This is Dao, written on the side of a temple on Weibaoshan, the “quietest mountain in China” deep in Yunnan. Dao means the way, which can be as simple as a road or path or as complex as all of the doubts and triumphs within the human psyche. As one of the two 2,500 year old Chinese traditions, Daoism is the one that looks inward at the self, both in an attempt to follow right action (to borrow a Buddhist phrase) and to seek contemplative truths.
This temple on Weibaoshan was built without a permit – hence no one visits it – violation of karma/social contract
The other tradition is of course Confucianism, which is directed outward, at human behavior in groups, at families and the extension of the family that is society. It is about ethics and moral behavior and in many ways quite different to its inward-looking contemporary. Both influenced the adoption of Buddhism by the Chinese almost a millenia later, and both can be worshipped in the 22 temples of Weibaoshan, a place I returned to yesterday after an absence of two years.
Chang Chuen Cave (temple), a national landmark on Weibaoshan
The Way is clearer than it was two years ago, and not only because of the new signs that tell you the history of sites like the Nanzhao Yi temple, where I ran into some new friends, a stem-cell biologist and a historian and banker and geologist celebrating a 30-year class reunion,
or the amazing Wen Chung palace with its mural of the Yi people dancing under the pines and smoking tobacco, a mural sitting in a pool that I have watched slowly fade and delaminate for the last eight years,
as has the story of the Fairy of the Luo River on the other side
or the Jade Emperor Temple
This year I was thanking the Jade Emperor more than pleading with him as I did in 2009 when on this cloud-shrouded mountain I got a phone call from Felicity because cell phones are part of the Way in China, and easily reach the most mystical places. That is the way, though it may not conform to the aesthetics of difference central to the lingering colonialism in our own consumer culture. But as anyone will tell you, I am not skilled at difference.
The mystical is not merely the otherworldly but also the simple pleasures that can escape you when you lose the Way, like the unfettered pleasure of crossing the bridge beef noodles for breakfast on Saturday or watching the man on the food street pulling the noodles for breakfast on Sunday and Monday.
Deputy Mayor Bi quoted the Buddha as he opened our conference on the restoration of the Dong Yue Temple complex (including the Tai Bao and Shi Wang Palaces) on the edge of town, historic places my students and I and SAIC and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University have been working to save since 2004.
Here is the delegation with our hosts in Weishan, near a reflecting wall.
Here we were again, Jingjing Gao and I, with SAIC Historic Preservation Director Anne Sullivan and Facilities VP Tom Buechele surveying the temple walls as we plan a permanent studio and student center here in the pristine depths of Yunnan, completely antipodal from our home but I place I have called home some seven times over eight years.
Dong Yue temple
Here is the view of Weibaoshan, from room 3004 where I always stay, where I have spent some five or six weeks of my life, although there is a new floor and new furniture and I have internet access because that is the Way.
My students often “complain” that I am constantly running into people I know when I tour them around Chicago, and it happens in China too – I ran into my June tour guide friend Jiajia Huo in the busiest airport in the world and of course the monk Xiao, and of course I visit with my Global Heritage friends in Beijing and doubtless I will run into someone in Dali.
I love the food here – nothing is refrigerated because it is picked and cooked within a few hours and there are dozens of wonderful mushrooms and vegetables and meats and no cheese thank god
There is a lot of eating and drinking in Chinese culture, which is why it is the civilized culture and all of the rest of us are barbarians. Indeed, they call me the Uighur which at least brings me into the geographic orbit of historic China without civilizing me completely, but I can drink and sing with the best of them and thus our negotiations proceed with mutual sincerity and propitious signs of success. Tom and Anne are doing pretty well at this too. The toast is “Gombei” which means “empty glass” and believe me, they check.
The town has improved as well, with new signage and more shops and more prosperity, but as I told the international ICOMOS conference in May (as I had in 2007) Weishan is still authentic and it is still a real place with real people, which means it has not lost its soul: it has not lost the Way. We walked through the market, a narrow alley of mushrooms and tea in big sacks and umbrellas and light bulbs and underwear and fake Crocs and then emerge into a vast market of raw meat and giant squash and vegetables they don’t even recognize in Beijing and Shanghai.
The new road opened and more tourists are coming but what they are coming to see is real history: continuous history that is not frozen or unmalleable but constantly changing. Change is not good or bad but it is inevitable and it is history and it forces us to constantly readjust our prejudices and even our aesthetics. Managing change is keeping the best of the past and repurposing it, giving room to grow creatively, staying in the flow of history. You cannot dictate change and you cannot fully anticipate it, hence the virtue of the heritage conservation field is its individuated process, which manages change by incorporating the deep character of a place into its future.
Creativity. That is our plan for the restoration of the Tai Bao and Shi Wang palaces -a studio space for students from SAIC and wherever else. What we do in heritage conservation is creative re-use, because we try as hard as we can to avoid the dumb solution, the simple-minded solution that works in dichotomies rather than the reality of the Dao, which is both-and.
For years I have felt that the only breakfast is beef noodles, but there is room for other breakfasts just as there is always room for exoticism as long as you realize in can be found as easily in your own everyday as in the everyday of Weishan. And there is room for the cell phone on the sacred mountain as we learned in 2006 when the monk Xiao completed his mesmerizing tai chi chuan demonstration only to have his cell phone ring and we laughed at the contrast between technologies, but you must remember that all civilized behavior is a form of technology and technology is not a thing but a relationship (see next blog). You do not plan the future like you design an object because it is never that simple, but if you maintain the relationship the future will emerge in the appropriate way.
I feel at home here because it is familiar but also because the culture is so deep. Not old, not unchanging, but deep as in having reserves of understanding that allow you to stay in the flow of history. Sometimes you will fight it and people will die and sometimes you will push it and elements of culture we thought were permanent will be exposed as historical.
Managing change is staying on the path, the Way, the Dao and I am not – I insist – being mystical but simply trying to describe efficiently that living and contributing requires that you hold your beliefs and your culture as Jane Addams did, loosely in your hand.
Clinging tightly to anything – past or future or any other false dichotomy – can not lead to success or enlightenment or prosperity or even a relaxing Sunday afternoon.
6 years. 348 posts. Thank you for reading!
2012 UPDATE: We are going again! Stanley Murashige and I will be leading a Study Trip to Weishan starting May 20, joined by the incomparable Han Li of the Global Heritage Fund. For more info, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.