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.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Longevity Mountain—Introduction

[a] Longevity Cauldron  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. 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 mountains (sometimes called "Daoist") mountains and around the lunar calendar in an exploration of Chinese life and culture. As an introduction to the series, I am including an adaptation of the book proposal (below) that I have just sent to various literary agents, and the sample table of contents ("Introduction-b") that will be posted tomorrow. These will be 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."

Five Mountains
Travelers to China today seem to follow a single itinerary, and the trails etched by their repetitive movements have affected everything from press coverage to tour guide training. They land in Beijing or Shanghai. Let’s take Beijing as an example, since they will all eventually cover the same territory, in any case. After getting settled, they will explore the Forbidden City and the Gate of Heavenly Peace, expanding outward to take in several hutong, or alleys, and perhaps other locations, such as the Olympic Village, the Wangfujing tourist complex, and the Temple of Heaven. Another day will be spent traveling to the Great Wall, and the enterprising traveler will spend some time at Chengde, the Manchu summer “resort” not far away.

After a few days in Beijing, our travelers will fly to the ancient capital of Xi’an, where they will admire its walled structures and visit the terra cotta soldiers and the tomb of the First Emperor. From there, they are off to the cosmopolitan and dizzying city on the river, Shanghai, where shopping on Nangjing East Road, the new Expo 2010 Center, and colonial architecture await. The trip culminates with a boat tour down spectacular stretches of the Yangzi River before they return to Shanghai for their flight home. The order and a few of the details will vary (Ming or Northern Song dynasty tombs, Tianjin, Nanjing), but the itinerary provides stability that is convenient for everyone (especially tour companies) except deeply inquisitive and reflective travelers who want to scratch the surface of Chinese travel.

[b] Well-worn  RL
Through it all, they will suspect—or hear from their fellow travelers or guides—that there is more to China than “just these places.”  They will hear about “China beyond the cities” and will even themselves begin to utter phrases such as “real China” or “authentic China.”  And it is not just travelers who actually set foot in China who are affected by this all-too predictable itinerary. Press accounts, memoirs, and blogs are so big-city and major tourist destination related as to be virtually identical. Western knowledge of China is stilted and increasingly clichéd. There are a few refreshing exceptions, and several have appeared in just the last year or so, among them Rob Gifford’s China Road and Peter Hessler’s Country Driving. Still, even those books sometimes seem to be about the road or path that the author just happened to take. Is there something else—a way of getting past well-worn paths or mere serendipity?

Yes. There is.

For three millennia, a different kind of traveler has followed another kind of well-trodden path, but one that even today has an immediate, almost visceral appeal. It covers all dimensions of the territory occupied by most Chinese during most of China’s past, and it has another element that is indispensable. Story links the elements and phases of the journey, and the stories range from the footsteps each traveler takes today to those of ancient sage kings in hazily recorded times who walked (or were carried over) the very same ground. I speak of the five sacred mountains of China (五嶽), arranged according to the directions and seasons in “proper” cosmological sequence (east/spring, south/summer, center, west/autumn, and north/winter). Time and the mountains revolve, or are made to, by the proper movements of the traveler. The pivot is the center; east is where time begins again, year after year after year. The rest proceeds in clockwork fashion from east to south to center to west to north. And then it begins all over again next year.

That is the classical description of the matter. Let us examine the route of the sagely, quasi-mythical Emperor Shun’s (traditional date, c. 2300 BCE) travels, recorded for us in the Book of History.

[c] Culture  RL
In the second month of the year, [Shun] made a tour of inspection to the east as far as Mt. Tai, where he made a burnt offering to Heaven and sacrificed to the mountains and rivers…He received the eastern nobles in an audience and put their calendar in order, standardized the musical notes and the measures of length and volume, as well as the five kinds of rituals…After finishing his tour of inspection he returned to the capital. In the fifth month, he made a tour of inspection to the south, as far as the Southern Sacred Peak, to which he sacrificed in the same manner as he did at Mt. Tai. Likewise, in the eight month, he made a western tour of inspection as far as the Western Sacred Peak. In the eleventh month, he made a tour of inspection to the north, as far as the Northern Sacred Peak, where he sacrificed as he had in the west. Upon his return to the capital, he went to the Temple of the Ancestor and offered up an ox (to complete the cycle of the year and the realm).

These mountains are still here, today, etched far more deeply by human culture than geological processes. Over the past five years, I have climbed and descended each one of them—many times, in all seasons of the year—almost 400 days on the trails of early sage kings and modern pilgrims. I have also explored their adjacent cities and rural countryside, speaking with people in an ongoing conversation about China, its history, and the rich culture of the sacred mountain ranges (often described as being like the backs of so many dragons burrowing through the earth).  

They present a China very different from the megacities and the most visited tourist attractions. To be sure, they are attractions of their own, and it has ever been so. The sacred mountains are not “secrets,” except to Westerners. Every day, thousands of pilgrims ascend the seven thousand stone steps of Mt. Tai in Shandong province in the east. Throngs watch the sunrise (and see the cosmos “begin” again) every single day of the year. There are five mountains, but they form a single idea. The five mountains are the world, in the parlance of early Chinese cosmology. Even today, the idea lingers in literature and conversation. 

Each mountain is grounded in regional economies and local religious practices; each has been a significant pilgrimage destination for the better part of three millennia. In China, attention to the individual mountains has arguably never been stronger, with the Chinese government taking a newfound interest in their preservation and promotion. It is baffling beyond understanding that a travel template as rich and full of historical and cultural lore could be almost shut off to Western travelers.  

Some, to be sure, make it to Mt. Tai—so famous throughout Chinese history that everyone from emperors to everyday pilgrims were attracted to it. Confucius climbed it 2,500 years ago, and was said to have looked down from its peak and see how small the world appeared from above. Some Western travelers on the way from Beijing to Shanghai make the trip today. Out west, a handful of the thousands of visitors to the terra cotta soldiers exhibit continue on down the road for another hour to visit Mt. Hua, the peak of autumn, and its creamy, stark rock face. I have seen fewer than a dozen Western visitors on the other three mountains in the hundreds of days I have spent on them.

[d] Few  RL

So I started thinking. How is this possible?  Do they not know about the five sacred mountains?  The answer is, for the most part, yes…they don’t. First, I looked through the books; there aren’t many. I have read them all (I exaggerate only slightly, having acquired everything in print, including recent editions, in East Asian and Western languages). There are many volumes in Chinese; this need not surprise anyone. There are rather few in Japanese or Korean, with only scattered titles in Western languages, almost all about majestic Mt. Tai. In any language without ideographs, there is only one book, published in 1926, about all five sacred mountains.

The American author of that book took trains, rode donkeys, and visited each peak only once—in 1919. In ascending all five sacred mountains, he did what no other Westerner—and even only a few Chinese travelers by that time—had ever done. I have the relative luxury of aging train lines and third-rate regional buses. Still, the somewhat easier access has allowed me to compile thousands of pages of notes, hundreds of tape recordings, and 30,000 photographs (somewhere in all of this—in addition to a serious travelogue—there is a calendar and a coffee table book).

It is accurate, if only because it is relatively uncontested, to say that I know the five mountains better than any Westerner on the planet has ever known them. I have read everything published about the mountains in the last 3,000 years—from the Book of History to the most recent self-published pamphlet on the new trail up northern Mt. Heng, which I got as a gift from a custodian in a little temple halfway up the mountain just a few weeks ago. And I have “read” the mountains. That is because, for almost thirty centuries, poets and statesmen have inscribed their thoughts onto the rock face in elegant, flowing script. The mountain paths are corridors of text, even as they teem with chattering, voluble pilgrims walking the stone trails. They have ever been so. I have studied the books, read the mountains, and talked to the travelers.

I have a story to tell.

You see, I am an anthropologist…and a historian. Time was when both historians and anthropologists knew how to tell a story. A few still do, and I have chosen to encamp with that crowd. The way I was trained, stories are a good thing, and I like to tell them in lively ways that “peel away” ever more deeply into subtler and richer connections to other stories and analyses. On the mountains, there are stories about actual travel, stories within stories (anecdotes about historical eras on and around the mountains), and analytical stories that deepen the reader’s understanding of a wide swath of cultural, political, or social territory. My book is intended to merge travel writing, literary study, and historical analysis in a blend that returns the travelogue to what it truly can be if the author is unafraid to engage complex ideas. There remains a troubling gap between popular and academic writing about China. I crave the fiercely intelligent book written for ambitious readers well beyond the academy.

Round and Square is the title I give to what I envision as a series of books charting a path around the mountains and the ever-fascinating lunar calendar. It is so named because of the Chinese idea (seen on traditional coinage, in the smallest form, and in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, in one of its largest) that heaven is round and earth is square. Westerners from St. Anselm to Kant have conceived of round and square as opposites, never successfully to be linked. Chinese cosmological thinking has always linked them, and the traditional imperial mountain sacrifices are among its greatest examples. Imperial travelers such as the sage emperor Shun in the quotation above were said to sacrifice at each mountain’s base in the proper season, climbed (or were carried) to the summit for the climactic sacrifice, and then descended the mountains—linking high and low, near and far, in an intricate dance of ritual and cosmology.

[e] Rock-carved  RL
Round and Square takes the reader on an analytical journey up and down each of the five peaks and around the lunar calendar—a full circuit of all of the mountains, including a return to Mt. Tai to “start time over again” in a new year. It traces not only my travels through the mountain corridors, and up the stone paths (under the traces of rock-carved poetry), but also through a changing China during a half-decade surrounding its Olympic (2008) and Expo (2010) years—from 2006-2012. The years leading up to and through the Olympic Games have been transformational in China, and the reader interested in the history of China will not fail to grasp the shadow of a century’s change. Since the waning years of the Qing dynasty, which ended in 1911, the mountains have served as suppliers of resources for isolated locals, as shields against Japanese bombings, as centers for civil war planning, as the objects of revolutionary fury against “feudalism,” and, today, as tourist centers and monuments to national heritage. They are teeming centers of social and intellectual activity, and have been just that for 3,000 years.

Equally important to the narrative is an array of Western scholars of China (sinologists) who studied Chinese society and cosmology in highly creative ways. The central figure is Marcel Granet (1884-1940), and it is fair to say that I make the trip with him—carrying his writings with me and thinking them through anew on the mountains and in the months between my climbs. By extension, his teachers and colleagues also “accompany” me—the sinologist Edouard Chavannes (1865-1918), the sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), as well as Granet’s student, Rolf Stein (1911-1999). Round and Square is, then, a travelogue with characters (the pun is intentional)—some accompanying me in their books, others carved into the rock face over the centuries, and still others (living, talking, gesticulating hikers) whom I have met on the paths of these pilgrimage mountains. All of these “characters” help to deepen the story, even as they propel it up the mountains.

This is because the work—for all of its perambulations and hidden paths—has a powerful theme running all of the way through it. Anthropology (and the travelogue) must “rediscover the text” if it is to reach to the very heart of the Chinese tradition, and not be just the mouthpiece for spoken culture, village life, and a mundane kind of writing all too typical of travel guides and memoirs. My travels up and down the mountains present me with an overflowing abundance of “fieldwork” details and spoken culture, to be sure. They also provide me with thousands of stone poetic inscriptions, tens of thousands of commemorative steles and temple carvings, and hundreds of thousands of pages of Chinese language texts, written about the mountains themselves over the course of three millennia. I climb—a solitary traveler—through a sea of text, connecting for readers China’s past with its vibrant present (five sacred mountains, five Olympic rings, five tumultuous years), and return with a new perspective on modern China.

***  ***

[f] One-by-one  RL
I propose to tell the story of all five mountains through a stimulating work that depicts the five mountains as an idea, as well as the ways in which they have connected for Chinese travelers and thinkers over the centuries. Unless I were proposing a straight “travel guide” (of the Lonely Planet or Fodors variety—and I am not averse to that in addition to this proposal), I strongly believe that it would be a mistake to try to jam all five mountains into a single book. Having already written 1,200 pages of draft manuscript during my travels, the downside of a single “five-mountain” book is that there is just too much repetition regarding travel, temples, and transitions. Each mountain is a vibrant and distinct location. I propose to tell the story of the five through the “lens” of the southern mountain, with the hope of continuing the narrative after that. Nonetheless, the volume (Longevity Mountain) will stand alone as the first Western book in almost a century that introduces and engages all five of China’s sacred mountains.

The best analogy might be John McPhee’s beautiful Basin and Range (1981), which stood alone for several years as a brilliant rendering of North American geology and geography. Had McPhee only published that single book, it would have been a meaningful text read for its literary and “substantive” value—giving deep hints at larger questions of North American geology. As it was, McPhee progressed on his own itinerary, writing three more volumes that eventually became the sizable tome Annals of the Former World. Without this format, McPhee might have buried elegant details of, for example, Wyoming rockface (his third volume) that are gems of insight and prose style. After the fact, Annals of the Former World does its job as the 700-page collection of a decade’s work, but the individual volumes stand alone. This is the precise relationship I envision between Round and Square and Longevity Mountain.
The only “five mountain” book published in any Western language (1926) has the “redundancy” flaw, and I have sought a way to write a book that can serve both as a free-standing volume if it were the only one published or the beginning of a stimulating series of texts that bring readers up and down all five mountains and raise the profile of this distinctive itinerary for Western travelers. I have explained this in detail in the sample table of contents, but suffice it to say that I seek to tell the story of the five mountains through the lens of its most distinctive sacred peak. It is in China’s steamy southland, and is a place where travelers show a kind of religious energy not seen on the other venerable mountains. It has been known to travelers for centuries by the same term as my proposed volume title—Longevity Mountain.
[g] Longevity  RL
Longevity Mountain—Table of Contents
Tomorrow's post will take readers through a tour of the book as a whole—Longevity Mountain from long before the base all of the way to the peak...and then down again. 


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