From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Longevity Mountain (1)—Summer Wanderings

[a] Wandering RL
During the last two weeks of July and into early August I will be posting segments from my project dealing with five Chinese mountains that are often referred to as "the sacred mountains of China." They represent each of the "five directions" found in early Chinese thought (think of the ones you know and then add the middle as the fifth); they have figured prominently in Chinese political culture, travel, and religion for 3,000 years. I have spent almost 400 days on the mountains, and am working on a series of books that detail the mountains and their "home" areas. Mountains were said to connect earth (thought to be "square") with heaven (thought to be "round"). The entire project is called—this may or may not surprise you—Round and Square.

One volume is planned for each mountain, beginning with the southern peak, Mt. Heng, in Hunan province. The reasoning behind this choice of a starting place took me months to develop, but suffice it to say that these books will take the reader up and down each of the five sacred (sometimes called "Daoist") mountains and around the lunar calendar in an exploration of Chinese life and culture. As an introduction to the series, I have included an introduction that is based on a recent book proposal and a full "sample" table of contents. These are followed by nine "scenes" from Longevity Mountain that are meant to give readers a sense of the project as a whole. Photographs used in this series were taken during my travels, unless otherwise indicated. My photos are marked "RL."
Scene One
Summer Wanderings  
Hunan province is hot and humid as I arrive in the provincial capital of Changsha on a late June day. It is the end of the fifth lunar month, and it is time for me to climb the southern mountain, known to almost everyone in China by its “other name” as longevity mountain (壽嶽). The southern mountain is the mountain of summer, and all of the cosmological elements have come together in a palpably wet summer heat.
[b] Qufu  R
In Changsha, I organize my climbing materials, but first I take a side-trip, as I will do on each of the mountains, as I seek to tie the timeless tightly together with the timely. The mountains are my focus, but everywhere I go, people talk about other popular destinations. It is uncanny, but each sacred mountain has a powerful “non-sacred” location that is in each case immensely more popular than a four-hour uphill hike up rocky sacrality. I have let my fellow travelers’ questions guide my choices. In Shandong province in the east, I am constantly asked “Have you been to Qufu—Confucius’s birthplace?” In Shaanxi province in the west, the question is “Have you seen the terra cotta soldiers?” When I am in Hunan province, here in the south, the question is just as urgent: “Have you been to Mao Zedong’s birthplace in Shaoshan?”
So it is that I board a steamy little bus in the morning heat, and sit—my head hanging out the window, hoping for a chance of a breeze—as I endure the routine, so common with rural buses, of waiting until there are enough passengers to justify a trip. It is a treat, of sorts, to reach the bus “just in time,” and, as the bus revs up the engine, to take one of the unappreciated seats near the back, within full range of the open window. Today, I am not so lucky. I am the second person on the bus, and we wait forty-five minutes while potential pilgrims slowly fill the seats, still picking their teeth from leisurely hotel breakfasts.
[c] Southern green  RF
At 9:30 the bus inches its way through traffic out of Changsha, and then opens up briefly on the highway before slowing to a bumpy crawl on a secondary road surrounded by lush fields at the height of the summer growing season. Little huts are positioned at the intersection of the fields. Even today, men and boys beyond adolescence live in them throughout the summer, tending to every detail of the growing season. While older men learn to take whatever rest the evening offers them, the young teem with summer energy, even after a long day in the fields. I cannot help but think of the famous lines from the Classic of Poetry, in which a maiden is tempted by, but ultimately declines, the nighttime wooing of her betrothed. Surely, young Zhongzi stole away from a little fieldside hut, racing to call on her at her family home. She longs for her lover, to be sure, but she fears the words of others.
Do not be mistaken; the fear of others’ opinions has everything to do with understanding China—today and 3,000 years into the past.
          Please, Zhongzi 
          Do not climb into our hamlet, 
          Do not break our willow trees. 
          It’s not that I begrudge the willows, 
          But I fear my father and mother. 
          You I would embrace, 
          But my parents’ words— 
          Those I dread. 

          Please Zhongzi, 
          Do not leap over our wall, 
          Do not break our mulberry trees. 
          It’s not that I begrudge the mulberries, 
          But I fear my brothers. 
          You I would embrace, 
          But my brother’s words— 
          Those I dread. 

          Please, Zhongzi, 
          Do not climb into our yard, 
          Do not break our rosewood tree, 
          It’s not that I begrudge the rosewood, 
          But I fear gossip. 
          You I would embrace, 
          But people’s words, 
          Those I dread.[1] 

My “travel companion,” Marcel Granet (1884-1940) takes the same idea a step further, shrouding it in the seasonal activity of divided labor and the preoccupations of youth. He taps into the sociology of love and longing, and the result is nervous daughters and ostentatious sons who wish to take their spring engagements one steamy evening further before their inevitable autumn betrothals.

Their first unions were celebrated in the Festivals of Spring, but they could set up house only after the Autumn Festivals. As long as the work in the fields lasted, even old couples were kept apart; nor were suitors allowed to join their betrothed except by night and furtively. They jumped the hedges and, hiding from their kin, courted each other; especially at the full moon, they sang their aubades, taking great care not to be surprised by the cock crow.
These meetings at night were doubtless chaste. The opposition of the sexes was so strong that a long preparation and favorable times were needed to bring them together; sexual union seemed so frightening that it was forbidden for long periods. But when it was allowed and regulated, when in the spring festivals all the young people of the community came together for the first time, what a unique and moving moment it was![2]

[e] Dreamy  RF
Marcel Granet was the quintessential poet of Chinese social life, and I carry his books with me to every mountain. Thinking of these lines, and staring into the green fields, I imagine tired lads walking—dazed but dreamy—behind the ox-pulled plow (I have yet to see a tractor), reliving the excitement of sneaking away from the raised hut, surprising his beloved, and enjoying the first fruits of a steamy Hunan summer night (doubtless chaste...) before sneaking back to his knowing male kinfolk in the early hours, before the cock crow. It was an exquisite exhaustion that would soon be extinguished after the early months of matrimony. Several years later, he, too, would sleep all night after a long day’s work.
Mao Zedong (1893-1976) never read Granet, as far as I know, but he surely knew the lines above from the Classic of Poetry. Everyone educated in China in the last twenty-five centuries knows them. This was Mao’s home, and, as the bus bumps along slowly, I imagine a teenaged Mao—just nine years younger than Granet, reading translated verses from Baudelaire half a world away—sneaking away on hot summer nights for rendezvous with comely mountain daughters.
          —Now this is countryside. Ever seen anything like it?
I am startled from my reverie by my young seatmate, who has noticed me staring out the window. I think to myself, “I have—I grew up in eastern North Dakota, the most fertile farmland in the world, where you can pick up a clump of rich, black earth and just see the crops that will sprout from its fecundity.”
          —No, this is amazing. How lush. How beautiful.
[f] Xiang Yu opera mask  P
Hunan really is one of the rice-baskets of China, and it is known for its spicy food and famous people. If Virginia and Ohio are considered the birthplaces of American presidents, then Hunan plays a role that at least vies with Minnesota. Emperors come from Henan (“river-south”), several hundred kilometers to the north. Historical figures who fought bravely, only to lose in the end, come from here in Hunan (“lake south”), where iconic figures such as Xiang Yu and Liu Shaoqi[3] would recognize Harold Stassen, Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale

Mao is the exception, rising from peasant boy to local figure (that had been done before) to military leader (that, too, had been done), and ultimately to the leader of a people-powered movement (done once before—in the Taiping Rebellion) that carried it to power and a new political order (that is unprecedented). 

I focus on this thought as the bus lumbers on to Shaoshan. 

[1] Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook (New York: Free Press, 1993), 11.
[2] Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 44.
[3] The irony here is palpable (check the link).

Ebrey, Patricia. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Granet, Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.   

Longevity Mountain 1          Longevity Mountain 2          Longevity Mountain 3          Longevity Mountain 4 
Longevity Mountain 5          Longevity Mountain 6          Longevity Mountain 7          Longevity Mountain 8
Longevity Mountain 9          Longevity Mountain 10        Longevity Mountain 11        Longevity Mountain 12

Mao and Then
The bus pulls in to Shaoshan—Mao Zedong's boyhood home. I am startled much I am startled by...the teeming veneration before me.

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