Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

Herbert Rosendorfer: Letters Back to Ancient China

Second letter

(Saturday, 17th July)

My dear friend Dji-gu,

The future is an abyss. I think I wrote that on the note I placed at the contact point for you three days ago (I hope it reached you so that you will not be worrying about my safe arrival). The things I have seen here are so completely different from everything to which you and I are accustomed, that I do not know where to start. Here – actually I shouldn't say ‘here’, I should say ‘now’, but this ‘now’ is so unimaginably foreign that I find it difficult to believe that this is the same place where you are living, even if separated by the space of a thousand years. A thousand years. Now I realise that that is a stretch of time which the human mind cannot encompass. Of course, you can start counting, one, two, three … until you reach a thousand, and try to imagine that with each number a year passes, generations come and go, emperors, even whole dynasties change, the stars pursue their courses … but I tell you, a thousand years is more than mere elapsed time: a thousand years is such a colossal mountain of time that even the boldest imagination cannot spread its wings and fly over it.

A thousand years is not ‘now’ and ‘ then’, a thousand years is ‘here’ and ‘there’. I will stick to ‘here’.

I'm glad I managed to find the contact point again, where I am going to deposit this letter. For that I have to thank a man who has helped me very much and is still helping me. More about him later. I could not have found the point without someone else's help, for our Kai-feng has changed so completely that it seems like a different city to me. That may perhaps be connected with the fact that the river has changed direction; now it flows almost due north. The city has grown incredibly large and almost unbearably noisy. From what I have seen so far, there is not the least trace left of any of those palaces, which looked to us as if they were built for eternity, not to mention ordinary houses. Even the hills have gone. Everything is flat. To make up for that, the houses tower up like jagged mountains, and there is scarcely a tree that rises above the roof-tops. You would not recognise a thing, not a single brick or stone. I cannot imagine how all this has come about. I can well believe that our barbaric descendants – a coarse rabble they are, I can tell you, completely lacking in dignity – would flatten the hills. It even seems to me that the permanent layers of smoke and soot have driven our sky away to more distant regions. I almost feel as if I were not only in a different time, but in a different place as well.