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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Longevity Mountain (8)—Stone Cold Poetic

Click here for the introduction (first post) to the Round and Square series "Longevity Mountain."
Click here for the table of contents (second post) to the Round and Square series "Longevity Mountain." 

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
[a] Forested Poetry  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 twelve "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 Eight
Stone Cold Poetic 
[b] Culture
Losing myself among pine needles in the forested darkness of day, I remember that my journey is a cultural one. I slowly return to the poetry-seeking path, which now looks like a freeway of stone cutting a trail through the woods. I had hardly even begun to join the world of animal tracks on my little hike, yet the main trail seems ready to transport heavy implements. I pass overhanging boulders with stone picnic configurations inside comfortable spaces created by falling rock and centuries of wedging. Alongside these accidents of nature, this is the most consciously inscribed space on the mountain. Even so, it remains far more restrained than Mt. Tai, with its thousand stone inscriptions to the northeast. It is as though care has been taken to tuck the carvings into spaces where one needs to turn, observe, and ponder. To be fair to the eastern mountain, the perspective in the southland is entirely different. Here, the pilgrim climbs through the woods; there are few opportunities for distant views of poem clusters exploding into prominence against the open sky. The peak is high…and far. 

I climb along a ridge on the ancient path, darting through dark passages and into hints of sunlight before the forest canopy envelopes me again. Soon enough, my mountainside trek through the calligraphic garden finishes its first lap as I walk along a shaded path that enters onto the gathering noise of the 半山亭, Half Mountain Pavilion. I am midway, but not for long. 
[c] Writing  RL

I buy a bottle of water from two women in their little tent-shop where the path temporarily ends and the confusion of buses, stores, temples—and the cable station—begins. I am in mid-mountain calligraphic mode, however, so I pay the women, nod to accept the bottle, and take a shortcut through the parking lot back down the slope—a hundred meters or so if it were a freefall. I have a plan, and it has already been half executed—first climb along the ridge more or less vertically to grasp the calligraphy written along the upper axis, then cut back down the mountain and begin the horizontal trip through small caverns, sparse vegetation, and hidden calligraphy that almost blends into the rock itself. Darting down the road, in ten minutes I arrive at the traditional entrance of the Forest of Poetry (詩林). The triple arch and description of the slope is written in traditional calligraphic forms, even though the area was established (culture carved from history and culture) in 1986. The sign notes that more than fifty examples of poem and lyric (詩詞) can be found among the rocks in this little acre or two of vertical-horizontal papyrus. 

I am eager to start. Finding the fifty hidden poems creates the kind of intellectual-physical challenge that I had not considered since participating in elementary school activity days. It is a bit like reciting a snatch of poetry and running a fifty-yard dash across the playground to a card guessing game. That is at least how I remember such days in the late 1960s at Randall School in Madison. The map shows the dimensions of the poetry forest; it covers the entire ridge along which I hiked just thirty minutes ago, and uses the full range of the cliff, with its tight and curving steps both blocking and altering perspective. 

Peering through the middle arch, the steps seemingly “want” to begin in a straight line. The boulders will not allow it, though. Instead, they curve immediately around a rock the size of a side of moose, like hips twisting to avoid an open cabinet drawer in a narrow hallway. The map shows the dimensions of my playground search for mountain poetry—all of it stored in different form down the slope in my copy of the 南嶽志, Southern Peak Record. This enterprise is more exciting than a dash through the stacks of Regenstein Library’s East Asian holdings, and it is hard to imagine—useful though the paper or online sources are—how different a stone-carved poem is from one printed in a traditionally bound volume of verse or a computer screen.
[d] Stone map  RL
My first pass through the area covered only to the Fish Dragon Stone; now I will travel to the 白龜洞, White Tortoise Cave and begin my journey within a journey. The path is steep but open as it clears the first part of the ridge and takes a ninety-degree turn to the left. The steps then curve around the miniature mountain and continue eastward. Everything about this area is en petit, but I am surprised at the exertion and even ingenuity (of sorts) required to maneuver around, through, and up the stones—sometimes on hands and knees and other times pushing my backpack a few feet in front of me as I pause to look for signs of calligraphic activity, trying all the while not to crack my head on overhanging stone. 

The physical dimensions are real in more ways than one. I have worked up more of a sweat in this little area than I usually do along a kilometer of hiking trail. The physical toll on my soft-capped head is growing as well. I can’t seem to find a balance between craning my neck to find poetry and protecting myself from metamorphic impact. Three cracks so far—one for every two or three poems with metaphoric thrust.  I do need to be more careful, lest the physical toll lead to an intellectual one. I think to myself about appearing in a medical journal as an example of someone who avoided the knocks of organized football in youth only to end up with identical ailments from studying Chinese poetry. 

The path begins to show signs of branching, and, indeed, the map is crisscrossed by intersecting paths from this point on.
[e] Fork  RL

Encountering Immortals Pavilion

Ink Flower Stone

Running through my mind is the idea of an immortal encounter, and it is not lost on me that one is unlikely to do so in a pavilion constructed (albeit from mountain stone) for the purpose. 

          In a cave in the stone there lived an immortal...

I turn left toward the Ink Flower Stone, and see a bevy of freshly painted poems. The carvings and versification are centuries old, but the paint is clean and new. Twenty down, and thirty to go. 
[f] Tight  RL

Before long, I am in the caves; I can see only a little half-moon of light through the rock above. Many steps remain, and my only concern is whether my Western heft can fit through these tiny openings. I am not the only one to have grown. China has gotten bigger in countless ways over the past few years. I cannot help but think of my taxi driver in Changsha a few days ago, his shirt pulled up to his chest against the summer heat and revealing a sizable belly in early Buddha training. At stoplights he would rub it and look down with seeming admiration before putting his hands back on the wheel and anticipating the green lights. I think of him now as I view the tight fit before me. Chimney sweeps can catch themselves in something the size of this, and (as I look upward) my mind drifts to the newspaper stories of thieves caught in air vents, their bodies discovered days, weeks, or months later, depending on the ventilation system of the building under attack. I imagine a rescue effort and the headlines throughout China—an international incident, all for the sake of a few rhyming couplets. I hesitate, reassess, and then decide that my cab driver could make it; I am determined to do so myself. I take off my backpack, push it in front of me, and crawl upward. 

[g] Fit  RL
Either the space is bigger than it looks or my mountain hiking has been paying dividends. I squeeze through the opening, only touching rock when I have to change the awkward angle of my makeshift rock pick—my backpack—as I climb. There is time to notice that even these tight angles hold little mysteries and crevices.  One looks distinctly like a miniature of the half-cave with stone picnic setup I saw on the upper ridge—and perhaps it is the scene of a dollhouse mountain tea party or a gathering of tiny immortals. 

Up and through, the light is bright and I come to another carving, its red ink facing me in the bright sun. This is the good one—the first four lines (seven characters each) of Li Bo’s (701-762) ten line ode on the southern mountain. It is the most famous poem on the mountain, and (in simplified characters in that version) appears on all of the little maps distributed in the village of South Peak.


        Mt. Heng’s deep blue majesty reaches the amethyst heights
        Facing the southern pole, the “Venerable Gentleman” star 
        Fierce winds scatter snow onto the five peaks 
        Flower petals toss and fall upon Dong Ting Lake

[h] Li  RL
I shiver—genuine early-summer goosebumps—to see the Tang poet’s writing here before me, and the first poem I ever learned about the southern mountain. It is an historiographical and ethnological kind of excitement. It is not quite like finding a cache of documents in an archive, and not quite like learning of a new ritual practice around a distant campfire. It is an exquisite and rare kind intrigue that takes the original document and cements it, as it were, onto a mountainside—then hides it from too-ready view. And there is his name, in small characters to the side—李白, Li Bo (Bai), and a date that I cannot quite decipher on the smoothing rock. This is it. This is the reason to climb through the equivalent of air vents on a mountainside—in order to explode into sunlight and see the limpid lines of one of China’s greatest poets, etched in stone.

After Li Bo, it is all gravy, and I enjoy the hidden calligraphy—one poem draped by willow leaves, and another covered in moss. I climb through the beautiful clusters of stone and overhanging leaves. A new dimension enters in these upper reaches of the Forest of Poetry—palm trees creating pockets of sunshine and shade as they sway in the mid-mountain breeze.
[i] Thrice  RL
Through palms and ferns I climb to the 三清橋, Thrice Pristine Bridge. It is where a certain Chen Xingming was said to have followed two transcendents (真人). Once they set foot on this bridge, they were transported into the world beyond mortal boundaries. This highest area of the Forest of Poetry is filled with more calligraphy, as well as a simple, parting carving of the bridge’s characters so deep that there is no need for paint. 

I walk under the overhanging pine needles and examine the bridge and its low stone railings. The pagoda to the east is back in sight, and I am readying myself to leave the world of clustered poems and immortals—to leave the world of climbing not unlike the kind that I did as a toddler and return to walking upright on a more gradual path. It is a sad kind of evolutionary reversal. Hunched over, my knuckles scraping the ground, I basked in the poetry of a millennium. Now, regaining my posture, I begin to walk through mere nature—trees, flowers, and stone path. 

[j] Hidden  RL
I shake myself out, rub my head, and find myself right back on the path I left well over an hour ago. I pass the ancient character stones, the Fish Dragon Stone, and the overhanging cedars. From my new vantage point, I see Li Bo’s poem from a new perspective—from on high and “down the well,” as it were. Culture begins to intrude almost as soon as I leave the poetry forest. Back on the trail, two families are coming down from the Half Mountain Pavilion, animatedly talking about the cable ride one had just taken from the South Heaven Gate cable station to mid-mountain. 

How long did it take?
Seven minutes.
The scenery was beautiful.
The cable car rocked under the towers, and I was scared.
It’s so high; I don’t like being that high.

[k] Perspective
A few minutes later, I find myself back where I started, and again I order a bottle of water from one of the women at the opening to the excitement of the mid-mountain transitional area. I had long finished the water she gave me on my first pass through here. Handing me the bottle and taking my money, she looks closely at me, pauses, looks again, shrugs, and sits down.  “It’s a long story,” I say. “I had to see all of the poetry.”  She looks at her friend, then stares at me intently once more. “Are you alone?,” she asks.

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

Mid-Mountain Temple Road 
I take my time at the halfway point, chatting with cable passengers, working Daoists, and college students.

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