crumble, roof tiles scale, shrubs and grass sprout everywhere, even up on the roofs. Towers remind hollow teeth, the staircase is all aslope. Old pines amongst all of this, ivy and bindweed crawl up the walls. Colors, colors.”

Long after Lumír's early death, the diaries (together with myriad of meticulous records, negatives, letters, books and antique artifacts from all over the globe) were kept safe in my grandma's banana boxes. Until eminent buddhologist, associate professor of comparative religion and a great guy Luboš Bělka dug them to the light. He deciphered my grandfather's sketchy handwriting and discovered a brick of gold. Not only were the diaries uniquely uncensored insight into late 1950s China, they were also of such literary quality that Bělka decided to publish the original texts without any edits whatsoever. That's where I jumped in and started to work on the book.

It has been great opportunity and adventure to get to know my grandfather—whom I've never met—through his fosilised memories. He traveled thousands of kilometers across the mainland China, visited various cities, temples, caves and other historic sites as part of his research. Took hundreds of photographs with his Flexaret, many of superior photographic quality. Vividly described the places, events and people he encountered, as honestly as he could (”...but then I thought the secret police can go fuck themselves and I went out anyways.”) and critically captured the desperate dailiness of the communist Middle Kingdom. His last note from Saturday, February 8, 1958 speaks for itself:

“I have not seen so much misery in my entire life as much as I have seen in the past five months here. It is nothing but struggle for life. And these people are even better off now than they were before the revolution... I don't see them as ethnographic objects anymore. There is no exotica involved. They are people, ordinary oldtimers and gimpy aunties with feet deformed into hoofs. Yes, they may be dumb. But their dumbness is natural, honest, excusable. How could it be their fault? They are all so much closer to me now.

I walk miles and miles through the city and I observe just the ordinary people. As if I was just starting to discover them. Chasing buddhas and temples left me with no time for these people. But who, if anyone ever, is going to write about this back in Czechoslovakia? The life of all whites happens at Wangfujing and all offcial guests just oscilate between grubs. What do they know about the genuine, the real, the hundred million China? Hoffmeister, how many pages have you covered with descriptions of the 'typical' Chinese cuisine? Talking about the 'modesty' in refusing the last bowl of rice? Ask these people here what they eat. Will you ever dare to write about that? Are you aware that you were the worst bourgeois pig around here? Back at hotel, we come up with juicy ideas for lunches and dinners, we complain about the monotonous menu. But what about those hundreds of millions poor people? It is going to take eons before they will have their own turn in socialism.”

Chinese Diary has been nominated by the jury for the finals of The Most Beautiful Czech Books of 2016 competition. The book was edited by Luboš Bělka and Pavel Šindelář and published by the Masaryk University. Its publishing would not have been possible without the generous support of many donors.

Fun fact: all of my grandfather's books were designed by my grandmother. Except this one.