To Climb Pearl Tower?

“The white sun sinking down behind the mountains;
the Yellow River enters the Ocean’s stream.
If you desire a thousand-mile horizon,
then come, you have to climb one story higher.”

Wang Zhi-huan, “Mounting Stork Tower”


Shanghai has an open-ended quality to it, as it seems to grow upward and outward, stretching out to sea. I was first struck by this as the airplane made its descent into Pudong airport. The mouth of the Yangtze River was enormous, so much so that I thought we were flying over the ocean. It was filled by an endless stream of container ships, undoubtedly bringing a large assortment of Chinese goods to America.

Like Beijing and other Chinese cities, Shanghai is marked by continual construction. The pace of building here has been remarkable and our guide Sandy spoke of the continually shifting state of the Shanghai skyline over the past ten to twenty years. Much of this building seems to focus on size and height, as if this in itself will be proof of Shanghai’s power and virility, so to speak. There was talk (although I admit that my memory here is faulty) of another building going up here that will rival if not exceed the tallest buildings in the world.

We of course visited the Oriental Pearl Tower which is the tallest tower (tower mind you, not building) in Asia at 1,535 feet. The most distinctive structure in Shanghai and its most distinctive architectural feature, the Pearl Tower has a certain space-age feel to it and, I must say, a showiness and brashness that seems to fit Shanghai.

We visited the Shanghai history museum in the basement of the Pearl Tower, a display of life-size dioramas that would have seemed a bit corny set in the US but somehow was kind of appropriate in this setting and actually quite informative and engaging.

After the museum, we wondered about going to the top of Pearl Tower. I was uncertain. On the one hand it might be cool. On the other hand, the weather was iffy and the view might be disappointing. Even if the view was good, I still wondered if it was worth it. Distant views are neat but somehow leave one wanting more. They are teasing in the way the pull you to the horizon but then fade away.

I think this is what Wang Zhi-huan is getting at in his poem. I think translator and commentator Stephen Johnson’s words on this poem are worth quoting:

Both scenes portray a sinking into the unseeable distance – the sun into the West, and the Yellow River into the the sea. This is as far as any mortal might ever hope to see. And yet it somehow seems insufficient. The view inspires a ambition. The poet is not yet satisfied and believes that, if one would drink in the ultimate vision, one might rise to a higher level. (p. 16)

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Miao, Mao?


Sorry that I haven’t posted for a while. Internet access was expensive in our Shanghai hotel and I was busy as the trip reached its denouement. No poetry in this entry, just some reflection. During our stay in Guiyang, we took a trip out to the area in Guizhou province where ethnic minorities live. It is an extraordinarily beautiful part of China with the characteristic small hills/mountains, rivers, rice fields, etc. The plan was to visit a village of the Miao people, a minority still trying to hang on to its traditional way of life.

The village was very much out of the way and looked like an authentic, living village. We were greeted with the blast of fireworks and women dressed in costumes offering us quaffs of rice wine (a traditional welcome it seems).


We were then escorted into the quaint, old village and treated to a beautiful performance of traditional Miao dance and music (see first picture). Now I fully expected that the performance would be followed by a shopping opportunity. In fact, nearly every single place we visited in China had some kind of shopping option – even religious sites. However, nothing in the Miao show really revealed what was to ensue next. Little girls from the village invited us to join the traditional final dance and this seemed innocent enough.


As the final dance ended, the village women and girls had ominously gathered around us. With the final notes of music came something quite unexpected and more than a little disturbing. A literal onslaught of manic selling ensued as we were literally grabbed by village women who waved their goods in our faces demanding we buy. Strangely, this selling frenzy was not coordinated and was a free for all with every Miao women out to outdo the other in selling fervor. I was interested in perhaps buying some of their silver jewelry, but my slightest sign of interest resulted in even more insistent hawking of wares. I saw a similar scene around each of us and my colleagues appeared as shell-shocked as I was. As I was grabbed even more firmly by various Miao women, I was unnerved. I shook myself free and made a run for the tour bus. I was soon followed by others of our group.

What to make of this scene? I have thought about this incident off and on for the past few weeks and am still uncertain. I understood that the capitalist spirit had taken hold in China and had seen ample evidence of it in Beijing and Xian. However, I was stunned to find capitalism invading even the most remote and traditional seeming village we had seen. I found myself wondering what Mao would make of the Miao and of China as a whole. One of our group joked upon seeing Mao’s tomb in Tiananmen closed for repairs that this was because Mao was spinning in his grave on seeing China today. Interestingly, a few days later, this question was put to a university professor in Guizhou, who said unabashedly that Mao would have approved of China’s present course. I’m not so sure.

But in any case, I can’t blame the Miao for wanting to get a share of the tourist yuan in China’s burgeoning travel industry. They want to feed and clothe their families. I wondered if the cost to their traditional life was worth it in their view. Probably, I suppose. As we drove out from the Miao village, I couldn’t help noticing the satellite dishes on the small houses lining the road and just shrugged. As the Buddha taught, change is inevitable whether for better or worse.

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Into the Wild (Sort of)

“In sunshine Censer Peak breathes purple vapour,
Far off hangs the cataract, a stream upended;
Down it cascades a sheer three thousand feet –
As if the Silver River were falling from Heaven!”

Li Bai, “Watching the Waterfall at Lushan”

We made it to Guiyang a couple of days ago and it seems far away from the big cities of Beijing and Xian. Guiyang is in southwest China and is the capital of Guizhou province. It isn’t a small city (maybe 2 million people?) but it has a provincial feel to it. It is set in a very beautiful area of China, though Westerners don’t seem to visit that often.

We drove a couple of hours to a very picturesque area filled with many small hills, rivers, caves, and waterfalls.


We took an unexpected 2-3 hour hike through a magical landscape in a natural forest.


Then we went to the world’s fourth largest waterfall, Huanggoshu Waterfall.


We took a mammoth escalator (!) down and then back up. There was a cool path that led to a cave behind the waterfall. Here’s me and Ming, our wonderful Chinese scholar-escort, behind the fall:


We were also treated to a gorgeous rainbow!


The next day, we visited a huge cave called the Dragon’s Palace. We took a boat through its gigantic caverns. It’s hard to believe this area is not better known in the West.


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Terracotta Melancholia

“To what can we liken human life?
Perhaps to a wild swan’s footprint on mud or snow;
By chance its claws imprint the mud
Before it flies off at random, east or west.”

Su Shi, “Recalling the Old Days at Mianchi”

I found a new book of poetry in Beijing, one containing more Tang poems and also some Song poems. Su Shi is a Song dynasty poet and I very much like his work. The poem above captures the Buddhist idea of impermanence (anicca) nicely, speaking of the changing and fleeting nature of human existence. This may seem like a strange place in my blog to refer to it but maybe I can make myself clear (or at least less muddy).


As I mentioned in a previous post, Xian is best known for the terracotta army near the tomb of Shihuangdi, the first emperor to unite China. The terracotta warriors have become a major tourist attraction in China (maybe second most-visited after the Forbidden City?) and the tourism machine is impressive, almost Disneyesque. Huge numbers of visitors are bused in and out every day with great efficiency. Of course, the idea is to let tourists see the sights and then extract as much cash as possible – witness the spanking new outdoor mall affixed to the exit.

It is worth the visit surely, though I came away feeling a bit melancholy. I’m still trying to work out the meaning of the terracotta mania I witnessed. The First Emperor’s plan for his burial is quite astonishing and the execution of that plan mind-boggling, especially given that it took place two thousand years plus ago. To be buried surrounded by a life-size duplicate army speaks of a heightened sense of ego and significance (to say the least) accompanied by power, wealth, and will to a degree scarcely believable.


I can’t be sure in the end of what exactly motivated Shihuangdi to do this (of course, scholars have speculated). It speaks to me though of the desire to imprint oneself on history and of course the earth, along with a clear concern for the afterlife. And certainly, whether intended or not, the memory of the First Emperor does live on in the minds of all those who see his army. But still the First Emperor himself did not live forever and his much vaunted dynasty crumbled soon after his death. He and all of his dreams, desires, power, wealth, etc. crumbled into the dust of Xian. His terracotta army stands as a silent witness to this.

In the end, I am more impressed with the words of Su Shi than with the terracotta army of the First Emperor. I can hear the gasps of “heresy!” floating through cyberspace now. In the realization of the inevitable impermanence of life lies peace of mind and an understanding of beauty. Su Shi ends his poem this way:

The old monk is dead and a new pagoda built;
The old wall has crumbled, the poem we wrote on it gone.
Do you still remember this rugged mountain path,
The long way, the exhaustion and how the lame donkey brayed?”

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Wild Goose Pagoda

Answering your fate you sought our land,
the path you came like walking in a dream.”

Qian Qi, “Sending Off a Monk on His Return to Japan”

Much has happened since I’ve had time and an internet connection to add to the blog. We made it to Xian after an interesting trip on a overnight train from Beijing. We got on the train at about 10pm and awoke to a very different countryside about 8 hours later. The train was surprisingly comfortable though of course a bit cramped. Xian is one of the big tourist stops in China due to its long history and prominence as the capital of several major dynasties. It is best known for the world-famous tomb of the “First Emperor” and his army of terracotta warriors (more on this later).

However, for me the highlight of my time in Xian was a visit to the Wild Goose Pagoda (see below), originally built in 652 CE in honor of the famous Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang.


Xuanzang (602-664 CE) has always been of great interest to me. A Buddhist monk, Xuanzang had been disturbed by the discrepancies in Buddhist teachings in China in his day. Lacking any definitive Buddhist texts to solve these discrepancies, Xuanzang proposed to the emperor that he travel to India, the cradle of Buddhism, in search of authoritative teachings and texts. The Tang emperor at first forbade this pilgrimage but Xuanzang went anyway. Thus began Xuanzang’s 16 year pilgrimage in search of the truth of Buddhism. Thankfully, an account of his journey was written down and can be read today.

By all accounts, Xuanzang’s pilgrimage was successful as he visited the great Buddhist university at Nalanda (later tragically destroyed by invaders) and many other Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Upon his return, Xuanzang brought with him a treasure trove of Buddhist statues, relics, and, most importantly, texts. He was greeted with honor and offered a position as an abbot and translator of texts. He had with him a large group of scholars who undertook a huge translation project on some 650 Sanskrit texts.

Why my fascination with Xuanzang? Well, his desire to search for the truth at the source of his faith is something I really identify with. Clearly Xuanzang possessed the spirit of a seeker and traveller and felt the call of far-off lands. This is what draws me to places like India and China as well. As Qian Qi says in the poem quoted above, “Answering your fate you sought our land.” I think my fate has been to seek out spiritual truth in India and China. Have I found it? Perhaps, but it requires much pondering and meditation to sort out my experiences and thoughts. Right now, it truly is like “walking in a dream.”


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