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 26, 2012

Lectures (6a)—The Accidental Ethnographer

[a] Ascent RL
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h

In the autumn of 2006 I made a pilgrimage to the very center of Chinese culture—a journey that many admirers of the Chinese tradition have made over the course of 3,000 years of written history. My destination was Mt. Tai, the eastern peak of the five sacred mountain template known in Chinese cosmology and statecraft since the Zhou Dynasty (c.1050-221 BCE). I hiked the 7,000 winding steps, including the steep ascent to the South Heaven Gate that everyone in China can recognize from photographs. Through it all, I passed more than a thousand stone inscriptions (石刻). These had been written throughout the centuries by various poets, emperors, and itinerants, creating a mountainous cluster of vegetation, rock, and writing that, in profound ways, merged nature and culture.

A year later, after five different trips to Mt. Tai—making sure that I got everything down—I watched the sunrise on the eastern edge of the eastern sacred peak. I had spent a hundred days on the mountain in the previous twelve months, and that day's sunrise struck me as being just a little too much like Groundhog Day for my intellectual comfort. I treasured the natural and cultural nooks and crannies of Mt. Tai, but something was wrong. Something was just a little off-kilter. As the throngs began to disperse, making their various ways up and around Mt. Tai's vast, city-sized summit, I pondered what to do next. Why was I spending my time researching just Mt. Tai? Weren't there four other mountains in this cosmological series? Why did my research and travel insist upon counting 1-1-1-1-1 instead of 1-2-3-4-5?
[b] Top RL

I hurried down the steep steps, packed quickly, and caught a train to Luoyang. I had a new plan.

In that week, I climbed the east-west axis of the mountain series. Mt. Tai in the east was followed by Mt. Song in the center and, just before having to rush back to teach the second half of the semester, Mt. Hua in the west. Before the lunar year was through, I would climb the north-south axis, as well—I hiked Mt. Heng in the south, went up Mt. Song again for good measure, and then finished the trip with the Mt. Heng of the north. By the beginning of 2008, I had familiarized myself with all five sacred mountains, and was learning to appreciate them as a network of ideas, rock carved poetry, and cultural practice. I spent all of China's Olympic year searching out both the well-traveled and forgotten spaces on the five mountains. Another year later, by late-2009, I had spent 400 days on these five escarpments in just over three years.
***  ***
And that is how I met William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). I won't forget that first encounter. It was a cool, clear October evening in 2009. On the western peak of China's western sacred mountain, I caught a clear internet signal and did a quick search of the phrase "five peaks" (五嶽; 五岳). I wanted to see what had been published, and what books—any language—I could get my hands on. I hit return, and allowed a few seconds for the information to load (I was on top of a mountain, but it was as though the tower was down on the Shaanxi plain). Then up came three screens worth of answers.

[c] Western RL
Line after line showed the rich literature in Chinese and Japanese about the mountains. The vast majority of these, including a handful in Western languages, centered on the storied importance of Mt. Tai in the east. What I wanted was books that focused on all five mountains, though. I may have started on Mt. Tai, but I had been studying the complex of mountains, and I wanted to read books and articles dealing with the cluster, the template, the mountain network as a whole. I already knew that this topic was unusual, and required a combined sense of Chinese cosmology and a willingness to traverse the countryside. I wasn't surprised that—taking Mt. Tai books out of the equation—I saw only a dozen or so Asian language books and nothing at all in any Western language. Nothing. Nada.

This was what I had expected, but I glanced at the second screen, if only to confirm my certainty. Westerners had shown some interest in Mt. Tai, and even written several terrific books about it (I already admired these). No Westerner had bothered to look at the five sacred mountains in depth as a complex idea and series of linked destinations. That must be an "Asian" concept, and one that I was out front on in my own work. I got a little chill of combined significance (I was onto something) and irrelevance (no one—in the West—really cared). Then, for some reason, I decided to hit the third screen, even though I was certain that it would just contain a few more Asian language works.

[d] Nature/culture RL
It did. But there was one title I had never seen before, and it was in English. My reaction was a combination of excitement and concern. It turned out that I was less significant but also less irrelevant than I had thought. There I saw the surname GEIL, the given names WILLIAM EDGAR, and a title that struck me as oddly quaint—The Sacred 5 of China. I also noticed that the work was hardly insubstantial, coming in at about 350 pages. What floored me during that mountaintop book search, though, was the date of publication. 1926. Huh? 1926? Eighty-three years before my Internet search, one Westerner had written a book about all five sacred mountains in China...and, at least according to this search, no one else had done so. Eighty-three years? I had begun studying Chinese history and culture almost three decades before that day, and had read tens of thousands of pages in the intervening years. I had assigned big chunks of those numbers in my classes, and talked with students and colleagues about hundreds—well over a thousand—scholars who had devoted their work to Chinese topics.

But I had never, ever heard of William Edgar Geil. Not once, and not even as part of an elaborate language joke using the word guile. Nope. Never.

It was late in the evening, and I needed sleep before the next day's mountaintop research. I would not forget, though. I had to learn more about this guy(l) who had scooped me on my project by almost a century—a traveler who had done what I was in the midst of doing, but who couldn't take domestic aircraft and regional buses (still a  travel challenge) from mountain to mountain. I had to learn more about this William Edgar guy who knew that the five sacred mountains—all five—were worthy of serious attention. I had been worrying about some journalist getting the idea and whipping up the project as an afterthought. Little did I know that William Edgar Geil had thought my thoughts and traveled my paths (as I saw it) nine decades before I heard of his name.

I was determined to know more.

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[e] Paths RL

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