Thursday, June 08, 2017

Pure light flooding the rock walls

There is a new article on China and its rivers in Lapham's Quarterly by Philip Ball, author of The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China.  He says that Chinese culture is orientated along the course of its rivers, West-East, from the mountains of Tibet to the Pacific Ocean.  The sources of its two greatest waterways, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, were debated for centuries.  The Ming Dynasty writer Xu Xiake (Hsü Hsia-k'o, 1587–1641) thought the Yangtze had its ultimate origin on the Qinghai plateau.  Nobody, Ball thinks, 'better personifies the Chinese devotion to its great rivers' than the inveterate traveller Xu Xiake.  According to a contemporary he 'used towering crags for his bed, streams and gullies for refreshment, and found companionship among fairies, trolls, apes, and baboons, with the result that he became unable to think logically and could not speak. However, as soon as we discussed mountain paths, investigated water sources or sought out superior geographical terrain, his mind suddenly became clear again.'

Xu Xiake 400th anniversary stamps

In Richard E. Strassberg's anthology of Chinese travel writing Inscribed Landscapes there are two extracts from the Diaries Xu put together at the end of each day.  In the first, written in May 1613, he visits Tiantai Mountain, where the famous Tang Dynasty poet Hanshan and his companion Shide lived in retreat.  I have written here before about a more recent attempt to find the geographical source of Hanshan's poetry - perhaps there's a parallel with the search for the source of a great river.  Xu died before his writing could be polished up for publication, so the Diaries retain the freshness of direct observation.  According to Strassberg 'his descriptions include visionary perceptions of Nature as an ever-fascinating texture of interacting phenomena.  He incorporates lyric responses to the environment in short, poetic phrases'.  Here is a brief example (published online) from the journey to Tiantai Mountain. 
'Outside the cave were two crags to the left, both located halfway up the cliffs. On the right was a rock shaped like a bamboo shoot jutting upward. Its top was even with one of the cliffs and separated from it by no more than a hairline. Green pines and purple flowers flourished on top. It complements perfectly the crags to the left—it could certainly be called a marvel. Exited through Eight-Inch Pass, climbed up another crag, also on the left. I looked up at it as I approached and it resembled a cleft, but when I reached the top it was spacious enough to hold several hundred people. There was a well in the middle named "Transcendent's Well"—shallow and yet inexhaustible. Beyond the crag was a particularly unusual rock several tens of feet high with a forked top resembling two men. The monk described it as "Han-shan and Shih-te." Stopped at the monastery there. After a meal, the clouds dispersed and the new moon appeared in the sky. I stood on the summit of this undulating cliff and watched the pure light flood the rock walls.'
Dai Benxiao, The Strange Pines of Tiantai, 1687
Source: The Met

Xiake means 'mistlike traveler'.  According to the World of Chinese website, 'Xu Xiake is worshipped as the father of Chinese backpacking, and several of the routes he traversed some 400 years ago remain in use today.'  A couple of years ago Tony Perrottet retraced one of his routes for an interesting travel article in The Smithsonian.  I'll end here with a quote from this, but the whole piece is worth reading.  
'Traveling into the remoter regions of Yunnan is still a challenge. Squeezed into tiny bus seats on bone-jarring cliff highways and bartering for noodles in roadside stalls, I began to realize that few in the Chinese government can have actually read Xu Xiake’s diary. Despite his devotion to travel, he is an ambiguous poster boy for its pleasures, and as his diary attests, he suffered almost every mishap imaginable on his Yunnan journey.
He was robbed three times, contracted mysterious diseases and was lost and swindled. After one hapless mountain guide led him in circles, Xu questioned the whole effort: “I realized this was the most inauspiciously timed of a lifetime’s travels.” On another occasion, while waiting for funds after a theft, he became so broke he sold his clothes to buy food. He once recited poetry in exchange for mushrooms.

Sadly, Xu’s traveling companion, a monk named Jingwen, fell ill with dysentery on the road and died. He was an eccentric character who apparently carried a copy of the Lotus Sutra written in his own blood, but he was devoted to Xu, becoming injured while defending him from a violent robbery. Xu, devastated, decided to bury his friend’s remains at the ostensible goal of the journey, a sacred peak called Jizu Shan, which is now almost entirely forgotten by travelers. I decided to follow his footsteps there, too. [...]  The site felt like a poignant memorial to Xu Xiake himself. When he buried his friend here in 1638, Xu was uncharacteristically weary of travel. “Now with (my) soul broken at the end of the world,” he mourned, “I can only look alone.”

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