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Footprings on the Peaks: Mountaineering in China

Footprints on the Peaks: Mountaineering in China. Zhou Zheng and Liu Zhenkai. Cloudcap Press, Seattle, Washington, 1995. $30.00.

Footprints on the Peaks is a long-overdue and badly-needed counterweight to a decidedly Anglo-centric view of the history of mountaineering. The book not only documents the most important climbs within China since her early history, it also discusses their significance in the development of mountain climbing in China. From early ascents by poets and religious figures to the first ascent of Qomolangma from the north, almost every climb singled out by the book represents a first of some sort. Its importance as historical documentation alone can’t be understated; yet Footprints also conveys much about the Chinese mountaineering psyche and the motivations driving China’s climbers. It’s perhaps the first book of its kind to come out of China.

The authors, Zhou Zheng and Liu Zhenkai, both native Chinese, make no bones about their desire to rectify misconceptions about mountaineeringin China and to set the tables straight on China’s historical and modern contributions to mountaineering. They make several assertions about altitude records, first ascents and pioneering mountain travels that topple Western notions of the history of mountaineering. Some are quite stunning. According to Mr. Zhou and Mr. Liu, the bowline was invented possibly 2,000 years ago in China rather than merely a few centuries ago by Dutch sailors. And, they claim, the famous poet Li Bai climbed Tai Shan, which is 33 meters higher than Mount Velon in the Alps, more than a thousand years before the latter peak’s first ascent. They even go so far as to attribute the discovery of the American continent (Mexico) not to Columbus but to a world roaming Buddhist pilgrim, Fa Xian, around the 4th century A.D.

Amidst such boasts, however, are interspersed true literary gems documenting travels through the towering mountain chains fortifying China’s Western frontiers. Some appear in the accounts of Buddhist pilgrims on their way to India to collect Buddhist literature for translation, while others appear in huge historical works written by dynastic historians. For example, in the History of the Han Dynasty, written by Ban Gu around the 1st century A.D., the historian records that, “South of Mount Pishan (in the Karakoram) travelers have to climb over Mount Greater Headache, Mount Lesser Headache and Fever Hill,” which is no doubt one of the earliest recorded references to mountain sickness. The most famous of the Buddhist pilgrims, Xuan Zang (also known as Hsuan Tsang), recorded in the 7th century A.D. that the western mountains “were covered with ice in the summer which must be cut for the ascent.… Even the hovering eagles could not fly over the peaks. They had no choice but to land on their feet and climb over the top with a wobbling gate before they took wing again.”

The book is written chronologically, with a section inserted at the beginning on China’s topography and mountain ranges. Within this framework, the authors take on the stupendous task of introducing China’s major mountain ranges, cover 4,000 years of mountaineering history, and then focus on the modern period and China’s major efforts to catch up with the rest of the world in mountaineering accomplishments and know-how. Mr. Zhou’s and Mr. Liu’s efforts along these lines are admirable. Even a lay person unfamiliar with Chinese history should come away with at least an impression of the richness and depth of both Chinese culture and her mountaineering history.

Unfortunately, the descriptions of the massive modern expeditions, sometimes replete with basecamp cafeterias and dance halls, become tedious, sounding more like accounts of battles than mountain climbs. And the accompanying maps are almost useless. If you are truly interested in the what and where of China’s mountains and mountain ranges you would do well to get out a National Geographic, or some such map, to use while reading the book. Readers may also wonder why a mountain range as major as the Karakoram is brushed over in three sentences, while other much more minor yet centrally located ranges are given more focus and detail (this is probably a reflection of the same Sino-centric view that caused the Chinese to call their nation Zhong Guo, or Middle Kingdom, as in the center of the civilized world).

In general the writing is very party line, even to the point of reading like some of the nauseating tourist brochures widely dispersed by the state-run travel organizations. China’s climbers are “heroes” who serve as “uplifting” forces for the Chinese people and their Motherland (in Chinese parlance, the Motherland includes Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong). But Footprints does include a couple of personal and revealing passages. In one, a woman named Tong Lu who climbed Xixabangma (Shisha Pangma) in 1990, writes in her diary of aborting a pregnancy to go on the expedition, and then dealing with her period during the expedition, with a frankness rarely seen in western mountaineering literature. All in all, the nationalistic overtones shouldn’t deter anyone from reading the book and appreciating its more important qualities.

The Chinese place great importance on documenting their history and preserving those documents. More often than not, the historical records were written to justify the reigning emperor’s claim to the Heavenly Throne. Written and translated by native Chinese, Footprints on the Peaks follows those lines, and readers should prepare themselves for something other than the highly personal and individualistic accounts by western mountaineers that we’re used to reading. That aside, the book is a major first step in revealing the somewhat hidden and mysterious realm of Chinese mountaineering. Its value lies not in inspiration but in revelation. Anyone who has climbed, will climb, or has any interest in the Middle Kingdom and her mountains, should have and read a copy of this book.

Mark Newcomb