Article by Malcolm Aquino
China’s natural beauty often gets overlooked in favor of the bustling metropolises, dingy alleyways, and the color gray—both in the sky and the towering skyscrapers reaching up to it. There’s no denying that you will see plenty of trash, plenty of smog, and plenty of people. However, as any local knows, get out of the city and you find yourself in different surroundings. The towering skyscrapers are replaced with mountains and the smog with blue skies.
As the country grows richer and more modern, it is usually nature that suffers the consequences. Large swaths of trees cut down for the next batch of luxury apartment complexes. Rivers and lakes poisoned from factories, churning out the world’s goods. The mountains, trees, bodies of water, and sky are all slowly disappearing, yet there is still a strong sense of environmentalism, now more than ever before. We are drawn to being outside, even if it is just a walk down the street. Hu Donglin explores this primordial need to be in nature in his collection of essays and journal entries, Fox Grin.
Hu Donglin was a native of northeastern Jilin province, born and raised in the capital city of Changchun. A man in his 60s at the time of writing, he details his many adventures (and seasons) in the Chang Bai Shan forest. What was once home to many exotic species and spanned hundreds of kilometers has slowly withered away into a much smaller area with a number of species now extinct. Hu, however, does not focus on this aspect, because he is too busy exploring what is left with the curiosity of a child. His numerous entries detail his encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna of Chang Bai Shan. He examines tree bark, footprints, bird calls, and even feces on a few occasions.
His other entries include local legends of hunters facing the perils of the forest and coming out changed men, old Manchu folk tales, and heartbreaking stories of misunderstandings between man and nature. His most interesting writings, however, come from the time he spent living in relative solitude in Chang Bai Shan forest. The book is anchored by four sets of entries from this time, each revolving around an encounter with a wild animal. He befriends an otter, who incomprehensibly displays many human characteristics, a bird with a unique call, who he watches start a family and live life, a family of pesky bobcats, and the eponymous smiling fox. Hu also adds addendums and notes, looking back on these experiences with new outlooks. The book shows an aging man living in an aging forest, in harmony with one another.
As an American, it was impossible not to the see the similarities between this book and Walden, the famous 18th century book by Henry David Thoreau. A quick summary: Thoreau moves to a secluded cabin in a forest in Massachusetts, next to Walden Pond. He lives there for a year, writing down his thoughts on everything and everything he saw while he was living there. Walden is more a philosophical work than a literary one. Fox Grin is much more focused on the environment and the things living in it than Walden is and much more interested in telling stories, but the whole “man vs. nature” theme is ever-present in both works. Fox Grin’s stories are much more similar to the works of Jack London, an American novelist and outdoorsman, who wrote novels such as Call of the Wild and White Fang.
For those who are looking to vicariously explore a place with little human contact from someone who cares deeply for it, this is a great pick up. It is not set up in a traditional novel format, instead opting for sections and time jumps, which might be a turn off for some. The novel doesn’t get too political, as some environmental writing tends to do. Hu Donglin shows that the natural world and the modern world are more alike than people realize and calls for people to protect what’s left. Instead of bashing you over the head with political jargon and mudslinging, he tells stories of the wonder and mysteries that can still be found ina country as industrialized as China. He personifies nature, making it familiar and relatable.
However, be ready to do some web searches. Fox Grin uses many scientific and specific names for the wildlife, to the point where sometimes I had to put the book down a few times to look up something to give proper context to what was happening. This killed some of the pacing of the novel. It can be argued that this is a goal of the novel, that you become educated about an area relatively unknown to the masses, so that you can appreciate Chang Bai Shan on a level as deep as Hu Donglin’s. It depends on the reader; some may like it, others not so much.
All in all, Fox Grin is an interesting look into one of the more remote areas of China, through the eyes of a local Manchu writer. There is mysticism, science, comedy, and tragedy. It is probably a more interesting look at a place than any travel guide can give. It is worth picking up if you love China’s natural beauty, or any natural beauty for that matter. If introspective hikes in the forest don’t sound that exciting, skip this one.
Malcolm Aquino has been exploring China for the last two years. If there is beautiful scenery and delicious food, chances are he’s been there.