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, October 31, 2011

Middles (15)—Middle of Nowhere

[a] Otherworldly RF
Halloween is here, and Round and Square is noting the date in its own peculiar way. Today, we'll consider one of the most famous tales in Chinese history. There is a little mystery and intrigue wrapped into it, but it will also be readily apparent that this is not so  much a "scary" story as one that lies trapped somewhere midway...and distant between the roundness of the heavens and the square solidity of earth. If one of the most famous scenes in all of Chinese life is the final ascent up Mt. Tai—the twists and turns on a stairway to heaven—then Tao Qian's tale for this Halloween Day is surely a boat ride to nowhere. The middle of nowhere.

Although a nice, mysterious Halloween post is not the time for a Chinese studies lecture, let me at least note that this story is chock-full of references to Chinese philosophy, literature, and cosmology. In particular, the mysterious place to be found by maneuvering through small spaces into a spectacular opening, is a powerful theme in Chinese thought. This theme has been analyzed masterfully by the French scholar Rolf Stein in a book called The World in Miniature.[1]

Tao Qian
Peach Blossom Spring[2]
[b] Path RF
During the reign-period Taiyuan (CE 326-397) of the Jin dynasty there lived in Wuling a certain fisherman. One day, as he followed the course of a stream, he become unconscious of the distance he had traveled. All at once he came upon a grove of blossoming peach trees which lined either bank for hundreds of paces. No tree of any other kind stood amongst them, but there were fragrant flowers, delicate and lovely to the eye, and the air was filled with drifting peachbloom.

The fisherman, marveling, passed on
to discover where the grove would end. It ended at a spring; and then there came a hill. In the side of the hill was a small opening which seemed to promise a gleam of light. The fisherman left his boat and entered the opening. It was almost too cramped at first to afford him passage; but when he had taken a few dozen steps he emerged into the open light of day. He faced a spread of level land. Imposing buildings stood among rich fields and pleasant ponds all set with mulberry and willow. Linking paths led everywhere, and the fowls and dogs of one farm could be heard from the next. People were coming and going and working in the fields. Both the men and the women dressed in exactly the same manner as people outside; white-haired elders and tufted children alike were cheerful and contented.

Some, noticing the fisherman, started in great surprise and asked him where had had come from. He told them his story. They then invited him to their home, where they set out wine and killed chickens for a feast. When news of his coming spread through the village everyone came in to question him. For their part they told how their forefathers, fleeing from the troubles of the age of Qin, had come with their wives and neighbors to this isolated place, never to leave it. From that time on they had been cut off from the outside world. They asked what age was this: they had never even heard of the Han, let alone its successors the Wei and the Jin. The fisherman answered each of their questions in full, and they sighed and wondered at what he had to tell. The rest all invited him to their homes in turn, and in each house food and wine were set before him. It was only after a stay of several days that he took his leave.

"Do not speak of us to the people outside," they said. But when he had regained his boat and was retracing his original route, he marked it at point after point; and on reaching the prefecture he sought an audience of the prefect and told him of all these things. The prefect immediately dispatched officers to go back with the fisherman. He hunted for the marks he had made, but grew confused and never found the way again.

The learned and virtuous hermit Liu Ziji heard the story and went off elated to find the place. But he had no success, and died at length of a sickness. Since that time there have been no further "seekers of the ford."
[c] Vista RF

[1] Rolf Stein, The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, Translated by Phyllis Brooks (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
[2] Cyril Birch, ed, Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1965), 167-168. Please note that Chinese names, terms, and phrases have been modified to fit the pinyin romanization system.

Birch, Cyril, ed. Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1965.

Stein, Rolf. The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

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