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.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Longevity Mountain (7)—Regaining the Ancient Path

[a] High and far  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 Seven
Regaining the Ancient Path
[b] Backtrack  RL
In a pattern that I developed over several climbs of the southern mountain, I backtrack slightly again (climbing is good for me, I tell my compatriots on the road—it is my weight loss plan). I walk down the road, and “catch” the stone path near the place where it bypasses the Martyr’s Shrine. Five steps forward, three steps back. It will be a long day, but most of the backtracking is now over. Most. The path that cuts its way along the side of the Martyr’s Shrine is flat, then gradually rising, with a small stream to the left and just enough foliage to create a feeling of density, if not quite a canopy. Glimmers of sun shine down, and the late-morning air feels clean despite the heat. Following the arch of the Martyrs’ Shrine slope, the path cuts through the hill, exposing ferns, tree roots, and stone as it winds its way toward the ever-present road. There are times when the path seems a distant world, far from the honking horns. There are other stretches, such as this one, where it is only a brief respite from looking both ways and crossing blacktop.

Waiting for a bus and two motorcycles, I watch as heads turn to stay focused on the foreigner; I imagine the question shared by most, “Is he hiking alone?”  The steps begin their horizontal and vertical path, and I am back in the forest. As I climb through pines and cedars, I pass by stone altars dotting the entire pilgrim path. Standing a little over a meter high on stone cut by a router into a vase pattern, they are topped with a flat slab of stone that forms a convenient place to open and sort through a backpack. I have seen the altar tops used for card games, map reading, a kind of cosmic air hockey with sticks and stones, and…amorous activities beneath the rustling breezes.

[c] Useful  RL
The clearly useful structure does not change the fact that they are designed to be altars, and I have occasionally seen them used for just that—with incense sticks burning neatly in the forest air. The stone front is carved on every altar up the mountain in the same distinctive manner. In the middle is the “true form” character for the southern mountain; in a diagonal pattern (top left to bottom right) are the two traditional form characters used more on this mountain than 衡山, Hengshan— 壽嶽, Longevity Peak. The little stone squares appear from around corners and at the top of stair ascents as small outposts, like cabins in the Yukon. Put your stuff here, and take a break, they seem to call. They have mixed with the mountain just like any other slabs of rock, and the face of the one on which I now rest my backpack is dotted with lichen, pine needles, and clay, covering all but the little “mountain: (山) on the top of the character “peak” (嶽).

As I continue up the path, I sense colors that do not occur in forested settings—bright red, light blue, and orange of a shade used to dye tangerines. It reminds me of one more use of the stone altars, and it is by far the most common. Underneath the umbrellas and serving as a solid countertop for orange drink, bottled green tea, water, dried fish snacks, spicy bean curd squares, and boiled eggs, these stone altars alter the landscape for profit—and pilgrim relief. Several locations have cold drink carts that are padlocked at night but open for commerce all day long. I order two hardboiled eggs and a bean curd square on a stick.

          —Do you want spicy pepper sauce?

          —The hotter the better.

[d] Hiking  RL
I quickly down the bean curd square, which holds liquid like a kitchen sponge and squirts as I bite into it. After struggling through several hundred of these squares over the years, I most often prefer to take them off of the long shish kebab stick on which they are sold and eat them out of my bowl with chopsticks. This is not possible while sitting on a rock near a stone longevity peak altar turned to commerce—no bowl, no chopsticks. I spread my knees, bend low at the waist, and eat the juicy square, with squeezed moisture and hot peppers forming a small pool between my boots.

Wiping my chin, I slowly begin to peel my eggs and look more carefully at the unlikely combination of merchandise. In addition to the drinks, packaged foods, and rice cookers filled with eggs and beancurd, the scene is framed by hanging scrolls, beads, and bracelets. The attendant is a woman in her thirties. I ask her about her stand, and she is happy to talk.

          —I get up at dawn and put things together. I open the stand at 7:00 and close down at about 5:00 in the afternoon. 

          —Do you have help carrying things up, or do you come up alone? 

          —I live on a little farm over the ridge, and my brother and cousins sometimes help me with things. I lock up the cold drink cart every night, and have a metal bin here that can be chained to the tree. The only things I have to carry every day are the scrolls. I wrap them carefully at night and keep them at home. 

The scrolls hang on a long cord positioned between two trees. I ask her what sells the best.

          —Water, orange juice, bean curd, and eggs. 

          —What about the scrolls? 

[e] Commerce  RL
          —They just don’t sell very well. Hikers don’t know where to put them, and people don’t stop their cars or motorcycles and hike through the woods to an off-road stand like this one. If I were in one of the “row” shops along the paths to the peak, I might be able to sell scrolls. Bracelets go pretty well, though. People are always trying them on, and they do buy those fairly often. 

          —Do you ever get lonely up here? People always ask me if I am hiking alone, and don’t seem to understand. 

          —I don’t really understand that, either. Hiking alone is lonely. Working alone is just a little boring, but I have gotten used to it. I don’t go up to the temple very often—it’s just not something I think of, having grown up here—but I would always want to go with someone. When something is beautiful or interesting, I want to be able to talk about it. Why do you hike alone, anyway? 

I tell her that I am doing research on the mountains, and that it would be difficult to have hiking companions, since I need to pay attention to details. She seems more or less satisfied with that answer, and the ambiguity has probably helped my cause. I need not necessarily be a history professor seeking to understand the culture of the mountain. I could be a botanist who can’t be bothered with small talk as I inspect variations of magnolia bark and growing patterns for ferns. I finish my second egg, clean up the shells, wipe my hands, bid goodbye, and continue up the steps.

I will follow the path until it forms a "T" with the most gnarled path of all, soaking in mountain moisture and carved poetic texts as I go. I continue up the stone steps, and the first rock carving I reach— amidst exposed roots, moss-covered boulders, and clay—is a small marker surrounded by stones. It takes me away from poetry about immortals and calls to mind the forest as barracks. It is an unlikely reminder that this mountain was a hideout during the war with Japan, and a figure who would go on to become an enemy of the People's Republic of China is celebrated here for resisting the Japanese onslaught.

[f] Chiang  RL
Mr. Chiang Kai-shek Memorial 
Pine Forest District 
Erected in the Republic of China
Twenty-ninth Year, Spring 

The pines are thick, if not dense, and it occurs to me that Daoists seeking to wander off the path—seeking obscurity, as it were—and harried troops holding off an enemy army share at least some needs, both of which are offered by the forest canopy. 

The combination of immortality seeking and military defense is too intriguing for me not to test it, at least a bit. I wander off the path and begin cutting through forest. It is not difficult to do at first, because the pine trees create the even spacing needed to make my way farther and farther from the stone path. Before long, I am in the woods, and able to consider a time before stone paths when such a location could provide respite from the pressures of the Confucian world—or Axis bombings. I think again about the question—Why pursue the beaten path? Why not? Why do Westerners seem to value the obscurity?

It is not a simple equation. Obscurity has its uses, and the Daoist tradition is filled with examples—some of them occurring right here, near Incense Burner Peak. Obscurity is also useful in wartime, and Nationalist forces made good use of it during the late 1930s and 1940s, right here on these mountain ridges. It is, indeed, somewhat ironic that two of the five cosmological mountains—places of pilgrimage, traveling, and gathering—would serve as military outposts during the war with Japan. Mt. Hua in the west is celebrated as a protector of Communist forces; Mt. Heng shielded the Nationalists. The marchmounts became places for a very different kind of sacrifice, and that just complicates their thirty-century (written) history all the more.
[g] Path  RL
Longevity Mountain 5          Longevity Mountain 6          Longevity Mountain 7          Longevity Mountain 8

Stone Cold Poetic
Back down the ridge I go before I start back up a miniature path—wedging myself between tight rocks to find fifty hidden poetic gems in the Forest of Poetry.

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