That day, we began to formulate a plan to send Xia into cartographers’ offices and government agricultural buildings to secure road maps and botanical publications, and to gain inside information by calculated “gift-giving”. We would turn my few hundred dollars into thousands of Chinese Yuan. We could use these newfound riches of “People’s Money ” to procure transportation at local prices and pay our way out of scuffles and arrests. We could hire farmers whom the Paunch called “Pheasants” and access isolated villages. We could also afford to pay these farmers handsome sums to accompany us into their mountainous foraging grounds. And we could afford to ship plant material back to our Shanghai basecamp in the off-season.
Since Xia was also an excellent notetaker he began to form a diary detailing addresses and the preferred method of remuneration that each Paunch around the city of Shanghai and Nanjing would accept. Xia could gift authorities small sums of cash to gather information, and then translate documents so I could identify remote areas thought to be prime for rare discoveries.
Through my contacts at the Palace, we began to meet Paunch and low-level Cadres through the northwest of the county. At that time, it was considered odd for a Chinese from one province to travel away from home without having relatives or a good alibi to be in a new location. If Xia was stopped for any reason he would often be questioned or even interrogated in a police station if his answers seemed dubious. But many of the contacts we were given in Nanjing turned out to be minders, some even insisting on sleeping in our hotel room and steer us in the wrong direction while pretending to be helpful. Others were drab straw-man theorists under the thumb of Cadres who ranked above them in a similar boring fashion. None were of help to satisfy a lust we had to encounter remnants of ancient China.
All this official stonewalling eventually led us to branch out on our own into hard-to-reach communities and prohibited lands far off the beaten path. These regions were high in biodiversity, and some had been unexplored by botanists or closed to outsiders since the 1940s. Some regions had recently seen violent insurgencies. It was common to see posters hung on stadium walls promoting upcoming executions for dissidents and monks to be murdered together with drug addicts in public forums. Photos of these so-called criminals would appear lacquered to brick walls of government buildings, outlining the crimes they had committed. The next morning, a hand-painted red X appeared on those photos, sloshed over the faces of the dearly departed. Other areas were simply closed to foreign travel because the Pheasants were considered “backward”, or with a civic infrastructure so poorly developed, the government found it embarrassing for outsiders to witness. Collectively, these forbidden areas represented the best China could offer us for the adventure we sought. Accordingly, from Xia’s small brick home on Qu Fu Road West #5, we would secretly consolidate our botanical collections, copy phytosanitary certificates obtained from Paunch, then ship plants to the USA with USDA permits.
“Great plans are afoot:
A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare;
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.
–Mao Zedong poem “Swimming”1956
While on the Palace grounds and planning our expedition to central Hubei, I noticed people were occasionally calling me Professor. I’m not sure if this was a title Xia fabricated for me to gain favor with Paunch, or if Dr. Gu and Professor He began using it because they were embarrassed when introducing me at one of the elaborate 24-course dinners I had been buying to entertain up to 20 of their Communist Cadre friends at a time.
Whichever the case, Xia seemed to enjoy the attention I was getting and the notoriety he received when posing as my assistant luggage carrier and interpreter. He was already exceedingly charismatic, a poet and musician, from an educated family- his father Chinese and his mother Japanese- he was versed in the arts of strategic thinking. He carried an air of authority and people gravitated towards him. Conversely, I was raised on the streets of a bad-apple biker town in Los Angles and dropped out of middle school when I was 14. I was notoriously disorganized and often disheveled, ( as Xia often reminded me) and I was one hundred percent clueless to academia and the stringent standards regarding professorial titles. When I felt comfortable mingling with our newfound friends in Nanjing, and enough bieju was drunken, I simply adopted the title. Xia snickered when I had the requisite business cards printed in Mandarin and English: Professor Jerome R. Black, Director of Botanical Research and Marketing. We used these cards strategically during our first year of travel.