And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Monday, June 28, 2010

China Rocks

There are a lot of big weird rocks on display in classical gardens in China; rocks, along with plants and water and interesting architecture, are elements essential to a proper Chinese garden.  And even natural formations of mountains are given fanciful names with mythology attached.  Lions and dragons and empresses and phallic things are all over the place.  These are rocks in a garden in Shanghai, I think, or possibly Suzhou, it hardly matters.

I think this was an Eagle Rock

The Middle Way

Our tour guide challenged us to decide which of these three rocks, above, was the most beautiful.  (The one in the middle, of course.)  I don't know who the guy was, not with our group, but he was pretty too, so I am reluctant to crop him out of the photo.

I didn't get the actual name or reference to this thing, below, newly positioned at the entrance to the Wudangshan area, which has become quite commercialized with shops and kitch.  So I gave it a name of my own.

The Emperor's Wad of Gum

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Yang Rising

I wonder if it was so difficult adjusting after my Chinese dream-trip because I arrived back just after the full moon. I was feeling increasingly oppressed with the subsequent gathering yin energy exacerbating my jet lag, the anti-climax of a wonderful spiritual, physical and cultural adventure, and the return to office responsibilities complicated with processes and procedures, the world of MBO, which used to mean Management by Objective but has also come to mean Management by Outlook (Microsoft's ubiquitous email system.)  Wu wei and MBO don't really coexist well. Maybe it's another yin-yang thing.

But last night as I sat under the first quarter moon, a perfect balance of yin with yang about to rise, I began to feel some energy. This morning's reading, "Shrine," from Deng Ming-dao's 365 Tao was inspiring:

"It is good to have holy places in the world, and it is good for us to go on pilgrimages. Ultimately, it is not the place that is important; it is what you feel that is lasting.  To visit a place is minor; to change within yourself is greater.
    When people visit a holy place, some say that the spirits of that place speak to them. Others remember the exotic pageantry. When it comes to sacred sites, it's better to be a pilgrim than a tourist. Go with a humble attitude, and let your heart be moved by what you experience.  Then you will receive the true treasure of the shrine."

This was exactly the message I needed.  The true treasures of the shrines I visited are in my heart.  I just wasn't paying attention the past week or so.  A friend recently told me she overcame a moment of personal torment by sitting on the beach while reading her Bible. In Hawaii, that interface between vast ocean and solid rock is a holy place. You can feel the Tao in the waves as they crash and recede on the sand and lava. Whatever the place (beach or mountains), whatever the scripture, (commentaries on the Tao or Pauline letters), these moments can lift us and remind us that we can easily fix our troubled hearts.
Temple Courtyard Where We Practiced the 8 Brocades

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Development with Chinese Characteristics

As we were bussed back to our hotel in Hangzhou, after a lovely dinner (where the menu included "arrogant" chicken, was it elegant or cocky?),  I was struck by the contrast of the classical charms of the city -- tea culture, practice of calligraphy and painting, the pleasures of the West Lake-- with the commercial development that makes Western cities look a little behind the times.

What the hell is that?  The triumph of development!

As we left Hangzhou the next morning,  the suburban skyline looked less China than Central European fairy tale.  I was assured that those were relocated farmers' houses, lavish homes, like condos.

Reconciling this with the Hangzhou of my fantasy was just another lesson of the Tao, co-existing dreams.
My Private Hangzhou

Friday, June 11, 2010


I don't hold too much store by it, but I find numerals related to occurrences of things amusing.  My goodbye post before I left for China was #108.  I returned through Narita's JAL Gate 61.  I didn't catch the exact time, but I would have liked it to be 12:34 or 11:11, times I frequently notice at night on my digital clock display.  I often wake up at precisely 3:45.  The last digits of my zip code are 6789.   Today I noticed that 61 countries have visited TAO 61 (Yin and/or Yang).  It means nothing, but it pleases me.  I guess I should use some of these numbers in lottery combinations.  But I don't gamble. Don't have that confidence in 88.

Missed the Slow Boat to China

Our business-oriented state governor is in Shanghai right now with 60 business, government and "private" individuals at the Expo asking Chinese people to visit/invest in/study in Hawaii (that is, spend money in Hawaii).  I wish I could have gotten some subsidy or tax credit for my efforts to do the same; one of my group members observed: "Are you a representative of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce?" as I was passing around mac nuts and koa bookmarks and collectible Hawaii Starbucks cards.  (I wonder if there are special New Jersey or Oklahoma Starbucks cards?) I did my part to promote the various benefits of spending some time (money) in the state.  Won't someone say thanks?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Honey Wars

A couple of common threads run through casual conversation in China, with tour guides and ordinary citizens: "China's 5,000 years of civilization," and the unforgivable and unforgettable indignity of the Opium Wars. Other topics in the recent memory of the last few decades of the fifth millennium include the Rape of Nanjing and "one of China's biggest islands, Taiwan" (the other Big Island is Hainan, being developed as the Hawaii of China). The invasive impropriety of the Yuan and the Qing dynasties seems to be assimilated by Han China, but has produced plenty of scholarly books and martial arts epics featuring Mongols and Manchus up against the indomitable Han.

But who's indignant now? In a yin/yang turning of tables, I read today that Sen. Chuck Schumer has a bee in his bonnet about China's sales of honey to the U.S., saying that China has (quite likely) avoided honey tariffs and is undermining U.S. producers (already suffering from widespread bee mortality and hive collapse) by shipping through third parties and calling the product something else (like malt sweetener or blended syrup). He wants the FDA to come up with a honey standard which will protect us from China "playing by its own rules to the detriment of everyone else." I wish I could take credit for the clever suggestion, offered in the comments section of this news item, that we need a "sting operation."

The stings might be alleviated by opium.

Here's something interesting: after China was sufficiently overcome by opium addiction, Bayer IG came up with a clever way to help. The cure for opium addiction was .... morphine. And after there were too many morphine addicts, Bayer began to market its own trademarked product to combat morphine addiction. No, it wasn't aspirin. It was heroin. You can learn about these interesting developments in Narcotic Culture in China.

Drug wars are old hat. Clearly we need a War on Honey.
Wudang Amber '07

Funny thing. Three years ago, my first trip to Wudang, I was overcome by something respiratory on the mountain. Along with an armload of Chinese medicine (and Alka-Seltzer Plus, which really worked well), I was urged to use the local honey in tea or hot water. It was great. I tried to bring some home, but couldn't get it through airport security. I forgot it was a dangerous gel. In 2008, I returned with some, carefully packed in checked luggage. Chuck Schumer would probably think I was a smuggler.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


When I began to plan my latest journey to the west of more than a thousand miles, I decided to get to the gathering spot, Shanghai, ahead of the group, who would be assembling on the US West Coast.  I arrived a day early in Shanghai, and I had a plan: I wanted to spend some time at the Shanghai Museum to look at landscape paintings (not on the itinerary) and I wanted to discover the Bund, a juxtaposition to Hong Kong harbor, all by myself.

Hong Kong and Shanghai, Siamese Twin Cities
Just as an aside, this ubiquitous advertising signage for an insurance company seemed to suggest that Hong Kong's Harbor (the part with a hill behind) and Shanghai's were contiguous, Shanghai's border somewhere just to the right of the IFC building, (the one that looks like a giant nosehair trimmer, in the middle, upward and left from the second character from the right).  The real meaning of the image of unity, I think, is to emphasize that Shanghai has buildings that are taller than Hong Kong's.

It made no sense for me to travel to China with the group anyway.  All flights from Hawaii go through Tokyo, Seoul, or Taipei.  (Or Guam, a choice I made once because the Continental flight was so cheap, including a 24-hour layover there. DO NOT EVER DO THIS.  GUAM SUCKS.) There was no reason for me to fly east to join the group on the West Coast. I suspect when I plan my next China trip from HNL (and I am already thinking of it), the very next day after I book a ticket, a direct flight to Beijing or Shanghai will become available; there is constant talk of this in the local airline biz, but as for now, one must connect.

I traveled on the very agreeable JAL through Narita, then to Shanghai where on arrival I needed to get myself to the obscure Starway Jiaxin Hotel, in a local neighborhood near Lu Xun's Former Residence, and the Hongkou sports stadium. It was cheap. But comfortable. And really, very local.

I commented to my cabbie on the way from Pudong, "Shanghai shi da!!!"  (Shanghai is big.)  Shanghai is to Hong Kong what Hong Kong is to Honolulu.  (I should Photo-Shop an image of Diamond Head into the billboard.)
I arrived at the hotel, easily, but confused. The hotel's name was the Star Jiaxin.  I looked for a star. (Once in 1988 I did this successfully in the countryside outside of Beijing, looking for Five Star beer, distinguished only by five stars on the bottle cap.)  I went to enter the hotel, but the cabbie, said, "Bu, bu, bu," moving me to the left. The Starway was adjacent to a PLA communications center, also distinguished by a big red star.
PLA Communications Center

I had arrived.  It was a modest hotel, but with an attentive staff (not so stiff as the PLA guys next door) and internet access in the lobby.  The view was nothing special, and reminded me of a low-budget hotel I stayed in in Xian a year and a half ago.  In the morning, from my window, I watched people going to work, buying fruit from a cart.  This was not a tourist area.  The hotel had a decent restaurant with a Chinese breakfast buffet.  I partook of congee and dumplings before I pushed myself to the subway to go to the museum and the Bund.
Morning on the Street
I had a moment of thinking I might just sleep all day in the room, waiting for the group,  and then reminded myself that I came to Shanghai early to do something on my own.  How different from the Hong Kong MTR could the Shanghai subway be?  Not that much really, maybe MORE Chinese, but with a map and armed with plenty of small change for automated ticket purchase, I found the entrance, not far from the hotel, and emerged (with a little local assistance) in the museum area.

Not quite ready to immerse myself in tea culture,  I found a little coffee bar, possibly in the old French concession,  hoping to get wifi acccess with my iPad.

I enjoyed a latte, despite the fact that all coffee in China tastes like NesCafe.
After orienting myself, so to speak, I went around the corner to the People's Park, where near the entrance, early Monday morning, I was met...accosted??? a lovely young woman who asked me to take her picture. She was visiting her sister, she said, in Shanghai.  She said she was a kindergarten teacher.  We chatted about Shanghai, Hawaii, my trip plans, I told her I was going to the art museum.  Maybe I would like to join her at a tea house, she was on the way there?  Well, why not?  
Her name, she said, was Xiao Xiao. She took me to the tea house, on the way helping me in a visit to  China Mobile where I unsuccessfully tried to get a micro-sim card for my iPad; she was charming, interesting, informative, and possibly a shill for the tea house.  I will never know.  It doesn't matter.  We spent a lovely two hours drinking tea, she interpreting the gong fu ceremony and translating the tea mistress's stories about tea. We both bought some tea (although I'm not sure it was the tea I actually ordered, have yet to open it).  After we were all tea'd out, and I shared my photos of my own Chinese paintings with her, she led me to the intersection where I could cross to visit the art museum.  She gave me her email address.  I'll never know if she was genuine or not.  I like to think she was.  And if she wasn't she certainly earned her commission.  
Shanghai  Museum
The Shanghai Museum is designed like a ding, an ancient vessel.  I spent two hours lingering over some extraordinary landscape paintings. It was special, to not be beholden to a group's movements.  I had all the time in my world.  One group of Ming paintings in particular,  by one Wang Lu, landscapes of Huashan, intrigued me.  A set of album leaves, they were like "Where's Waldo."  Among the fantastic landscapes,  one had to look really closely to find the little person lurking among the mountains.

The Unplanned Way

A lesson from travelling, especially in any kind of group exercise, is that the itinerary may not always be fixed and precise.  The best moments come from the unexpected detours, mishaps, changes of mind, illness, even minor scams and cheats.  If all itineraries were perfectly executed, why would you bother to make notes and take photos.

For our merry band of wannabe Taoists, there were plenty of unplanned moments.  We left Wudangshan--home for the middle week of our journey--on a bus, to travel by freeway for several hours back to Wuhan, where we would all split up to fly back to Beijing, Chengdu or Guilin.  Personally, I would have preferred the overnight train from Wudang to Beijing, but not everyone is an afficionado of the Chinese train. Another time, for me.  But once on our way, all practiced in the Eight Brocades, some recovering (including our Chinese guide) from a bout of apparent food-borne digestive upset, slightly stunned and mentally processing our recent mountain experience, we discovered the drive back to the big city would be even slower than planned.

First, we had to abandon the freeway...for at least two exits ahead in the Xiangfang area, the freeway was closed because of some big accident. We had to detour for about 60 miles on country roads.  I loved it.  No soporific mile after mile of trimmed shrubbery and long views across the idyllic countryside, we slowly passed through interior villages and towns, waving to real people in ordinary circumstances.  Our driver gave us the choice of waiting until the expressway was clear, or we could take the blue highways of China.  Stillness or movement?  We chose movement.
Who Trims These Miles of Shrubs? 

Leaving the Freeway

Back on the freeway,  we settled in to resume the quiet ride. Shortly,  I was awakened from a light doze by a sudden noise, directly under the wheel well over which I was perched.  A flat tire!  We limped along for a few kilometres on the remaining three rear wheels, to the next exit, where we found a mechanic at a dusty backroad garage who efficiently replaced the bus tire. It provided entertainment for the engineer of our group. (And in retrospect, I am wondering if it was ME.  The same Western butt that collapsed the hermit's stool sent some sort of wierd qi into the left rear tire?)
Not Exactly Jiffy Lube, but Fast

It gave us an opportunity to enjoy a local moment. Time was flowing like molasses, it was sunny/shiny, it was calm, no one had to be anywhere soon. I wanted to stay there. "I love this country," I said to someone. I bought a "Blue City" beer at a bodega: my ability to acquire yi ping pijiu in the countryside always makes me feel competent. (I float through China on beer and tea, both safe and satisfying.) Some people visited a gas station rest room but decided not to linger there; another of the party began to suffer a relapse of the queasy disease.  I spoke to some country folk, walking along the road, astonished to see us Westerners off the freeway, admired one of the local Little Emperors, using my limited Mandarin to play American (mei guo ren) diplomat.  (Every time I saw one of these children, and there were so many, all I could think was, "He owns us.")
Ye ye (grandfather) and Little Emperor

Our Colorful Pit Stop

On our way again, quite quickly really, the delay was only a half-hour--we had to stop one more time on the freeway.  Our gastrically challenged person was violently upchucking out the window. "Stop the bus now!" someone shouted.  While she regained some equilibrium, we looked around at an extraordinary view, for us anyway, enjoying it for a few minutes, rather than passing it by in a blur at 100 km/h.  None of these moments was on the planned itinerary.  And the best part, they didn't cost us an extra yuan. Well, except for my pijiu!
Paddies Along the Freeway

Thursday, June 3, 2010


I was at Tiananmen a year before the event, the "June 4th Incident," that China pretends didn't happen.
There are these guys stationed around about the square now, still as statues.
Today, Mao's Mausoleum, in the middle of the square, is flanked by two huge HDTV screens which show, lovely really, PSA images of China by CCTV and other commercial sponsors--images of tea culture, tai chi practice, calligraphy, wildlife and mountains.  I watched for a while, sitting on the base of a lamppost in the rain next to an old guy who kindly shared his umbrella with me. There really aren't places to sit in the square.  I imagine I had a privileged seat a democracy protester might have enjoyed in 1989.
There was no sense of this being the site of anything unusual (except for those guards.)  At night, the Forbidden City, at one end of the square, looks like Disneyland.

Warped Time

Graham Peck's great book about mid-20th century, wartime China, "Two Kinds of Time" was perfectly named.  The concept still applies.  In a slowing rising fog of jet lag, my own observations are about some kind of time warp, the past and the future so weirdly mingled, it's hard to pin down the present.  And now it seems like a strange dream.  (Which my Tao teacher would assure me, it was.)

I used to have a few copies of an old Chinese propaganda journal, from around 1976, (which for some reason I left as a joke in a beach house in Avalon, New Jersey, and now I wish I still had them) called China Reconstructs.  It was also perfectly named, not only to express what was happening in "New China," Mao's China, but really, pretty much all of China's history, relentlessly reconstructing. As guides and citizens constantly remind you of China's "5,000 years of civilization," the two things you notice more than anything else in China are old things juxtaposed against construction materials.  Despite the efforts of the cultural revolution to do away with the feudal past, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.  China is much tidier now (toilets having generally improved) than I recall in 1988, when much of the latest reconstruction under Deng Xiao Ping was ramping up, but the most central image of China for me now seems to be the old and new, playing off each other, like yin and yang.

Here in Shanghai, an old colonial, concession-era clock tower is overshadowed by a new innovative architectural marvel. China must provide architects with a free creative rein; most building in Honolulu, for instance, is restrained by budget.

Old temple roofs and high rises share the skyline.

But contrast of old and new, small and large, is not just in contemporary building. It's everywhere in everything. Here, a well tended bonsai in a garden in Shanghai.

Ancient gnarly full-sized trees in the Confucius Temple in Beijing, yang to the yin bonsai.

I enjoyed a classic Peking opera performance of scenes from White Snake, with which I have become very familiar because of Vincent Zhao's performance in Green Snake,  and thanks to the opera company who did it in Honolulu not long ago, in English.
White Snake in Beijing
Later that evening,  I tuned in to CCTV to find one of Madame Mao's patriotic revolutionary operas on Chanel 11, which was completely devoted to Chinese opera (or there was some sort of marathon going on).  The opera sounded the same, the gestures were the same...only the costumes (and perhaps the plot) were different.
The heroes of the revolutionary opera were the ones made popular in China Reconstructs -- Iron Man Wang and Lei Feng and Liu Yingjun...heroes for the people.

No matter how much China reconstructs, there is an underlying tao to it all. I recognized CCTV's building under construction in 2007.

Now finished,  it is a centerpiece of the developing "civilized Chaoyang" district.

If I return to China in the next year or so, I doubt I will recognize the neighborhood.  The new will become old, something yet unconceived will rise higher.  I took a cab in Beijing to The Summer Palace, (where the Empress Dowager built her infamous marble boat) and I did manage to find a moment of peaceful respite from development and modernity.  That's why the Empress retreated there too, I think.

In 1988 to get to the Summer Palace, we rode bicycles on an unpaved country road along a canal that served duck farms.  I barely recognized the route this year; clogged freeways lined both sides of the canal, which ran through an area of high-rise residences and other city buildings.

But at least, after a visit to the "Temple of Timely Rains and Extensive Moisture" (not making this up) I found that some things may not change.
Rain, Water, Willows

While doing the links for this blog post,  I discovered that China Reconstructs is no longer called that: the new name of the journal is China Today.  And  China Tomorrow is coming on fast.