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Searching for Gladys

6 May 2013

In May 2006, inspired by the book A Small Woman by Alan Burgess, I embarked on a trip to Yangcheng (陽城 / 阳城) in Shanxi province. This was my own personal adventure for the May holiday break that year. Rather than visit a famous tourist spot crowded with visitors who are there only because it’s a famous tourist spot (and often have very little idea what it is about anyway), I decided to visit somewhere that had a personal meaning for me. My goal was a simple one: to see for myself this truly out-of-the way place in the wilds of northern China where an anything-but-ordinary London woman, Gladys Aylward, had led an amazingly energetic and eventful life. I’ve given a brief account of my trip at this web page on Yangcheng and the Inn of Eight Happinesses.

I made my way to Jincheng and then to Yangcheng on 2 May, not knowing what I might find. The first impression was a letdown. Yangcheng was just another dirty north Chinese town with nothing much to recommend it. It certainly didn’t live up to the romantic picture that Burgess had painted. But I had a mission: I wanted to find the Inn of Eight Happinesses.

This is what turned a visit to an ordinary town into an adventure. I met local people, attempted to figure out where some of the town’s landmarks were, visited the town’s Confucian temple, and wandered around ordinary streets that to me were a repository of events of other times. As I pursued my simple agenda, I realised anew what I had always known: travelling to conventionally famous sites may have its rewards, but it is nothing compared with travelling to see sites that you have a deep personal interest in.

During my visit to Yangcheng I forgot this lesson once and took the advice of local people to go and see a place ‘worth seeing’. That turned out to be Huangcheng Xiangfu (皇城相府huángchéng xiāngfǔ), the well preserved official residence of the Qing-era scholar Chen Tingjing (陳廷敬 chén tǐngjìng). In more normal circumstances I might have been impressed — Chen Tingjing was chief editor of the Kangxi Dictionary – but since I went there knowing only that it was a ‘famous site’ (nobody could explain exactly why it was famous), and since it was absolutely crowded with holiday visitors, it was a tiring and disappointing experience.

The visit to the unremarkable county seat of Yangcheng, on the other hand, proved to be one of the most interesting and rewarding trips I have ever taken in China.

The pity was that, having found this hidden treasure, it took me seven years to post my story and pictures on the Internet. When I first took my photos, there was nowhere else on the Internet where the real ‘Inn of Eight Happinesses’ (better known to some as the ‘Inn of the Sixth Happiness’ after the movie) could be seen. Seven years later, there are at least two Chinese sites where photos have been uploaded, and there is a great deal of detailed material on Gladys Aylward and the Inn of the Eight Happinesses in both English and Chinese. My ‘first mover’ advantage was lost.

For all that, the page has an interest missing from other accounts. Apart from the discovery of the inn, it is the only site that attempts to figure out the outlines of the town as it was seventy years ago when Gladys Aylward lived there, and does not focus just on the inn itself or simply retell the events of her life.

Visiting places that are of personal interest is a two-edged experience. There is the thrill of visiting a locality that is known only to yourself or to a small group with inside knowledge. And there is the completely conflicting desire to share this wonderful place with other people (or the more ignoble emotion of wanting to boast about one’s superior experience). And therein lies the contradiction. Once the secret is out, the special place is no longer special; it will, in fact, come to be frequented by thousands of people who come merely because it has become a ‘famous site’. It now appears that the government of Yangcheng is thinking of promoting the Inn of the Eighth Happiness as the town’s new tourist attraction. When that happens, there is nothing to stop this special place from becoming just another boring and crowded tourist trap.

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