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.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Lectures (6b)—The Accidental Ethnographer (Opening the Book)

[a] March 2009
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

Back down the mountain the next day, I logged onto the Abe Books site and tracked down a copy of William Edgar Geil's The Sacred 5 of China. My electronic receipt made clear that it would be delivered to my door by the time I returned to the United States. In the meantime, I finished my whirlwind visit to all five sacred mountains in a two-week period, and filled my ethnographic jottings notebook in anticipation of a long winter's write.

And read, as it turned out.

[b] Mt. Tai map (from The Sacred 5 of China)
Back in Beloit, Wisconsin, I unpacked my bags, organized my notes, began teaching the second half of a busy semester, and opened a chubby package from Abe Books. There it was, and it looked impressive. Hardbound with gold cloth covers, the front pictured a turtle bearing a Luo River chart upon its carapace. The volume was substantial, and even a little bit elegant. This struck me as a very serious effort. Although the text was front loaded (a third of the text) toward Mt. Tai—this is so hard to avoid that it has taken me three years to find a solution to the problem—it contained meaty chapters on all five mountains.

Moreover, he knew the classical cosmology of it all. Mt. Tai, the mountain of spring, was followed by Mt. Heng in the south—the mountain of summer. In the very middle of the book came Mt. Song, the central mountain, and the pivot of the four quarters. From there, Geil proceeded to the spectacular vistas of Mt. Hua in the west (just an hour today further down the road from the terracotta soldiers, but the better part of a day by donkey caravan for Geil and his entourage in 1919). He finished the book with the lonely little mountain of the north, Mt. Heng, which is cold much of the year and was actually outside the borders of China's dynasties during much of their history.

It was impressive, and powerfully more so because it contained some of the beautiful hand-sketched maps of mountain details that could only be found by working through many dozens of original texts from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. William Edgar Geil had gotten hold of them and put them into a single volume. That feature alone made the volume worthy of study by students of Chinese culture. It crossed my mind again that there must be something...some reason...why I had never heard of him during a quarter century of study. Had I just missed something that everyone else knew? Was this a hidden gap in my preparation that would have embarrassed me in conversation with other "sinologists," had I admitted that the name Geil had never crossed my pupils before that autumn?

[c] Mt. Tai temple (from The Sacred 5 of China)
So I checked. I wrote e-mail messages to a cluster of China scholars, and asked if any had heard of a certain William Edgar Geil, who had traveled to all five sacred mountains in China and written a major work on the subject. Just to be sure, I mentioned five other names, all of whom had lived and traveled in China during the first two decades of the twentieth century. I asked—at the risk of a little embarrassment—if they were unaware of any of the following names.
                            Edouard Chavannes (1865-1918)
                            Paul Pelliot (1878-1945)
                            Marcel Granet (1884-1940)
                            William Edgar Geil (1865-1925)
                            Herbert Giles (1845-1935)
                            D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966)

To be sure, a few people who were less familiar with earlier eras and national traditions of Chinese studies marked names such as Pelliot and Suzuki. Still, the vast majority of responses had just one name noted as unrecognized. Let me make this as clear as I can. Of fifty total responses, only one name was unrecognized by everyone. Not one person among a substantial group of China scholars in North America, Europe, and Asia recognized the name of the only Western person to have written a book about China's five sacred mountains.

No one.

Let me take things one step further. If you do an Internet search tonight (1 June 2012), you will find that only one of the names above lacks even a stub of a Wikipedia entry. That will be remedied soon enough, but it should give you a sense of how completely unknown this author was.
[d] June 1919 (from The Sacred 5 of China)
Back in late-October of 2009, though, I couldn't tear myself away from the pictures. You see, William Edgar Geil, in addition to publishing a verbal account of his journey up and down each of the sacred peaks in the summer of 1919, included a hundred original photographs. And they are impressive. I was so intrigued by one photograph that I brought it immediately to my evening seminar group (our topic was, appropriately, "Mountains") and opened the floor for discussion. On one side was Geil's 1919 photograph of the "eighteen bends" (十八盘) up Mt. Tai. On the other were two of my own 2009 photographs. Eighty years separated them. What was different? What was the same? What could we learn from it all?

To begin, Geil's photograph showed a spectacularly barren landscape. I could recognize the twisting stairway to heaven—to the 南天門, the South Gate of Heaven. Not much of the rest seemed possible. How could only two little tufts of pine trees be visible? It looked like a moonscape—all rock, and no water. T.S. Eliot might have mused about this very scene as he drafted the first section (edited with the help of sinophile Ezra Pound) of The Wasteland.

                              What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
                              Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
                              You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
                               A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
                               And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
                               And the dry stone no sound of water.

[e] June 2009 RL
Where did all the foliage go in 1919? Why is the same rock face drenched in vegetation eighty years later? Photo A, above, is fairly close to the angle and distance of Geil's picture. You will notice that, even in early March of 2009, the stone path was dotted by shrubbery and buds of various kinds. By late-June, eighty years to the month after Geil took his photograph, the rock is covered in greenery. My seminar students came up with a wide range of answers, but two interrelated ones dominated. In 1919, in the midst of general confusion and territorial fragmentation, the mountain was scoured for firewood, building supplies, and other uses. By contrast, in 2009 Mt. Tai had spent over two decades as a UNESCO World Heritage site and was vigorously promoted by the Chinese government as one of the the most significant tourism sites in the country.
***  ***
In other words, Geil's book immediately found its way into my classroom, and I was favorably disposed toward him after our first full day together. Indeed, I was getting ready to champion him as a truly significant, yet somehow forgotten, figure in the history of Chinese studies. This was one of the most exciting days of my career, and I could not help thinking that I had found a heretofore unknown Margaret Mead hidden in the deep recesses of the Western sinological tradition. I had unpacked, spent a full-day teaching, and now had a long weekend ahead of me to study The Sacred 5 of China. I was ready to meet William Edgar Geil on his own turf—the 360 pages and five mountains of his text.

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

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