Edward Karshner

Stories Like the Moon Reflected in Waves

My earliest memory of China was watching Kung Fu on the old RCA television set with my uncle. It seems ironically appropriate that my first “real” contact with Chinese culture was in the form of an American actor pretending to be Chinese. Already, by the age of four, what was East and what was West had become so blurred that it would take a lifetime to unpack. But, that is how it starts: with contact, experience, and the struggle for understanding. A synthesis that becomes greater than its parts.

My contact with China was what I could experience through the electric hum of the television. Growing up in rural, southern Ohio, the allure of China called to me from television shows like Kung Fu and Tales of the Gold Monkey. Wanting to know about the real world of the fictional characters Kwai Chang Caine and Jake Cutter, I exhausted the Eastern Thought section of the Pickaway County Library by the age of fifteen. Still, I wanted more. Twenty years later, I stepped off a small commuter jet onto the rain slick tarmac of the Xian airport.

In the summer of 2005, I traveled to China on a Fulbright scholarship. Xian was the major city for my study of Chinese religions. First, however, after thirty sleepless hours on a plane, I landed in Beijing for a week of orientation at Beijing Normal University. I didn’t know what to expect. I guess it was the faux-Hollywood China of my youth or the depressed military state of cold war evening news. But, as the bus rolled through nighttime Beijing I could easily have been in Columbus, Ohio (granted, Columbus with Chinese subtitles). Still, a knot work of gray asphalt and green traffic signs, rivers of red tail lights flowing into the darkness did not elicit the expected culture shock as much as it did shock at urban similarity. During my week in Beijing, I often forgot where I was until I met someone whose English was as bad as my Mandarin—even then, we managed. Beijing was a great place to get my feet wet in Asia. However, nothing can prepare you for those moments when you are confronted by the numinous capacity for human ingenuity. The Great Wall of China is one of those places. Extending 1500 miles across Northern China, the wall was started during the third century BCE by Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Emperor of China. In a great moment of historical irony, he connected and expanded the fortifications started by the Zou Dynasty to prevent his tribe from entering China. In the process, he created a masterpiece that has become the symbol of China and Chinese capabilities.

In the West, it is easy for us to romanticize and mythologize the wall as it snakes through rocky canyons—from the woodlands of Beijing to the Gobi Desert. Even in China, the wall holds a mystique. The late Chairman Mao is quoted as saying that to climb the wall is to be transformed into a true human being. I found this interesting because it has always been the West that connected the perfection of self to the perfection of things—to subjectify the object. The east has gone through this as well. The Great Wall was an engineering marvel for its time—for any time, really. But, it was the brain child of egotistical despot driven mad by drinking a potion of mercury and powdered jade meant to make him an immortal on earth. The wall did bring stability to the culture and through this stability, people like Confucius could begin to speculate about the divine goodness available to educated people. That is why, even now, the wall is a symbol for the perfection of character, not the oppression of people.

I made my climb up the Great Wall at Badaling at the Juyongguan Pass. This reconstructed section of the wall is located in the highest part of the Guan’gou gorge of the Jundu Mountain. From Beijing, it was a two hour bus trip. Within the first few minutes of that ride, I knew I was in for something awesome. Just a few miles outside the urban congestion of Beijing, the landscape began to look more like the China of paintings and poems I had created in my mind as an undergraduate student at Otterbein College. For me, this was the first transformation as my senses struggled to accommodate the changes seen through the bus window. A new way of thinking was being constructed in me as the ideal seeks harmony with the real.

The religious historian Michael Molloy believes that all art has its roots in religious experience. It is moments like these that make it hard to argue. The words that come to mind to describe the China I saw from the bus window all have religious connotations. The hills are not like the gentle mounds of southern Ohio. In China, they are rocky finger-like projections that layer one after the other creating, at times, ten countable valleys barely visible through a thin, wispy mist. When I was there, a storm was brewing in the distance. I could hear, for the first time, a peal of thunder. To peal means “a change or set of changes rung on bells.” This is from the Middle English pele meaning “a summons to church” short for apel where we get our word appeal. To appeal, then is “an earnest or urgent request to a higher authority.” As the sound of thunder became trapped in those multitudes of valleys, I heard the summons to climb the wall to test myself and the content of my character.

But, the initial scene from the parking lot was disappointing. I had thought this to be a personal quest to be carried out alone. I guess I forgot that some 130 million tourists have visited the Great Wall since 1961, and I think they had all returned on that Saturday for a reunion. The wall was alive with others who had come to claim their humanity despite the height, heat and humidity. On my walk up, I spent time with German school children, passed a North Korean children’s string quartet urging pilgrims onward, and I gave my extra bottle of water to a Scottish woman who exclaimed, “This bloody beast has undone me.” Somewhere, halfway up, I noticed the wild beauty of the Guan’gou gorge--the short sturdy tress, the gray-yellow scrub brush, and the smell of dry grass in the wind. All of this had escaped me earlier as I was packed shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. But, they had slipped away. I was walking, now, with about forty people. The strenuous climb had taken its toll on some.

I began to think about the caliber of the men who had garrisoned this wall. Not only had this been a fortification, but also the original information super highway. News was delivered via runners who would streak across the narrow walls and sprint up the steep staircases. News of a victory could be carried across the empire in days rather than months. I wondered if they ever felt transformed.

By the time I reached the highest gatehouse, I was alone except for another Fulbright Scholar named Tom and three German soldiers on leave. I decided to see how far I could go. Another thirty minutes and the reconstructed blocks of the tourist’s wall begin to give way to truly old cobblestone. I was stopped by two Chinese soldiers who told me in broken English that it was unsafe to go any further. “Wild animals,” they said. I turned and looked at the two-hour climb beneath me. More people were walking away than were coming up now, and the sound of thunder still pressed all around me. “Do you feel transformed?” one of the soldiers asked in Mandarin. I still don’t have an answer for that. From that height, it is hard to tell if you have been transformed or if you simply have a better perspective.

The way down was slow and measured. The excitement and adrenaline that had carried me up the wall had long since played itself out. At the gatehouse, a history teacher from London joined our decent. He had brought a group of twelve year olds to China for summer holiday. Making it as far as the highest gift shop, his charges had stopped for their Hero Cards—he continued up alone, thankful for the quiet, I imagine. We mentioned that were studying in China on Fulbrights and were leaving for Xian in two days. Rejoined with his class, the teacher introduced us as “American Sinologists.” Tom, an ethnomusicologist and former kick boxer, bristled at the label sinologist. It is Tom’s belief that you can’t know something without giving yourself to it. An “ologist” of any kind stands aloof studying the subject with fear from a distance. Tom preferred sinophile. How else can you get close to something without love? For Tom, to know China is to love China. Just like in romantic love, the object of your desire remains always a mystery and just out of reach.

Similarly, in Chinese thinking, all knowledge is incomplete and truth a mystery. No matter what we know, there is always an equal balance of not knowing. Meaning and understanding takes place in the gaps between knowing and not knowing. To navigate this empty place of possibility, we rely on each other. Yet, there is a gulf between each individual as they move through their own way. How do we connect then? The sage writes that true understanding rests in the ways of the ancient masters. However, recognizing the gulf between us and them, he writes “because we cannot know them, we are left with only the summary of what they said.”

Like the Derridian Specter, the ancient masters are far from us. We only have their words, muddled as they traveled through time and place. Unlike coins, words do not travel well. To understand the words, we must not know—approach them empty in order to be filled. In this sense, Chinese epistemology reflects the same paradox as its Platonic neighbor. The wise person is the one who recognizes his or her deep ignorance and is desperate to be filled. A Zen proverb puts it as “to gain enlightenment you must want it as much as a man whose head is held under water wants air.”

Chinese epistemology, for me, culminates in the word xiang. Often defined as “to examine, to study, to contemplate,” the character for xiang is made up of a pictograph representing an eye behind a tree and a heart. The first time I saw this character, I was reminded of the old phenomenological example of the back side of a tree. Husserl postulated that an observer need not actually see the backside of a tree because experience has taught him or her that trees always have another side. Yet, experience is necessary (we must know trees) to make this speculation stick.

The character for xiang is similar in that the part of the tree we see not only obscures itself but also the myriad things behind it. The character reminds us that as we examine our perspective, it is only a partial, one-sided perspective. What we are left to contemplate is only part of the whole picture. In order to gain a fullness of understanding, we should seek as many perspectives as possible. There is a passivity to learning in this concept. Lao Tzu says that the sage has no opinion of is own because he has given himself to the world. The sage is open to the many roles played by and placed upon him. Ultimately, the sage becomes “unformed” by seeing all perspectives as undifferentiated and complimentary as opposed to being in conflict with each other.

Through the act of thinking (xiang), the goal is to arrive at wu, to comprehend. The character for wu is composed of a simplified heart (thinking), the number five (the two principles of yin and yang that form the five elements between heaven and earth—that is, the connectedness of everything), and the mouth. The wu suggests that when we comprehend, we see and understand the connectedness of all things. Like a puzzle, understanding reveals how the myriad things fit together. The mouth reminds us that, as my teacher Suiwah Chan says, once we know something, we want to tell everybody about it. To make the leap from xiang (thinking) to wu (expressed understanding) we must make use of creativity in story telling and empathy in listening. The story, then, becomes not just an action that connects us but a scene where we share our understanding of the world.

The great Buddhist patriarch Xuanzang also understood the importance of experience and knowing. Having mastered the texts of the Yogacara school of Buddhism by thirteen, Xuanzang recognized that there had to be more. Having exhausted the available texts of his current situation, Xuanzang followed the advice found in the Dao De Jing and returned to the root. In 629, against the wishes of the Emperor, Xuanzang left Changan (ancient Xian) for India. The Buddhism he found there was as exotic as it was familiar. Despite being a renowned scholar in China, Xuanzang went to India as a student and a tourist. He just didn’t study old texts and debate the Buddha nature with yogis. He also spent the ensuing sixteen years visiting sacred sites and shrines. Xuanzang didn’t go to India for the six-hundred sutras he returned with, rather, he went to India for an experience. He returned to China transformed and, as a result, transformed Buddhism in China. Xuanzang was greeted as a hero when he returned. In fact, the very Emperor who had forbid him to travel to India commissioned a temple to house the Buddhist sutras and relics Xuanzang brought back. Located in a southern suburb of Xian, the temple complex still stands as a symbol of Xian’s role in the development of Buddhism in China.

Standing at the gates of Da Ci’en Temple, the imposing statue of Xuangzang behind me, I could appreciate this adventurous monk and his need to travel to India from China and back to study original Buddhist texts. The persistent misty rain that had greeted us at the airport lingered over us as we stood in the new square in front of the temple waiting for Hui Hui to purchase our tickets. Tom’s boonie hat hadn’t dried since Beijing and hung limp around his face. With a digital video recorder, he swept the square for images narrating softly in his deep baritone. I watched Buddhists and tourists pass in and out of the temple walls. This synthesis of people and motion struck me as significant. In Beijing, I had visited many temples. In my own studies, I often think of a story my grandfather told about being in he Army during World War II. One form of punishment was to have the offending soldier dig a three foot hole. That doesn’t sound so bad. The hook was that the hole digging area was a pre-dug pit filled with loose sand. As my grandfather told it, you could dig all day and never get anywhere.

I have often felt this way as I read and research. One book will lead to another and then another until I am sinking deeper and deeper into a hole of dog-eared books stacked beside my bed. This futile effort to truly know is fueled by a realization of incompleteness and the desire to reach the bottom. This is the reason I keep digging in sand, Xuanzang went to India, and the Platonic prisoner leaves the cave. Life is more fun when you are on the way.

Walking the central axis of Da Cien Temple, I could feel the coalescence of religion and history. It was like Jerusalem in microcosm. Tom branched off to the west to photograph the Drum Tower. Hui Hui and I continued north to the Hall of Xuanzang Sanzang. We stepped into a large, well-lit room. In the center of the hall were long glass cabinets that held the copies or copies of copies of the sutras Xuanzang brought back from India for translation. Along the inner walls were chiseled floor to ceiling murals of characters. Some I could recognize—the Buddhist monks in their robes, the Monkey king Sun Wu Kong, Xuangzang himself. I took my hat in my hands and scanned the walls from the middle of the room. The gold outline of the characters flowed effortlessly against the sea of black. They seemed to slide along the back drop. A Tai Chi teacher once corrected my form by saying that the movements should be effortless and constantly flowing. Apparently, this same principle applied to art.

Hui Hui stood next to me. “Do you know this story?”

Waley’s translation of Monkey was a book I was supposed to have read for an Eastern religions course nearly fifteen years ago. Other things took precedence, as they do when you are young. I had skimmed the four volumes of A Journey to the West and browsed Record of Western Lands. Still, I was largely ignorant.

“Some,” I answered. Hui Hui walked to the far left wall, her arm raised and pointing out the direction of the story.

“This whole building tells Xuanzang’s story. Here it begins. This group of pictures tells how the Venerable Xuanzang was born to a poor peasant family. Unable to raise him, they put him in a basket, in a river where monks washed their clothes. These monks found him and educated him to be a priest. Over here,” Hui Hui moved to the center of the broad wall, “he grew up and set out on a great adventure to India to collect sacred sutras to bring back to China. With the help of these creatures, he battled bandits and rascals before finally returning to construct this Pagoda and become the first abbot of Da Ci’en Temple.”

As she read the tale to me from the wall, I could feel the joy of familiarity from the story. It wasn’t that I knew of Xuanzang from cliff notes and lectures, but something more familiar and intimate. It was like meeting old friends with new faces. The story in pictures on the wall and Hui Hui’s narration comforted me with the intimacy of the known and drew me in with the awe of the unknown.

“I know a similar story,” I said. “Once a baby was born to a family of slaves held captive in a foreign land. They were afraid that their son would be killed because slaves were not allowed to have male children. They, too, placed their baby in a basket in a river where the daughter of the king bathed. She found this child and raised him to be a prince. When he grew up, he too, left on a great adventure to liberate his people, collect ten sacred sutras from the God in heaven, and take his people home. After forty years, he did just that.”

At most college campuses in China, one night a week is reserved for “English Corner.” Under the ubiquitous statue of Chairman Mao, Chinese students gather to practice their English. Being teachers, Tom and I often attended these to both tutor in English and practice our Mandarin. Western missionaries also haunted the English corners, finding English speaking students to whom they could communicate the evils of heathen beliefs. These missionaries told stories, too. But they were told with no joy or curiosity for where they were now. I shared my story of Moses with Hui Hui not like these missionaries; rather, I told it to her as a friend. We were sharing. We both knew this story but were curious about its other side. Xuanzang’s journey to India is a wonderful metaphor for knowing. If we truly want to know the meaning of a story, we should hear it in its own context. By going to the very source of Buddhism, Xuanzang, also, was put into a new context. When speaker, listener, and story share the same space, a real opportunity for meaning making exists.

And, one story leads to another. The Zhuangzi records a story often translated as “The Pleasure of Fishes.” In this short parable, Zhuangzi and Huizi are meandering “free and easy” across a bridge when Zhuangzi notices the fish swimming below and remarks how happy they are. Being a logician, Huizi wants to know how Zhuangzi could possibly know what constitutes the pleasure of fishes. After some creative word play, Zhuangzi finally clarifies his expression of wu with “I know [what fish enjoy] from our meandering here over the Hui river.” A key element in this story is the bridge that both Zhuangzi and Huizi stand on. The bridge serves to bring Zhuangzi and Huizi together but it also brings them to the fish. Zhuangzi makes the point that we know through proximity—to know and communicate—we must share space. More than that, we must observe with empathy. The detached observer is not objective but detached, separated from that which he or she seeks to understand. To know is to put it together—to put it together me must be involved. Finally, when we express our understanding we should do so creatively and boldly. To know the pleasure of fishes sounds absurd—but we must be empathetic in our observations and fearless in our creativity.

On a gray, dreary Tuesday, I stood on the ancient wall watching the new construction underneath, I thought of Zhuangzi’s bridge. Called Changan in ancient times, Xian stands beside Athens, Rome, Cairo, and Alexandria, Egypt as cities that serve as living artifacts of the human experience. Known more for the Terra Cotta warriors of Qin Shi Huangdi, Xian is also home to the Forest of Stone Tablets that houses three thousand primary Confucian texts that were carved on stone steles over the course of fourteen hundred years. Xian was also an intellectual center. Being in the western frontier, this city was ideally located at the start (or end) of the silk road making it ground zero for first contact with the west.

During the Tang Dynasty (618 CE-907 CE), Xian played host to the great ideas of the world. Although Xuanzang’s revision of Chinese Buddhism had a far greater impact than any other event, a decade before Xuanzang left for India, another religion moved into Xian. In 635 CE, a monk named Alopen arrived in Xian preaching, what Martin Palmer has translated as, “The Religion of light from the West.” This was Nestorian Christianity and the wonderful texts that have been found in Dunhuang reflect a unique “Taoist” Christianity that reveals a sharing and mingling of ideas, rather than a replacement of belief systems. A century after both Alopen and Xuanzang introduced new ideas to western China, merchants from Arabia brought Islam to Xian. In 742 CE, a mosque was built in what is now the Muslim Quarter of Xian.

Walking down the narrow alley, the smell of Muslim cooking thick in the already thick Xian air, I could easily have been in Cairo or Tehran. The alley opened in to a large square that led to another network of alleys choked with merchant stalls selling everything from Mao watches to burkas. Past these stalls, the alley opened to a courtyard and behind a gated wall was the Great Mosque of Xian. For me, the real significance of this Mosque is that it reflects a blending of architectural styles of both the Muslim and Chinese. The most striking is the minaret that looks like a traditional Chinese pagoda. The call to prayer for an Arabian religion from a Chinese pagoda reflects the hope that religion and culture need not exist separately from one another.

I teach and study religion. In my more optimistic moments, I see religion as the most significant stories a culture can tell about itself. However, it is often our most significant stories are that keep us apart. Like the character for xiang, those stories of origin and purpose can be cultural trees. Our eye behind the tree sees it as too huge or too solid an object to look around or through. They hold us back. They make us lost. Seeing the tree with such a reality, we really don’t see the forest because of the tree. Yet, we should not avoid stories altogether. The most revealing stories are those we tell about ourselves.

The tour bus swayed silently down the deserted highway on its way to Kunming. Tom slept soundly in the seat across the isle, his Columbia boonie hat pulled low over his eyes. It was too dark to tell for sure, but the whole bus seemed to breathe with the soft cadence of sleep. I watched a sliver of moon pass behind over passes and new construction wondering what time it was back in Ohio and what new words my son was saying.

A flash of light from my front left caught my eye. Hui Hui was pouring over a print out of travel schedules with a pen-light.

“Meimei, ni lei le me?” Asking if she was tired, I hoped my sorry attempt at Mandarin was intelligible through a southern Ohio accent.

She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Gege, you are still awake? You should sleep—like Tom.”

I moved my shoulder bag and hat to the floor as she moved into my seat. “I’m not tired. Besides, I don’t want to miss anything.”

Hui Hui finished packing her red duffle bag and addressed me with that focused attention you find in China. “When I moved to Beijing, my grandmother told me to stay healthy by taking vitamins, drinking milk, and napping when I could. I do. I never get sick. You should sleep.”

“Your grandmother sounds a lot like mine.” I had become convinced years ago that grandmothers were a universal constant like mandelas.

“What about the rest of your family? Tell me about your home.” It occurred to me that I knew very little about this person I had spent so much time with.

Du Xue Hui was the youngest daughter of a family from Inner Mongolia. She had left home for Xian to go to college to study English. Her original goal was to be a teacher but soon found that being a tour guide to westerners was far more lucrative. She lived in Beijing with two roommates and didn’t have time for a boyfriend. Her father had been a coal miner and then moved up to foreman before retiring. He smoked Stone Forest brand cigarettes, the Chinese equivalent of Marlboro Country. Hui Hui’s older brother worked in the same coal mine as their father. He was saving his money to buy a truck so he could go in to business for himself.

I told her about my father who had started out as a ware handler in a factory before moving up to supervisor. My Dad smoked Marlboros until he quit. I had worked in the same factory before deciding to go to graduate school, as did my two younger brothers. My cousin had driven a truck full of explosives to the mines of West Virginia before saving enough money to go in to business for himself as a carpenter.

From the steppes of Mongolia to the hills of southern Ohio, rural people have the same opportunities, the same dreams, and remarkably similar lives. I would bet that if you talked to a twenty-something in one of the clubs of Beijing and a twenty-something in the Flats of Cleveland, you would find that, they too, have strangely similar lives, hopes, and expectations.

I think about that bus ride to Kunming on those days I hear a radio talk show host warn about the “Chicoms” who don’t value life like we do. I also remember a day at the Forest of Stone Tablets when an American tourist, standing in front of the Analects stele, said “I really pity the Chinese. They have no writings to give them moral guidance. They are truly lost.” Stories, like bridges, are useless if not used properly. A bridge must have two sides that move people freely back and forth. A story must have a speaker and an audience; however, without story telling and without listening, there is no communication. Talking is one think, but if we don’t listen, we will never hear the humanity in the words of each other.

The Xian of my imagination was not what I found. I had pictured a dusty, desert frontier town like something out of the American Old West. The Xian I landed in on a rainy July fourth was a bustling educational and economic center. Rather than a reconstructed fossil like the animals that didn’t make it in the Museum of Natural history in Pittsburgh, Xian is alive and continues to grow and evolve. Xian has its own stories to tell all of us. From the Neolithic Banpo Village where the earliest Chinese characters have been found to Qin Shi Huangdi’s Mausoleum, the Christian and Confucian stele texts of the Forest of Stone Tablets to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Xian Great Mosque, we, now, are reminded that all cities and histories are a product of people and their stories.

I think the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted was right. In the 1920s, he wrote that the key to understanding us and the world we had made was not in the future or in technology but in the past and our character. In our 21rst century, we are fond of saying that current global problems stem from the fact that the world has gotten smaller and new challenges need new answers. Yet here, in one of the world’s oldest cities, in a time before airplanes, cell phones, and email, the world was already at a cultural nexus. And, our ancestors managed. The stories and texts these people left behind remind all of us that who we are is bound up in the tales we tell about ourselves. Who we will become is in the synthesis of our humanity as we listen. It seems to me that if we only listen with empathy to the character of a story from a fellow traveler through time and with some help from patience, perseverance, and understanding, we may just find ourselves looking back for the best yet to come.