Dream at the West Lake
Every one in the world has his own beautiful dream. The West Lake, like an ancient Chinese woman living for thousand years, both her and her adorers have a dream, too. A dream, or a way can lead her to the World Heritage List. Insisting for more than ten years, she finally got the dream came true on June 24, 2011: The World Heritage Committee has inscribed the West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. At that moment, the West Lake and her fans shared the happiness. Now, it's your turn to carry out your dreams, maybe a dream related to the West Lake.
-----This is a classic essay written by Yu Qiuyu, a modern famous learner in research and understanding on China's Hisotry, Culture, and Chinese traditional literators' sensation on life, philosophy, nature and self-improvement. It will offer you some indications to comprehend the importance and symbolic & spiritual status of West Lake in Chinese peoples' soul and heart, in a poet's rational, deep and philosophical angle of view.
The first time the West Lake met my eyes was on a foldable paper fan of rather shabby quality. One of the family elders went to Hangzhou and brought back this fan to the village. On it, there was a tour map of the West Lake. The map is quite unique, because the actual sites of all the famous tourist attractions the Lake could offer were painted on it, looking like a three-dimensional miniature model of the Lake. And the map bore all the poetic and picturesque names, with a grand title "Heaven on Earth." Growing up in the countryside it was rare for us kids to have such luxury as a nice picture so I stared at that fan day in and day out so much so that I could memorize all the details of that piece of painting. Years later when I visited the Lake as a grown-up, it felt like revisiting an old place, passing every door or walk-way was like walking through an old dream.
Early in the 1500s during the Ming Dynasty, a Japanese diplomat wrote a poem after visiting the West Lake,
I have seen the picture of this Lake in the past and could hardly believe there was such a sight on earth. Today after walking through the Lake, I could tell that the painter of that old picture could use some more practice.
It seems that many who visit the Lake for the first time share this feeling of revisiting an old dream. This has become quite a phenomenon in Chinese culture: Whoever indulges one's self in the Chinese culture for a period of time automatically makes room in one's heart for this Lake.
Strange yet is that, no matter how many times one visits this Lake, one can't get any close to her. Too much heavy-duty embellishment creates a distance of some sort and makes it hard for casual interaction and identification. It's just like home-cooked meals that need no deliberate decoration or a mother that a child could snuggle into her arms is a woman who wears no excessive makeup. But the West Lake goes too much for ostentation and extravagance, and style and details, so much so it is hard for any one to call it home. Perhaps, common sense dictates that the best scenic site does not make the best home. Thus complicated is the relation between people and the beauty of nature.
There is another reason why the West Lake appears distant: she has gained her fame too long ago and is home to too many historical sites. She has inherited a name of high respect. Every hill, creek, pond, pavilion, or pagoda has a historical background of some great significance; as a result, everything becomes symbolic, the Lake itself the symbol of symbols. You can visit it, but getting close to her will not be easy. In order to escape this feeling of distance, one summer day I jumped into the lake for a swim. After going some distance alone, I felt that I finally achieved some skin-to-skin affection with her. The water was not that cool, nor was the Lake that deep. The lake bed has something soft and sticky, reminding us of the silt of thousands of years of accumulation. Coming out of the water, it occurred to me that I started from a well-versed site of Song Dynasty and ended up at the mansion of a Qing Dynasty celebrity. That thought made me realize that I just swam through something that was quickly becoming abstract due to the length of the history the Lake has accumulated or participated. It was almost unreal or surreal.
The Lake has been witness to too many dynasties thus becomes dynasty-less; she has gathered too many positions and directions thus becomes direction-less. She is heading towards abstraction, towards surrealism, like our culture's largest exposition, extravagant to the point of becoming mysterious.
2. The Extravagance of the West Lake, generally speaking, comes from the fact that she mirrors the collective character and personality of the ever so complex Chinese culture.
Every religion has gathered here to participate in this grand exposition. Even the most bashful and the most resentful who disdain whatever that is this-worldly can't resist the temptation generated by the excitement of the elegance of the Lake. Even the most solitude-loving souls have come to indulge themselves in one of the beautiful scenes. Buddhism has the most sites here and we don't need to cite them one by one. Even the most out-of-this-worldly Taoism had taken over the Ge Hill, the location that greets daybreak first and gathers most early morning worshipers of the whole Lake community. The idol of all Confucianist generals, Yue Fei, somehow got himself buried by the Lake, from where his doctrines of governing the nation and bringing peace and prosperity to the world are being studied by many. Venerable statesmen seeking no more fame and wealth but a quiet living here found themselves as neighbors with fantastic mystery figures. And years later all of them are being put on the display in a grand exhibition, in weird juxtaposition if you will.
This is where religion gains its true Chinese identity. A well thought-out philosophy and its doctrines are transformed by the sheer force of human imagination into a bustling tourist attraction, almost circus-like, seemingly to provide pleasure only for human senses. Actually this is transcendence and "non-perversion" in their true senses and, at the same time, free and spontaneous in the ultimate sense. Extraordinary seriousness is accompanied by fantastic playfulness, and in the end everything is converted into a world of senses. None of the ancient religions of China has ever evolved into a strict religion like what its Western counterparts did. Even those religions based on human thoughts in China had fast scattered across the chest of Mother Nature, echoing as religions that worship nature. Thus men and women with incense bags came with not much memories of any doctrine; instead, they had kept an eye on bright peach blossoms, green willow trees, and the Lake's famous dishes of water shield and vinegar-marinated fish. Did mountains and waters converted themselves to religion? Or the other way round? Only the outcome is that everything melts into a world of senses of the rather practical as well as obscure nature.
The systematization and popularity of Western religions also gave birth to the systematic reformation and protest from those who think with a different rationality. On the contrary, Chinese religion would never spark thoughts in such a way whether for it or against it. The greenish water of the West Lake ripples every thought that came to its bank into bits and pieces then gathers them all into one and converts all the worshipers into tourists. She splashes her shiny waves, displays her bright smiles. In her presence, science, rationality, human spirits, all experience the same difficulty in maintaining their independent strength. Maybe, it's just maybe, our people are composed of too many tourists who started their journey from the West Lake, and of too few passers-by or long-distance travelers as prescribed by Lu Xun. Those long-distance travelers with their worn-out shirts came with their feet drenched in blood, but still going at full speed, to search for that lake of life, perhaps? But once they reach the banks of the West Lake, they would be looked upon as beggars by thousands of the leisurely tourists. Perhaps precisely for such a reason, Lu Xun tried to persuade Yu Dafu from relocating his family to Hangzhou [as he wrote the following poem for Yu].
Emperor Qian's artificial garden remains the same, Prince Wu's body has dissolved into the waters. Nice views and cozy days aren't for high-flying eagles, Tiny hills of fine decoration dwarf tall trees. Even General Yue's tomb attracts no visitors now, Only old swans come by to remember the lonely Hermit Lin. Now why do you have to move the whole family that far while we face enough waves and winds and challenges here.
Lu Xun used to say, "As far as the West Lake is concerned, it brings comfort and offers many places for people to eat and play. But if you indulges yourself there, the nice views of the lake and colors of the hills can take away your sharpness and make you forget any aspirations of life. For example, people like Yuan Caizi [a poet--translator's note] who came to the Lake with a fine silk coat and met Miss Su Xiaoxiao [famed prostitute of her time] and found out that they came from the same village or related. His head went up above the clouds and days went by without his notice ever so quickly. (Chuandao: "Recalling the West Lake Tour with Mr. Lu Xun in 1928.")
Still, the inner structure of the ethos of many Chinese men of letters bears this tremendous centripetal force towards the West Lake as she overspills with symbolism and abstraction. Society, rationality, and historical responsibility, all have quietly evaporated; all sorts of geniuses and hermits, now scattered among the beautiful hills and waters, came to plant their pride and fame here by the Lake. No matter how their geniuses and worries matched the sky and the heavens, what's left is a bunch of tourist sights. Sights, sights, and nothing but more sights. No longer could we find any masterpiece in writing so that can be passed on to our future generation, except for those couplets carved in the door frames resembling flying phoenix and smoking dragons.
Nor could we detect any resounding anger or heart-felt regret, except for some aged pagodas and pavilions, good enough to recall that there have been other tourists who came before us and also to rest our tired feet.
Here we no longer expect any historical tremor but hills and waters sitting squarely without any worry for centuries unchanged. Maintaining, maintaining, and again maintaining. The forest of pagodas penetrates the clouds above and patches of ivy grow like long beard; floating on the lake are silts of thousands of years of accumulation.
3. Among the many famous scenery spots, the places that make Chinese men of letters proud the most are the two stretches of lake banks built by Bai Juyi and Su Shi. Two great poets, masters of literature, did all these not out of any literary pursuits. There wasn't even any consideration related to anything cultural. To ease and ultimately stop the suffering imposed upon the locals by annual flood generated by the rivers and the Lake, Mr. Bai and Mr. Su in their times engineered those projects to regulate the lake by building banks thus left two stretches of long life-saving banks for the people who live by there.
Zha Rong, a poet of the Qing Dynasty, wrote a poem for the Bank of Su by simply stating, "Master Su built this bank here, not for sight-seeing but to protect ordinary folks." Only those artists and writers who understand the essence of sightseeing wish not to leave an image of themselves or their creation as sightseeing spots for future generations. This is why the banks built by Bai and Su are two of the most natural sights among them all along the West Lake. I don't know about others. For me, the most pleasant experience I had was to walk alone along the Su Bank in light drizzle. There I had the feeling that I was not obligated to remember any of the age-old famous lines, nor did I have to listen to any profound remarks that some one in a crowd likes to make for other tourists. There was not even a venerable statue interrupting or changing my leisurely pace. There it was, a long lake bank fulfilling its practical purposes; even the trees there appeared ordinary and birds chirped some age-old songs. Master Dongpo of course did not give any thought to how I just felt; as the mayor of Hangzhou he just did what he was supposed to do. That was all. But this is precisely what makes me realize Su Dongpo had reached the highest possible level in aesthetics: poise at its highest form, that is.
Yet, compared to the wholeness of the geniuses and sensitivity in Bai Juyi and Su Dongpo, the two long banks of this-worldly existence are just too insignificant even to be mentioned. The two men had their relatively complete views of the world, and knowledge of the universe. They possessed a mainstream spirit that was deeply embedded in their intellectual strength and rational thinking. As far as cultural and social statues were concerned, these two men probably represented the heights and the excellence of their times. It should have been that their ability and fields of vision were enough for them to heighten the spirit of the entire culture; unfortunately for the culture that is ours, they were chosen to be officials of trivial bureaucratic functions because of their high scores in writing composition on spot at the official examinations that qualified them as parts of a rather stiff and decadent bureaucratic machine. They were put on and taken off and re-assembled to places randomly; their lives were wasted on meaningless travels. Chances landed them by this Lake so they did what others could also do, building banks and regulating waters. That was all.
Perhaps because he had really seen through it all, Lin Hejing casually stood by the Lake. His eye-sight seemed to have reached the bottom of everything as he lived in the high mountains for twenty some long years, referring to Mei flowers as his wife, playing with cranes as he would with his children thus keeping an arm's distance from official circles and daily hassles. His poetry really shines with brilliance. He dedicates the following two lines, "A few lines of shades scattered over shallow water of cleanness, invisible fragrance spreads in a moon-lit dusk," to praise the spirit of the Mei flower. This is something which can never be matched thousands of years before or after. In ancient China, there had been quite a number of hermits. But only Lin Hejing, with his Mei flowers, white swans and hermit poetry, really showed us all what an authentic and beautiful hermit could be. There is no question that Bai Juyi and Su Dongpo command high respect from many generations to come but it's really hard to imitate what they achieved. Even the chances to be sent to Hangzhou as the mayor are something that only happens once in a blue moon. On the other hand, it does not take much to follow the footsteps of Lin Hejing, with or without his genius. Mei wife and crane children are a little strange but actually very easy to deal with, for Lin Hejing himself had a real wife and children. How hard is it for one to find some flowering trees and animals that could fly? If you fail in life and experience difficulty to overcome the embarrassment, it is very easy for you to take a step back and become half of a Lin Hejing somewhere and anywhere.
This kind of self-defense and self-consolation mechanism could be taken as some kind of wisdom developed by Chinese intellectuals or their wicked tricks. In other words, if I can't find no chance to contribute to the society, I might as well hide in a small world offered by nature to amuse myself and waste my life and talents away. While softening their aspiration down, this softening itself quickly becomes an aspiration of life for them. To be content with poverty and good consciousness while perfecting one's self into pure spirit has become something of an underground shelter of great space for many Chinese intellectual personalities. Although there is this strong odor of rottenness, the cave is nevertheless eternally safe and peaceful. This is why we have seen many of our scholars who have devoted decades of their lives under chilly windows and endured many changes of seasons in solitude studying and mastering our literature and history. But when their deep knowledge enabled them to reach the slopes that lead to the heights of our culture, tragedy occurred. After only a few social interactions and frustrations, some of them simply decided to bury everything they have got in their minds into the lone mountains.
As a result, the collective spirit of the culture has gotten weaker and weaker. While spring goes and autumn comes, the Mei flowers fade and cranes age; learning has really become something of a waste of time without a real purpose. Self-centered moral perfection actually brings out a spirit immorality that has become our collective image. The advancement of civilization is thus interrupted, with a few petals of Mei flowers, crane feathers, like bookmarks, scattered between the pages of a book that dutifully records the spirit of our people.
4. Against such a pale backdrop or a weakening and fainting national spirit, there also exist many wild and playful personalities who once in a while stand high above the crowd, commanding quite an attention from all walks of life.
The head of those colorful personalities is of course the famed prostitute, Su Xiaoxiao.
Whether you like it or not, this prostitute has been there longer than any of the famous men mentioned earlier in this writing. Many poems put Su Dongpo, Yue Fei and others, behind Miss Su Xiaoxiao, whether consciously or unconsciously. Just look at those lines -- "Flowers bloom all over the trees in Su Xiao's front door, women sell wine along the Bank of Master Su." "The tender willow in Su Xiaoxiao's appear to waggle still with the old charm, the tall pine trees surrounding General Yue's tomb radiate his spirit of loyalty." Even Bai Juyi in his ancient days portrayed himself as Su Xiaoxiao's admirer, "For those who seek emotional satisfaction look no further than Su Xiaoxiao, deep inside the long corridor of green poplar trees you will find her chamber." Or, "the little girl of the Su's gained some fame a while back, she seems to have left some special charm that now breezes off the willows and poplars of her old chamber."
Following this tradition, Yuan Caizi, remarked, "Su Xiao of Qiantang [in the neighborhood of West Lake ] is actually related to me." Although Lu Xun is not particularly fond of his pride, the glamour part seems understandable.
Of course, there have been quite a few light-weight playboys who dedicate poems and other writings to Su Xiaoxiao; still, the learned and venerable types who wrote on her behalf added up to quite a handsome number. In a country like ours, there has to be some real reason why a prostitute commands so much respect and attention for such a long time.
The life of Su Xiaoxiao is itself a dream. She dedicated her life to human caring and love. Her poem "Song of the Same Heartbeat" says, "The beautiful mistress take the decorated wagon, her man rides along on a stallion. Where do we share our heartbeats? you ask, under the pine trees of Xiling, of course." In her plain language, she describes to us this eternal beauty of dating between two young people in love. Her wagon is beautiful, so is his horse, riding in full speed side by side. That is a healthy portrait of love and beauty. It is said that she once met a young scholar who was humbled by poverty at a beautiful scenic spot and generously opened her purse and gave him several nuggets of silver to aid his way to the capital to participate in the official examination. The sad thing is that the scholar who left never did return to her; the world she lived in did not always give back the same love as she had generously dished out. Still, she was not discouraged a bit, nor did she become cynical; instead, she took loyalty to love and human caring to a higher level by developing something that can only be called loyalty to beauty. She did not wish to become anyone's wife or mistress or concubine, to fulfill the duty of an ordinary woman, so to speak. Instead, she chose to share her extraordinary beauty with ordinary folks on the streets while casting a glare of disdain to the high walls around large mansions. She gave no thoughts to virginity but fought hard to protect her sense of beauty, so extraordinary that the entire male world tried its mightiest to adopt to the unpredictability of her swinging moods. In the end, fatal illness was to take away her young life. That was when she calmed down, feeling that dying young and beautiful would leave behind forever a beautiful image. She even took the fact that the God of Death came when she was only 19 as a signal that the heavens above was giving her some special treatment by granting her a perfect ending to her beautiful life.
No wonder Mr. Cao Juren thinks that she is an aestheticist, just like La dame aux camelias (the Lady of the Camellias by the younger Alexandre Dumas). In my opinion, Su Xiaoxiao led a life that was even freer than that of La dame aux camelias. Before Su Xiaoxiao, other prostitutes with some reputation in Chinese literature had themselves too limited an aspiration. They became too tight while confronting either a heartless man or a senseless royal court. Only Su Xiaoxiao, with her extraordinary common sense yet still high philosophical transcendence, had reached the statue of a Goddess that is treasured by many Chinese males in their hearts.
Yes. From heart-felt emotions to out-ward beauty, life has been the main theme of it all here at the West Lake. Su Dongpo transformed beauty into masterpiece poetry and long lake banks; Lin Hejing purified beauty from Mei flowers and cranes; Su Xiaoxiao kept beauty attached to her own life from the beginning to the end. She did not bother with transformation but used her life to send out microwaves that conveys the true meaning of life.
The career of a prostitute may not be worth any high praise. But the consciousness in Su Xiaoxiao brought to our world an extraordinary example contrary to the traditional and conservative morality. No matter how much fame a Confucian official or scholar may have gained in life, or how perfect his social behavior may be, he somehow had to oppress his or others' natural desires of life one way or the other. Such a deep structure of contradiction is so spectacular and so broad-viewed that it seems to force the rushing currents of human consciousness into some wild and willful display under the confinement of high and powerful mountains. Again we are confronted with the sharp contradiction of moral against immoral, human against inhuman, beautiful against ugly: in the seemingly trashy part of our society there resides this most beautiful human rationality. Yet, this grand rationality appears in a form that is hard for most ordinary beings to bear or grasp. On the other side of the coin, the greatest sparks in human history seems to bear the price tag that demands the sacrifice of many aspects of human life. Any one-dimensional perfection of an ideal is forever a dream. This is part of the tragedy why human beings can't get away with, no matter how hard they try.
Another lovable character that the West Lake has embraced is Madam Bai. Although she exists only in legends, she has a reputation that has surpassed many life-sized heroes and gained quite a popularity among the ordinary and the distinguished alike; therefore, she bears a great deal of weight in the spiritual world of the Chinese who in return have generously devoted the water of the Lake, the collapsed bridge and Leifeng Pagoda to her. In doing so, the West Lake did not lose anything but has gained a great deal of bright colors.
Madam Bai is both a demon and a deity. But she did not wish to settle with either form. Her aspiration was simple and yet spectacular: she wanted to become an ordinary human being. The formation of such a fundamental question poses a great challenge to the Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese way of thinking tends to divide things into two contrast forms. It's like a sharp knife cutting through an originally chaotic human world: on the one side, there are heavenly, the virtuous, the loyal, the good, the moral, and the loving; on the other side, there are the evil, the vicious, the wicked, the ugly, the rebellious, and the harmful. The first group are bound to the heavens above while the later to hell underneath. What's interesting is that it's very easy for the two groups to switch sides. There was no problem for Madam Bai to be either demon or deity, for example. Problem arose when she had an eye on the stretch of land between the heavens and hell. She discovered that between monsters and saints, there is another kind of creature: people. All the disasters of her life stemmed from this discovery.
An ordinary, natural human being with no makeup, what's the big deal here? In the thicket of the 25 history books, there is not much at all devoted to her kind. Therefore, Master Fahai tried to force her back to the form of demon while the heavens above tried to persuade her to ascend to be a deity. But she cried out on top of her lungs: Human! Human! I want to be human, you idiots !
Later she met Xu Xian. But his numbness and lifelessness were no match of the intensity of her passion, that really disappointed her. She discovered that she had devoted herself to a man who basically had lost his sense of human dignity; this created a great deal of loneliness in her heart. This loneliness is her personal tragedy as well as the tragedy of the entire human world that she so aspired to join. Poor Madam Bai, she cried for human in between the worlds of monsters and saints but got no chance to meet a real man. Even after she entered the human world, she could not find her soul-mate who could really respond to her inner call for an ordinary man. However, she was not about to let Xu Xian go. With him, she realized her dream to be a human being. Thus she no longer had the desire to look for any extraordinary man, someone who is above the world of the ordinary. Although there was a deeply embedded contradiction here, she accepted it, willing to travel thousands of miles to steal heavenly herbal medicine for her man and to lay her life on the line to fight the flood of Gold Mountains. She did this all in order to hold on to the half human that was in her hand now.
As I see it, it is this grand disappointment, not the end act while she was buried under the Leifeng Pagoda, which hurt Madam Bai the most. She feared no death; how could she fear any burial or punishment? But what bothered her to no end was that she could never become a true human being. The Leifeng Pagoda was only a structure that brings the conclusion to this drama, erecting there as the sad symbol of the spirit of this people.
September, 1924, the Leifeng Pagoda self-collapsed. There was a collective outcry of celebration among the May Fourth cultural reformers. Among them, Lu Xun made numerous comments on this pagoda episode. Did all the hoopla point out to us that the clash between Madam Bai and the Leifeng Pagoda cuts into the heart of the revolt and rebirth of the Chinese culture and spirituality? For this, even the ever so clear-minded Lu Xun stopped to ponder over the symbolism that roots in a fairy tale.
Among Lu Xun's friends, there was one who once head-butted the Leifeng Pagoda, a woman who was also buried by the West Lake after she wrote down "Autumn wind and autumn rain bring the misery that kills."
I am still in debt with the West Lake, because till today I haven't paid my visit to the Leifeng Pagoda. It is said there is nothing to look at but I will have to go there at least once.
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