Friday, March 21, 2008

Entry Eight: Harmony and Support

In addition to taking me out to dinner, the English teachers in my office have succeeded to find other ways to keep me busy. I have been in a few new classrooms lately making presentations and answering questions. The most common questions I get in this type of setting have to do with the NBA - they absolutely love basketball in China.

In addition to the occasional cameo in a new classroom, the teachers arranged for me to have two more teaching assignments. Granted, they are on the weekend, but I accepted the fruit of their brainstorming without complaint.

On Sunday evenings I work with a group of 16 little kids. They are maybe 10 years old, and darn full of energy. My only experience with students of this age before now took place during my observation period as a student teacher in college. My biggest observation from that experience: that age group is not for me. Yet, we are having fun and playing language games, and I am holding up quite well. They’re great kids, and most of them are related to the English teachers who have been looking after me, so helping them is the least I can do.

On Saturday I work with a 15 year old student from the number 4 school. She is a brilliant artist and quite the piano player as well, but struggles with English. In our first meeting I discovered that she never learned how to decipher words – she was taught very little phonics, and has no familiarity with root words, prefixes or suffixes. She has been trying to learn English as if it is Chinese – by this I mean, pure word recognition. I am no expert on literacy, but when I was really young I had a hard time learning to read until I was introduced to phonics, so we’re giving it a shot. I bought some letter blocks and we have been forming new words left and right. It is building her confidence, and so she is willing to speak more. She is the hardest working student I have met here, and I am grateful to feel useful as a teacher. Many of my other students treat my class as the “fun” period of their week, which is what it is scheduled to be. It is therefore a pleasure to work one on one as a tutor, rather than one on fifty – where I feel less effective as a teacher.

In return for my tutoring the mother of the student, a professor of English at Zhejiang Normal University, is tutoring me in Chinese. Her English is perfect, and her vocabulary is better than most native speakers. We have a habit of talking about philosophy and Chinese culture, and it has been a pure pleasure to speak with her. But, my actual Chinese lessons have been, well, rough… I am getting the hang of basic phrases that are useful, but Lily (the professor) insists on teaching me characters. I must confess it is not sticking, just like English didn't before phonics. If nothing else, I am learning what it feels like to be illiterate. That is a lesson in itself, and a frustrating one.

One character that has left an impression on me, however, is the Chinese character for “people.” As Lily explained, it has two lines leaning on one another for support. She sees this as symbolic of the Chinese philosophy on life, where people naturally rely on and support each other. This helps to shed light on the continued hospitality I have received from my fellow English teachers, and my new Chinese tutor Lily.

Last Sunday Lily invited me to join her and a few of her colleagues (who were British) for a visit to the Double Dragon Caves, the major scenic escape here in Jinhua.

We met at the gate of her apartment complex and took a cab for a typically terrifying ride through the city and the countryside. Last week I took a picture from a balcony of one of the countless intersections here, just to help illustrate the traffic patterns. Notice how the cars and motorbikes compete for the same space on the road. I guess there is something about the-slow-driving-Mainer in me that just can’t stop being surprised by the traffic here. Then again, everyone seems to get where they’re going without much trouble, so I should probably just get over it.

When we arrived at the mountain we swerved up narrow roads, honking the horn before every turn to alert any possible passerby or car that we were coming. We arrived safely, and immediately I felt the relief of fresh mountain air. The mountain was extremely well managed, and in great condition. These days China proudly celebrates Arbor Day, but events of the 20th century took a toll on much of the environment in the east of China. Yet here the average tree was almost as thick around as something you might find in Maine! Clearly, this place has been protected, and for good reason.

As we walked up narrow steps toward the caves, we passed a small country village. Compared with the rest of Jinhua, a bustling and wealthy city, the village looked like it had seen little change in the last few decades. On one hand, it was charming and beautiful. On the other hand, the contrast between urban and rural life in China is still dramatic and I am grateful to live in the city.

We passed through what felt like a theme park entrance and continued to climb extremely steep steps. Broken branches and broken treetops were everywhere to be seen. Lily explained that the quick and heavy snow that fell in January and February was responsible for the damage. The broken limbs reminded me of the thaw after the big ice storm Maine had in the 1990s, but the lack of a railing on the walkway reminded of a nightmare I had a few weeks ago. Luckily nothing tragic took place on the mountain, and we came to a small house behind which was the entrance to the famous caves.

The scenic area is known as Double Dragon Caves, but in reality that cave is only one of many caves in the mountain. The Double Dragon Cave earns its name from the two naturally occurring rock formations that the entrances, which require little imagination to recognize as dragons. I can envision hiking this mountain hundreds of years ago to find a dragon’s face protruding from a cave wall. It is easy to see how this place was considered sacred and magical.

The entrance to the cave is, well, an experience. Years ago one would have to swim under a bolder, in a pool of cold mountain water. These days one lays flat, and I mean flat, on a canoe dragged by a rope through complete darkness between the bolder and the water’s surface. There are only inches from you and the bolder, and I almost scrapped my knee. I entered the cave lying next to a Chinese tourist who got a huge kick out of riding through with a foreigner. He said hello about eight times and his friends took a picture.

Once inside the cave you find that it is extremely spacious. The walls, just as in all the other caves we visited, had dramatic lighting created by neon lights and the occasional string of Christmas bulbs. Much like the boat entry system, there has been an effort to make the caves tourist friendly. This includes the occasional warning sign, but has yet to include railings for climbing the slippery steps.

My favorite feature about the caves was the waterfalls! It had rained for a few days before our trip, and the mountain water collected in pools that poured through the caves and further down the mountain. The views were just spectacular, almost magical. The caves here are recognized internationally, and one of the waterfalls is the largest known to exist in a cave anywhere in the world.

Once through the caves we began to hike up the mountain. Again, everywhere I looked I was amazed at the health of the forest. Gorgeous views of rolling misty hills worked in harmony with the vivid colors of spring that greeted me along the path. Rather than write about the scenery, I will simply include a few pictures and the let the images speak for themselves.

Astonishing caves, stunning flowers, and endless background of rolling hills – this place is inspiring, and I would say spiritual. As we rounded a corner we rented a van to finish the hike up the mountain, as one of the members of the group was feeling a little tired. Then we arrived at the temple.

There are two Taoist temples on Mount Jinhua. They were built only a decade ago. As part of the reentry of Hong Kong in the late 1990s the Chinese Government restored Taoist temples that had been previously destroyed. While the mountain has almost always had at least one small temple, today’s temple, while magnificent, is not actually as old as it was constructed to appear. As we came to the entrance Lily explained the significance of Mount Jinhua in the Taoist religion.

Some say that Jinhua’s most famous son was Huang Chuping, or as he is known within the temple walls, the Great Immortal Huang. The story goes that Huang entered the caves of Mount Jinhua many centuries ago, probably the same caves that I found so inspiring, and meditated until he achieved immortality. The temple we visited was dedicated to him, as Huang is one of the most important figures of the religion.

Taoism, or Daoism, roughly translates to mean “the way.” The religion emerged through a tradition and philosophy that emphasizes peace, reflection and the natural flow of things. Today Daoism can be viewed as a philosophy, but others emphasize the more mystical figures of the religion such as the Great Immortal Huang.

The entrance to the temple is first guarded by lions, and then by three guardian god figures. In this first hall we met a monk, and through Lily we learned a little about his story.

The monk explained that he choose the religion of his own free will, and practices freely on the mountain. He is not originally from the Jinhua area, in fact none of the monks there are. He said it is common to disassociate from your home as part of accepting the priorities of religious life, and so you move away. He was originally a manual laborer, a minor in the west, and prefers his life as a monk compared to what he had. Yet, he was not shy to explain that life here is not easy and requires a lot of discipline to live happily in such solitude. An aura of peace resonated from his eyes as he smiled his way through this personal story.

Once in the temple another monk asked us to refrain from using a flash on our cameras, but granted permission for us to take pictures because he sensed we were sincere. With him we then stood and observed an idol, a woman, who is the goddess of mercy. Her colors were blue and white, and while it is dangerous to view one religion from the perspective of another, I could not help but see a familiar image of the Virgin Mary captured in the essence of this Taoist goddess of mercy. After paying our respect we moved through the courtyard and took another long look at the scenery.

Next we visited the temple of Huang, a massive hall with a single giant statue. In one corner there was a bed in a tent; apparently Huang is guarded 24 hours a day. After that we walked further up the temple steps to a hall with three deities, representing Life, Death, and Morality. There we made a small donation to buy some incense and reflected as the monks struck small gongs. The energy was peaceful, as much a product of the monks around us as it was the mountain and the temple itself.

When I returned to the city of Jinhua I was surprised how few people had been to the temple, and encouraged them to visit this amazing piece of their local history. I also wanted to investigate how the mountain had stayed pristine while the surrounding area clearly bears the environmental scars of the last 60 years.

I did some research and found a great website dedicated to environmental issues in China. The site explains that Buddhists and Taoists have been actively protecting their holy places for centuries with a strong reverence for the environment. While the temple in Jinhua is indeed new, Lily explained that monks have lived on the mountain for as long as she can remember. This helps to explain why it is so well protected. The website I found goes on to explain that now the Chinese government is actually working with outside parties in conjunction with the religious groups to protect the environment! The government respects the track-record of the Taoists and Buddhists, and is intentionally trusting important sites to their protection. I found this to be a fascinating relationship, especially in light of recent events.

My visit to the mountain ended happily as a recharging experience. Although I can not yet truly understand the Taoist religion or philosophy, I strongly felt a sense of harmony while on the mountain, and remain grateful for the support people here have shown me as I enter my second month living in China.

1 comment:

We're Lisa & Nate... said...

Dear Jason,

Can you tell I've forwarded your blog to everyone I know? I put a link on the MI website, and Colleen is (or has) sent it to our whole board! Thank you so much for letting us get a chance to see China through your eyes.

Can you tell us a bit more about your impression of religion in China? Does there seem to be an interest or curiosity among the Chinese with whom you have come in contact, or is it simply not on their minds?

Miss you!
Lisa V at the MI