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Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Commercialization of Tradition

I feel a little tension, a little ambivalence, very mixed feelings, in the increasing commercialization of Wudangshan as a center for Taoist wellness and spiritual cultivation. Traditional masters abound, equipped with cellphones, updating their websites, becoming media personalities, published authors, and extras in TV and film. And I can say I feel part of the blame for this.

A small group of westerners working with our top-knotted teacher, we were overwhelmed and observed by Chinese tourists one morning (on the so-called International Tourism Day, when you could get into the Wudangshan area, like a national park, for half price.) One chicly shod and clad young woman (it is amazing the heels and sequins you see in the temples and on mountain stairs) jumped into the group to "pose" beside the teacher, in his traditional robe, flashing the ubiquitous "V" sign to her boyfriend/photographer. It was odd to be a visitor transformed into part of the attraction.

My beloved "hermit" is also a media celebrity. You can find him in many youtube videos, showing off his bee friends to barbarian seekers from all over the world, but now he has turned up in mainstream media in a recent China Daily feature that revealed details about him that I would rather not have known. He's only 76? He subscribes to magazines and newspapers to keep up with national affairs? (Although that sounds more like China Daily talking than Jia Ye himself.) Even while we were visiting, a film crew arrived, doing a documentary on the Four Seasons of Wudang. I may turn up in it; they did several repeated takes of me and him in farewell embraces. He seems to take these things with equanimity, but still, what a life for a eremetic Taoist! When we asked him when he meditated, he said, "Not during the day; I have too many friends who come to visit."

And if I don't turn up in a Chinese documentary, I already have some presence in the internet marketing of Wudang Tao, practically a registered trademark. Last night, visiting with one of my Chinese friends in Honolulu, dining on Japanese noodles before going to see a Korean movie, I was describing my experience with the rooftop shifu who taught us the Five Animals routine, encouraging her to join me next year. "Look, here's his website," I said, retrieving my iPad from my bag. Scrolling down through the photos, I came across a familiar scene. "This is exactly where we practiced, it was just like this." In fact it WAS us. In just two weeks we have become part of the marketing collateral, an example of "American Students."

In Wudang, over the past year, a curious "Taoist Vegetarian Cultural Experience Center" had opened, a restaurant which also showed martial arts and wuxia movies at night for free. I didn't eat there (I'm told there was nothing vegetarian on the menu anyway), but I did poke around to inspect some paintings on the walls. (I spent a lot of time on this trip closely inspecting paintings.) Mostly they were illustrations of Taoist figures and legends, but there was one HUGE shan shui mural on the wall behind the retractable video screen, a traditionally styled illustration of the 72 peaks of Wudang, the wandering clouds, waterfalls, some tiny immortals at sacred sites. And in the lower left, a mountain road winding up from the valley below. And on this road, a delicately brush-stroked MOTOR BUS. (There is no bus in my little reference volume of traditional Chinese painting elements, such as tigers and trees, fishermen and sages.)

One day I actually witnessed a traffic jam of buses on the two-lane village street. The driver of an aggressive black Honda SUV barreling the other way around the curve was sufficiently alert not to plow into them, but he did indulge in some incessant and ineffective horn-blowing in an attempt to break up the tangle of buses. I had just walked back from the hermit's cave in a light rain; it was a strange contrast to observe. There were photographers with really fancy cameras with long lenses and tripods everywhere taking pictures of the cloud-shrouded mountains that looked like living shan shui masterpieces. (One moment when I indeed did miss my little Casio.) I guess the bus in the mural was not so out-of-place after all.

The ancient techniques of internal alchemy and other Taoist arts and practices are the same as ever, but they are no longer hidden from the ordinary public. They are on offer to anyone who can afford to make the once laborious trek up the mountain. I have been astonished by the incredible development in China's cities, and in commerce, since my first experience in Beijing in 1988 when Deng Xiao Ping's "To get rich is glorious" reforms were beginning to lift China out of Mao-era economics. Now these developments are reaching the most remote and reserved parts of the country. In fact, our guide and interpreter says the place we really all should go is Yunnan. "That's the hot tourist destination now." Dally in Dali!


sybil law said...

I hope you'll still talk to me, even though now I'm one of "the little people". (I totally don't mean I've turned into a dwarf.) :)

baroness radon said...

We're ALL little people...