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, August 4, 2011

Longevity Mountain (9)—Mid-Mountain Temple Road

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] Mid-Mountain  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 Nine
Mid-Mountain Temple Road

[b] Gathered  RL
There are four “gathering points” on the southern mountain, only one of which has any religious pull whatsoever—Zhurong Temple at the very peak. Beyond that, there is the ticket booth (where buses prepare to depart, hikers begin their journeys, and cabs and motorcycles whiz through), the mid-mountain area (where buses drop passengers when the cable cars are working, guest houses offer accommodations, and restaurants feed travelers who alternately come and go), and the South Heaven Gate (where the cable cars and buses stop, about an hour short of the peak).  On this summer day, the cables are running, and the Winnebago-sized compartments can carry forty or more standing passengers in what feels like an urban commute to the upper cable station. Seven minutes, and the scenery is beautiful, I hear. 

I have lost track of time in the poetry forest, and I now realize that it is past noon. I descend into the lines of roof-covered vending bins and then out to a large row of mountain fast food sellers. Several catch my gaze and simulate a chopstick-on-rice shoveling motion, their left hands cradling an imaginary bowl, even as their raised eyebrows ask:

     —Have you eaten? 

I am between needs to eat, despite the excitement of the poetry forest, so I just order a small pot of tea and a few dumplings as I check through my notes. There are still more than seven hours of daylight left, and my crawl up the mountain will take every bit of it. I have done the ascent from temple to peak in as few as three and a half hours at moderate pace—pausing for seven hundred pictures along the way—but today is meant to take at least twelve. Today, it is a mountain to be savored. Slowly.

[c] Avenu

Cables, buses, and cars weave through streaming humanity. Shouting and honking combine with the refueling opportunities found in little restaurants to create a veritable buzz of social energy. I finish my tea and hike up around the traffic bend. Passing restaurants that are doing a solid lunchtime business with the cable customers, I approach what seems to be almost a strip mall of temples. Daoist adpets in their blue robes and four-point caps squat and chat under the shade of cedars growing up out of the concrete. This is a tree-lined avenue with red temple walls set against the smooth flat road surface.

The bus traffic is surprisingly light; much of it stops when the buses empty their loads onto the parking lot and leave the passengers to climb the five minutes to the cable station. Only a few buses continue up this way (most take another route through other scenic locations in the distance), but there is a steady whirr of straight-shot motorcycles, cabs, and private cars, which have become more common almost by the month—their trunks stashed with incense sticks for pilgrim families in a hurry. From the moment one sets foot on what I like to think of as Mid-Mountain Temple Road it would almost—almost—be possible to have a calm hike up the mountain staying on the road itself. 

[d] Old cables  RL
It would be longer, though—by almost ten kilometers. Such are the requirements of propelling several tons of steel and bodies up a mountain slope on top of mere wheels. A road hike would also be lacking in every cultural addition to the mountain that has made it an attraction over the centuries.  As I mull these thoughts, bemoaning the fact that few people bother to hike the mountain anymore, I realize again that I sound (even to myself) like the kind of history professor who would point out the flaws in a Disney movie. In fact, I have done so more than once. I grudgingly remind myself that far more people want to watch a Disney Mulan or ride the mountain buses than read the original ballad or hike up the stone path. “Get over it,” I whisper to myself. Cable cars are culture, too. I guess. 

I need to take the cable cars, buses, and cabs seriously; soon every one of the mountains will have them, and they are not just a passing fancy for a few tired pilgrims. They are the mountain for a formidable number of travelers. They are also a gold mine for the capitalists (I use the word with intention) who manage the larger economic elements of the mountain. The transportation is more than a service; it is a tourism lifeline, and mountains that drew few visitors through the twentieth century (other than Nationalists and Japanese) now teem with pilgrims. To what extent is my attitude that of a killjoy? To what extent am I simply advocating a kind of exoticism that I alone might think of as integrity?  It is a question that will not go away, and I continue to ponder it as a lone bus bursts out of the 160-degree turn and picks speed just inches beyond the squatting Daoists.

[e] Tree trail
I leave the question of authenticity for now, and concentrate on the trees. They are growing up and through the cement. The capitalists have paid attention to these details, too. Mid-Mountain Temple Road remains a tree-lined avenue because holes have been carved in the cement for the cedars and pines and more exotic species to cast their shadows. Nice touch. The oldest and thickest among them are marked conspicuously according to their variety and age. I sit down under a sign put up in July 2007. 

          Ginkgo biloba L.     
          2007年 7月 

I come upon the Daoists and greet them. One nods, still squatting; the other stands.

           Where are you from? 
          The United States. Near Chicago—America’s Midwest. 
          Chicago Bulls! Michael Jordan! 
          Yes, they were great. I watched every game from 1996-1998. 
          Chicago Bulls! Michael Jordan! 
          Do you live here, or do you spend just part of your time on the mountain? 
          We live here! Come inside, we’ll show you…

***  ***

[f] Meeting place  RL
I pause to organize my backpack under the shade of “0458 Ginkgo biloba L.” Moving my notebook to a more convenient location after jotting down a few notes about the monastery’s inner rooms, I look up to see three college students. This is not difficult, even half a world away from my own classrooms. I can spot them from a distance, even though I get older every year and their ages stay the same. We play out the same conversation that I have many times a day in China. Young, middle-aged, or old, it is always the same preliminary set of questions, with only minor variations on a theme. It occurs to me that this is akin to an opening sequence in chess, but I suddenly gain more interest as the predictable opening turns provocative. The students, playing the white pieces, make the first move. Let's think of it in terms of the classic Ruy Lopez opening known to chess players throughout the world. 

          White          E4     Haaaalloooo. How are you? 
          Black          E5     你門好 
            Comment: Classic opening; quite predictabl.
          White          Nf3   Oh! You speak Chinese! Your Mandarin is excellent. 
          Black          Nc6   Where? Where? (You can’t be serious). 
            Comment: Standard development of the knights. 
          White          Bb5   Where are you from? 
          Black          a6      The United States. Near Chicago—America’s Midwest. 
             Comment: Standard; white with small advantage.
          White          Ba4   How old are you? 
          Black          Nf6    You guess. How about that? 
            Comment: Black makes a slight variation. 
          White          O-O   I couldn’t guess right. 
          Black          Nxe4 Try, it’s o.k. 
            Comment: Standard development. 
          White          Please remove your cap first. 
            Comment: !!!!!! 

A new gambit. White makes a daring move to the center of the board, and I am impressed. I had never considered the “please remove your cap first” response, and I have even greater respect for my new friends. We chat about their hometowns (nearby, in Hunan) and the reasons for their trip to the mountain. They have hiked up, watched the sunrise, and are now hiking down. They can’t afford to spend a lot of money for buses and cable cars. Are they serious about their offerings? Sort of.

[g] Guess  RL

We are frustrated. This is a very difficult time for college graduates like us. We didn’t go to the very best universities, but we are among those who tested well and got into university in the first place. Now there are no jobs. The pressure is enormous, and we are worried. We came here because we wanted to make an offering and hope…and because we are unemployed and bored. 

I note that it is ironic, to say the least, that they have endured the pressure of middle school, high school, and college examinations, only to find this kind of pressure in front of them. They say that they are lucky, and their families are fairly well off, but that they don’t want to go on like this much longer. They want good jobs in return for their educations. I wish them well, pack my bag, and start back up the road.
[h] Back up the road  RL
Longevity Mountain 5          Longevity Mountain 6          Longevity Mountain 7          Longevity Mountain 8

Academy On High

My path takes me to school, as I come across an abandoned academy with a resonance combining Confucius...and Hitchcock.

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