05 March 2012

Coming Home to China

I have spent a good part of my life reading and thinking about Zen philosophy through the work of Gary Snyder, Thomas Merton, and other American authors. The traditional built landscape around Southwest University in Beibei resonates with that sense of harmony in the human/natural world (singular: one world). But there is more! Growing up in the Alleghenies, I learned to find ginseng, appreciate the virtues of maples, enjoy the beauty of blooming tulip trees--and I heard wonderful stories about that grand tree of the Appalachian forest, the American chestnut. Yes, the forest here feels very familiar and no wonder: south China and the Appalachians were a contiguous environment a mere 10 million or so years ago--an eye blink in evolutionary and geological time. Chinese chestnut tree, photo from BanLi.net:

Consider the built landscape. Man built a set of stone steps to reach one of the many little gazebos (tiào wànɡ tái  眺望台 ) that dot the campus: 


A nearby tree sent out a root and the root wanted to cross the steps. And so, with a little help from some caretaker, it did:

Sometimes you can see bits of twine used to train the growth:

There are also small pools or "pond sculptures" here and there on the campus.  This one has a tiny island with small trees and brush creating a root mass:

The gold fish seem to like it:

I found one larger pond on the university grounds, with several anglers (I think access is restricted, although the gate was open and no one seemed to mind me hanging out). A little girl of eight or ten was "Johnnie-on-the-spot" running back and forth along the narrow ledge like a crouching dragon, leaping tiger to net each fish:



The university landscapers seem to have eschewed flowers per se for flowering shrubs and trees, some of which are striking:

And some of which, like this species of magnolia, will look familiar to folks in the southeastern U.S. (view from my apartment window): 


 The common geographical/evolutionary history of south China and the Appalachians has led to an additional project spurred on by my childhood friend Gary Robertson and his friend, Sara Fitzsimmons--a scientist with the American Chestnut Foundation. American Chestnut (Castanea  dentata) trees largely succumbed to a European blight in the early 1900s. Closely related Chinese species are resistant to blight, and the foundation (among many other things) is working on ways to genetically modify the American species to be resistant without changing other aspects of the tree. A cool, postmodern project where genetic engineering (for a change) is seeking harmony with nature. 


I hope to visit a world heritage forest site near here, Wudang Mountains/Shennongjia region. Another park in the area, Zhangjiajie, inspired some of the scenery for the film Avatar, and from the movie one pillared peak in the park was even renamed "Avatar Hallelujah Mountain." Local folks collect wild chestnuts from Shennongjia and other forests, and these wild chestnuts are renowned in the region as the tastiest to be found (photos from ShopCSTong):


Walking around this sprawling campus with no straight roads yesterday, looking for the archery field, I became lost. A graduate candidate from my class spotted me, directed me to the place, and we spent the rest of the day together walking, talking, sharing a beer, and having supper together. Lo and behold, Chao Wang ("Leo") comes from the Wudang Shan region and his uncle gathers wild chestnuts. I am hoping that this provides a fertile foundation for future collaboration between Sara Fitzsimmons (who has done some field work in China) and knowledgeable locals.

In America, we think of homeless people living under bridges. Here, in a remarkably efficient use of space, I found a small home built under a bridge:

Given urban growth and modernization, and the tendency to sweep away the old, I wonder if the new China will preserve the cultural value of seeking harmony with nature:

This man on the demolition site, kind enough to allow a photograph, strikes a pensive pose:  

Though I try to emulate nature and flow like a water, I am occasionally stymied by my encounter with China, as when this interesting morsel turned up in my supper last week:

For the most part, I like what I experience. An hour+ bus trip to the big city (Chongqing) provided some sightseeing along the way, and once there I took in a musical performance by the American opera star Carla Dirlikov (photo by professional photographer Tim Hill) at the city's library: 

Two graduate students were kind enough to guide me through the intricacies of the bus system and along the streets of Chongqing. That's Tang Shuqi ("Kristy") on the left and my teaching assistant Lao Xi ("Jackie") on the right:

Strange that I've been here just a few weeks, yet the people and the environment (perhaps they are one word: the Place?) is hauntingly familiar in a way that suggests I already miss being here though there are four months left to go.  There should be a word for missing a place you haven't even left yet and will not leave for some time. Let's model it on German word amalgamation, something like, Placelongingwhileinplacebeing.

8 comments:

Arija said...

What a beautiful campus! I quite understand your feeling of missing the place even while you are there. O have often experienced that particular feeling and yet there is no help for it. Either you go back to your normal everyday existence (which in your case is spectacular anyway) or break all ties and miss it for evermore. Life, in so many ways is a constant conundrum.

Meanwhile, enjoy it to the fullest, with the exception of the chicken head, while you are there.

Veronica Wald said...

Speaking of possible ingredients for chicken soup...haha!
Your description of pre-separation anxiety is familiar to me, I felt it in China and I feel the minute I arrive I arrive in Yellowstone too! Of course, it has a "honeymoon" element to it. But isn't it curious that Americans can feel so completely comfortable in a country like China while our political leaders could barely speak to each other for decades?

sandy said...

I think we are all going to learn a lot about China while you are there. Now, I have some serious reading to do regarding the Appalachians and south China. In fact, I have already located a couple of sites on the subject.

Are these photos taken with your new iPhone? You could have left off the chicken head. Did you eat it?

sandy said...

Me again, Arija said it already, but yes, I have experienced that same feeling of being homesick for a place I have been. With me, it is mountains.

BLD in MT said...

You are hilarious. I think that is all there is to it.

Great post once again.

That tree root around the steps is really something remarkable. I hope the attitude of seeking harmony with the natural surroundings continues. It is a strong and meaningful cultural characteristic.

How does one even eat a chicken's head? I mean, does the bill and bones get soft as it cooks? I don't quite understand how it would work. Chicken feet for that matter too. Do you just nibble off the flesh like one does when eating a drumstick?

Maria said...

Oh so much to see and read and think about here!
I just read an article about the blight of the American chestnut tree with my students a couple of weeks ago... and now to see you write about the chestnut tree here. It's so interesting to see how they grow! I've enjoyed chestnuts all my life, and have never seen them "in the wild."
I will definitely have to pass your China posts on to my sister. She and her husband would love to read about your time there.
I remember a few photos of interesting dinners they email me during their 2 week stay during the adoption of their sweet daughter. They look familiar to yours! {except from the other end of the chicken --- the feet!}

Wishing you more wonderful days ahead!
*Maria

Janie said...

The landscaping there is so pretty. Love how the gardener trained the tree root across the steps.
Interesting to see a house built under a bridge.

John Bardsley said...

Yeah!