East of Eden

Morning in Shaxi, at the Eastern Gate

We know how Chinese culture fascinated Jorge Luis Borges, even if he only looked upon it from a distance, or ironically, by way of self-made apocrypha. This is why we, too, are fascinated by a sight that greeted us beyond the Great Wall, on the small wall of a tea house, in the town of Shaxi, Yunnan, next to the Eastern Gate, at an infinite distance from the accustomed routes of European travelers. Here, where you least expect it, Borges himself speaks to us, and in the most eloquent Spanish. This image alone is proof that the world is nothing but an endless library, or as Stéphane Mallarmé said: “Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre” (Everything in the world exists to become a book). At least in our world.

Shaxi. Graffiti in Spanish on the wall of a tea house, usually attributed to J. L. Borges: “I always imagined Paradise as some kind of a library”. The Chinese text is a free translation: “If Paradise exists, it must be like a library”.

In the era of globalization, the library of Babel described by Borges is enriched with new shades of meaning. If we search on the internet for this sentence, written on the wall of a little Chinese town far from the West, we find hundreds of pages which show in black and white that its author was Jorge Luis Borges. However, this formulation is not his. Whatever among his writings is the closest to it, are these verses of Poema de los dones: “Lento en mi sombra, la penumbra hueca / exploro con el báculo indeciso; / yo, que me figuraba el Paraíso / bajo la especie de una biblioteca” (“In my own shadow, I slowly probe the blind half-light with my stick, me, who imagined Paradise as a library.”) An excuse of the author of the graffiti is that he does not attribute the saying to a specific author. And the pen and inkwell also refer to a much older age. But who wrote, and why write, a Borgesian apocrypha in Spanish on a Chinese wall?

The tea house was still closed at this early morning hour, and our horses were already whinnying impatiently at the Eastern Gate. We had to get going further north, towards the Tibetan passes, along the road of tea and horse. But we will return to decipher this riddle, and give news about it from this side of the world, of the library of Babel.

The Qing-era theater on the old market square of Shaxi, next to the Eastern Gate. If you want, you can follow our route day by day