Thursday, September 24, 2015

Posting Paralysis

So...I found a wonderful posting of photos to which I added pithy dialogue...saved said post...hit the Publish button.... and .... POOF! It vanished into BlogSpot Hades. It was a devastating lost to deal with. Needless to say, I've been a bit anxious about hitting blog buttons ever since.

Professor Kuzmich and I are presently in Australia. Melbourne at the moment. Last week we were with friends in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. We are preparing four presentations at two education conferences...the first in Adelaide next week and the second in Coomera near Brisbane. What, you may rightly ask, has this to do with ChinaTalk? After Adelaide we will take the 48-hour train to Perth and then our journey will take us back to China for a visit to our old teaching grounds in Jinan, China where we will see Lily and George and Sophia and Kyle and Professor Kim, among others and speak at a gathering of one of the Toastmasters International clubs of which Lily is a member. Then we'll take a break in Fiji before heading back to Australia for the second conference.

They who keep thinking keep growing.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Journey to the West: a synopsis

There are a few things I wish I had known to know before I went to China so I could mingle with a better understanding of what makes China tick. One such thing would have been to read the foundational Chinese classic Journey To The West. It functions much like Greek mythology in the West.  So I was grateful when Victory, one of my sophomore written English class students, gave a presentation on this epic collection of classic Chinese folktales. His excessively long sentences which are typical among student writing since the Chinese language lacks the sentence structure common in English writing. I enjoyed hearing something I needed to know. These stories are depicted in Chinese movies and TV shows. Should you have the opportunity to mingle in China,  this "Cliff Notes" version of Journey To The West may serve you well.

     The novel JOURNEY TO THE WEST comprises 100 chapters. These can be divided into four very unequal parts. The first, which includes chapters 1-7 is really a self-contained introduction to the main story. it deals entirely with the earlier exploits of Sun WuKong, a money born form a stone nourished by the Five Elements, who learns the art of the Tao, 72 polymorphic transformation, combat, and secrets of immortality; and through guile and force makes a name for himself as the Qitian Dasheng or "Great Sage Equal to Heaven." His powers grow to match the forces of all of the Eastern (Taoist) deities, and the prologue culminates in Sun's rebellion against Heaven during a time when he garnered a post in the celestial bureaucracy. Hubris proves his downfall when the Buddha manages to trap him under a mount and sealing the mountain with a talisman for five hundred years.

     Only following this introductory story is the nominal main character, Xuanzang, introduced. Chapters 8-12 provide his early biography and the background to his great journey. Dismayed that "the land of the South knows only greed, hedonism, promiscuity and sins" the Buddha instructs the bodhisattva Guanyin to search Tang China for someone to take the Buddhist sutras of "transcendence and persuasion for good will" back to the East. Part of the story here also relates to how Xuanzang become a monk (as well as revealing his past life as a disciple of the Buddha named "Golden Cicada" and comes about being sent on this pilgrimage by the Emperor Tang Taisong, who previously escaped death with the help of an underworld official.

     The third and longest section of the work is chapter 13-99, an episodic adventure story which combines elements of the quest as well as the picaresque. The skeleton of the story is Xuanzang's quest to bring back Buddhist scriptures from Vulture Peak in India, but the flesh is provided by the conflict between Xuanzang's disciples and the various evils that beset him on the way.

     The scenery of this section is, nominally, the sparsely populated lands along the Silk Road between China and India, including Xinjiang, Turkestan and Afghanistan. The geography described in the book is, however, almost entirely fantastic; once Xuanzang departs Changan, the Tang capital, and crosses the frontier (somewhere in Gansu province), he finds himself in a wilderness of deep gorges and tall mountains, all inhabited by flesh-eating demons who regard him as a potential meal (since his flesh was believed to give immortality to whoever ate it), with here and there a hidden monastery or royal city-state amend the wilds.

     The episodic structure of this section is to some extent formulaic. Episodes consist of 1-4 chapters and usually involve Xuanzang being captured and having his life threatened while his disciples try to find an ingenious (and often violent) way of liberating him. Although some of Xuanzang's predicaments are political and involve ordinary human beings, they more frequently consist of run-ins with various goblins and ogres, many of whom turn out to be the earthly manifestations of heaven beings (who sins will be negated by eating the flesh of Xuanzang) or animal -spirits with enough Taoist spiritual merit to assume semi-human forms.

     Chapter 13-22 do not follow this structure precisely, as they introduce Xuanzang's disciple, who inspired or goaded by Guanyin, meet and agree to serve him along the way in order to atone for their sins in their past lives.

     The first is Sun Wukong or Monkey, previously "Great Sage Equal to Heaven" trapped by Buddha for rebelling against Heaven. He appears right away in Chapter 13. The
most intelligent and violent of the disciples, he is constantly reproved for his violence by Xuanzang. Ultimately, he can only be controlled by a magic gold band that the Bodhisattva has placed around his head, which causes him bad headaches when Xuanzang chants certain magic words.

     The second, appearing in chapter 19, is Zhu Bajie, literally Eight-precepts Pig, sometimes translated a Pigsy or just Pig. He was previously Marshal Tian Peng, commander of the Heavenly Naval forces, banished to the mortal realm for flirting with the Princess of the Moon Chang'e. He is characterized by his insatiable appetites for food and sex, and is constantly looking for a way out of his duties, which causes significant conflict with Sun Wukong. Nevertheless he is a reliable fighter. 

     The third, appearing in chapter 22, is the river-ogre Sha Wuing, also translated as Friar Sand or Sandy. He was previously Great General who Fold the Curtain, banished to the mortal realm for dropping (and shattering) a crystal goblet of the Heaven Queen Mother. He is a quiet but generally dependable character, who serves as the straight foil to the comic relief of Sun and Zhu.

     The fourth discipline is the third prince of the Dragon -King, Yulong Santaizi, who was sentenced to death for setting fire to his father's great pearl. He was saved by Guanyin from execution to stay and wait for his call of duty. He appears first in chapter 15, but has almost no speaking role, as throughout most of the story he appears in the transformed shape of a  horse that Xuanzang rides on.

     Chapter 22, where Sha is introduced, also provides a geographical boundary, as the river that the travelers cross brings them into a new "continent." Chapters 23-86 take place in the wilderness, and consist of 24 episodes of varying length, each characterized by a different magical monster or evil magician. There are impassably wide rivers, flaming mountains, a kingdom ruled by women, a lair of seductive spider-spirits, and many other fantastic scenarios. Throughout the journey, the four brave disciples have to fend off attacks on their master and teacher Xuanzang from various monsters and calamities.

     It is strongly suggested that most of these calamities are engineered by fate and/or the Buddha, as, while the monsters who attack are vast in power and many in number, no real harm ever comes to the four travelers. Some of the monsters turn out to be escaped heavenly animals belonging to bodisattvas or Taoist sages and spirits. Towards the end of the book there is a scene where the Buddha literally commands the fulfillment of the last disaster, because Xuanzang is one short of the 81 disasters he needs to attain Buddhahood. 

     In chapter 87, Xuanzang finally reaches the borderlands of India, and chapters 87-99 present magical adventures in a somewhat more mundane (though still exotic) setting. At length, after a pilgrimage said to have taken 14 years, (the text actually only provides evidence for 9 of those years, but presumably there was room to add additional episodes) they arrive at the half-real, half-legendary destination of Vulture Peak, where, in a scene simultaneously mystical and comic, Xuanzang receives the scriptures from the living Buddha.

     Chapter 100, the last of all, quickly describes the return journey to the Tang Empire, and the aftermath in which each traveler receives a reward in the form of post in the bureaucracy of the heaven. Sun Wukong and Xuanzang achieve Buddhahood, Wujing becomes an arhat, Santaizi the dragon prince horse is made a naga, and Bajie, whose good deeds have always been tempered by his greed, is promoted to an altar cleanser (i.e. eater of excess offerings at altars).



Monday, April 20, 2015

Chinese Creation Myth - the Pangu Epoch

Spongebob was a delightful student. My eyes widened when I first heard the English name she had chosen for herself. Her presentation about an ancient Chinese creation myth got me thinking about
my own culture's stories, historical, religious, et el. China is a very old culture and it's interesting how the stories thrived with embellishments and survived the struggle of time; still known and told today.

          Pangu is a myth in the epoch-making style. Pangu culture is a bright pearl of Chinese culture. In ancient China, people believed that it was Pangu who created the world.

      In very ancient times when the heaven and the earth were not separated, the universe looked like a big egg kind of chaotic lump. And in the egg lived a giant who was called Pan Gu having always been asleep in this big egg for about 18,000 years. When he waked up, he could see nothing but a turbid world. Pan Gu was not satisfied with this, so he used his huge hands to chop in the dark and the "big egg" broke up immediately. Then, among them both light and clear things rose slowly and dispersed gradually; sky becoming blue. Those stately turbid things had come down but slowly, and became underfooting land.

      Pan Gu was afraid that the sky and the land would close again, so he stood between them day and night. Also, his body grew longer and longer with the increasing distance between the sky and the earth. Another 18,000 years passed away and the sky had been higher and higher; the field had been thicker and thicker. The distance between sky and land was so far that no one could link them together. Pangu, relying on self extraordinary power finally opened up the scope of operation out; but he had been tired to death. Before death, the gas that he called out of his mouth became spring breeze and the sky: cloud and mist. The sound that he made became the thunderbolt. His left eye had become the sun, the right eye had become the moon. Hair and a beard had become the night sky star. His body had become roads and mountains. Blood had become river. Muscle had become farmlands. The teeth, skeleton and bone marrow had become underground mineral resources. The skin had become the grass and trees on the earth. Sweat had become rain and dew.

      In a word, Pangu created everything in the world using his body and then the beautiful world came into existence. His soul became human beings after his death, which is the reason why we call humans the wisest creatures.

      Excepting Pangu Epoch, there are pretty ancient fairy tiales, such as Nuwa Mending the Heaven, Kuafu Chasing the Sun, Jingwi Filling the Sea and so on. While those tales may not be scientific, they are beautiful and attractive. Welcome to CHina, an ancient country with profound history and splendid culture to help you feel the charm of myth.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Culture of Chinese Doorsill

       Coming from a handicap/disability sensitive country, I was shocked at the general lack of public accessibility in China. I already posted photos of the pyramid stairways leading to many businesses in Jinan in an early China Talk blog entry. My visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing came soon after an Oral English class on American Halloween vs Chinese ghost traditions, so I was more aware of such things while touring the palace complex. Every single main entrance doorway had an obstacle. You must step over a large, 6-12" high doorsill. In all my travels I don't recall ever seeing a such a significant obstacle at the entrance-way to a home or castle. Naturally, I asked about this feature and was told that it kept spirits out because they couldn't negotiate over the high doorsill with their old, creaky knees. HUH?!   My students were bemused by my questions, observations and humor concerning spirits and doorsills when I returned from Beijing. Spirits have bum knees? Can't spirits just float through the door? I settled down by the time Jane gave her presentation and was impressed with her wisdom as she reflected on this tradition.

            Do your remember last semester professor Kuzmich asked us why our old Chinese architecture had such a high doorsill? Today, I want to provide a more specific answer.

        When China was not unified, Chinese people already had common view on building doorsills. Even the doorsill built day was chosen in advance, and its color must suited the gate well. Se we can see the importance of the doorsill for ancient Chinese.

        Why the doorsill was treated so seriously? There are reason in two aspects.
        First of all, in the practical aspects. The doorsill worked in keeping off the rainwater, strong winds, small animals, such as mice. Also it helped to shut the door tightly. What's more, the ancient people were mostly in loose clothes. So when they strides the doorsill, they had to hold their legs high, and the hidden weapon (if there was one) would be seen.

        However, the cultural meanings of doorsill also plays an important part. Firstly, it's a symbol of boundary, making a distinction between your own home and the outside world. Secondly, it represented the owner's class and status; the higher status you were in, the higher doorsill it was. Thirdly, the doorsill symbolized a wall, maybe it's a bit difficult for professor Kuzmich to understand, while, you can comprehend it as western "magic," though, I prefer to regard it as a wish or will. Whatever, at the time, it really meant keeping off the dirt and ghost, hoping to keep the whole family safe and healthy. Fourthly, it's said that when people died, his soul might jump out of his house to be a ghost. In case of that, people built the high doorsill, to keep the soul in, for the soul couldn't jump so high.

        There are also some interesting things about the doorsill. For instance, we can't step on it, for in human's life, it symbolized the master's back or neck; in another word, it is 'dignity.' And in Buddhism, stepping the doorsill meant you might wander on the bound of Yin and Yang when you died. Also, men should step his left foot first; women was opposite.

        We can see something about Chinese him conception from the culture of doorsill which includes privacy space, sense of safe, and best wishes to family members. Chinese architecture is not like western ones, which is open to the outsiders. While, in modes society, we hardly have doorsills any more, maybe which can be regarded as a positive attitude to open and absorb.

        In our modern life, we prefer to regard the doorsill as an obstacle. There are "doorsills" in education, political reform, social conscience, and so forth. We are overcoming them actively. It is the same with our tradition, just like the saying goes: discard the dross and take the essence.  Only in this way can our Chinese culture get more and more prosperous.