There is heaven above, and Su-Hang below… and it is here in Hangzhou, China, where I returned after a three-year absence.
Truth be told, this was the heaven I needed after the past three years. Eight days of quarantine bliss, where the only voices I had to deal with were my own. A perfect recipe to re-enter a country where I had spent much of my adult life.
Speaking of perfect recipes, the first meal in my room: DongPo Rou 东坡肉, a famous Hangzhou dish named after the great Song dynasty poet Su Shi. And for someone who doesn’t get poetry, I sure spend a lot of time trying…
Su Shi’s poem: Drinks at West Lake through Sunshine and Rain (饮湖上初睛居雨) has significance, as it was written about Xi Shi, one of the four beauties of ancient China, and West Lake is said to be the reincarnation of her.
“The shimmer of light on the water is the play of sunny skies,
The blur of color across the hills is richer still in rain.
If you wish to compare the lake to the Lady of the West,
Lightly powdered or thickly smeared, she is the best.”
~ by Su Shi 苏轼 (1037-1101), aka Su DongPo
Returning to Hangzhou set the stage for one of those magical moments that pop up in life, where once again, the only thing is to relax, step into something new and see where it goes.
Decades ago, as a young man, I was told when the moon was just right late at night, the swaying willow trees of West Lake would transform into a beautiful goddess. I imagined her to be the ancient beauty Xi Shi.
Poets and lost souls would become enraptured by the sight of her alongside the lake and willows, and with imagination, it was almost possible to touch heaven.
There were many drunken nights where I stumbled around the lake, only to wake up humbled by the morning sun and a mouthful of willow leaves…
With this memory, my first stop out of quarantine was easy, visit West Lake to chase the ancient Chinese beauty Xi Shi once again. This myth I’ve been pursuing for the past two decades.
For most Chinese, visiting West Lake is something one must do, just like in ancient times: to experience West Lake is to experience the epitome of Chinese culture.
Poets, artists, and lovers flock here to live through the stories from Song dynasty greats comparing Xi Shi’s beauty to the lake. One famous Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, wrote about her entrancing beauty, including her in a renowned idiom: 沉鱼落雁 ~ Upon seeing Xi Shi’s reflection in the water, fish would forget how to swim… Fortunately, I am a pretty strong swimmer.
During the month I spent in Hangzhou, it was impossible to walk around the streets without imagining I was in the Song dynasty, around me a blend of achievement while not forgetting the Daoist nature of compassion and being one with nature.
Over its 2,100-year history as “the Heaven on Earth” for its culture, beauty, and romantic feel, Hangzhou and West Lake have fueled many dreams.
In times we have now, where the world is spinning wildly with epidemics, war, politics, and challenging business, it is good to have a place to escape to, to wrap ourselves up in the culture of romance.
West Lake holds the subtle Daoist culture of romance and oneness between man and nature. As cold and calculating as the world can be, Daoist thought reminds us of the flip side: art, culture, and nature to balance our lives.
West Lake is where Lao Zi’s philosophy of Daoism impacted my life, specifically part of verse 67:
慈故能勇；俭故能广；不敢为天下先，故能成器长。Lao Zi, Dao de Jing, verse 67
I have three treasures of the Dao to hold and protect.
The first is compassion.
The second is self-discipline.
The third is humility.
From compassion comes courage. From self-discipline comes generosity.
From the humility of putting others ahead comes leadership.
The advice is rooted in simplicity, which contradicts today’s modern world. We often wish to have a simple, enjoyable life, but in an age of hi-tech, where everything comes at increasingly fast speeds, we are forced to react just as quickly and move at such a pace.
We work with technology all the time, and it is easy to forget that in between all technology is human interaction. Human interaction requires compassion; it is where love is derived, and we build relationships that guide us into becoming better people.
Compassion creates a deep-seated love, giving us the courage to defend all that is good in the world. It is the creed of a great society and great people, and I do not know anyone who would not do anything to defend what they love.
At the end of the day, if there is no compassion, there is nothing.
My West Lake journey was a perfect reminder of how compassion allows people to connect with others and their culture, and from this, happiness takes seed.
Compassion towards ourselves allows us to reconcile with all beings in the world. How can we live in peace if we aren’t at peace with ourselves? At peace with ourselves, we have the self-discipline to be generous, to avoid petty arguments, prejudices, and irrelevant gossip that can veer the spirit from growth.
With a generous spirit and self-will, we broaden our thoughts. Ridiculous biases of the past are tossed aside, and we embrace the simplicity of the world. We develop the patience to be compassionate and seek a greater understanding, a genius.
Genius is not only for the few; it can strike anyone, anytime. All we need is the patience and awareness to let it happen.
Awareness… this is a bit of a problem even with me. Staring at our mobile phones, snapping photos at each moment we see, we speed through life without taking the time to enjoy the calm.
In this world of clicks, likes, and social media influencers, being bold and gregarious are traits we are taught to exemplify. There is not much self-discipline or generosity in this art – where success lacks compassion.
We understand this. See it in existence, and we can all agree that something is missing here. Yet here we are…
The irony of the above selfies and my participation is not lost. I understand the triviality of sharing the world’s beauty at the expense of not fully experiencing it as I should 🙃.
The younger me would shake his head – it’s a delicate balance to manage.
Self-discipline is needed to keep things simple. Simplicity is harder than complexity; it takes effort to think clearly.
Hiking around West Lake, I thought of all the great Chinese and Western artists and philosophers. The one thing they had in common was spending time in nature. It was part of their thought process: hiking up mountains, through fields, or around lakes. Humbled by their surroundings, they developed the discipline to unravel an idea.
Truth cannot be forced. Humility requires self-discipline and patience. From humility comes the inevitable arrival of an answer, a form of leadership. This is a strange contradiction when aligned with the high-pressure, running-with-your-hair-on-fire attitude of the modern world.
Always in a rush, we never get the answer or the spark of genius because we never let the mind relax and “be” which allows us to enjoy hidden smiles to brighten up an evening.
In this world where everything happens instantaneously, it is easy to forget we are on a humble journey. Our current evolution of having an attention span of a gnat creates superficial happiness at the expense of depth – the expense of developing emotional roots in our own lives.
I’ve mentioned this before in my writing, and again I am amazed at how important the words my sister, Sandi, wrote in a journal she gave me over twenty years ago: “Take it slow, keep it simple.” In essence, be humble.
I often forego this simple tenet, but I understand the importance of reflecting on these words… take a deep breath, roll back time, and start again.
Taking a deep breath helps when I lose sight of the simple joys life can bring and how easy it is to accomplish by sitting down and enjoying the harmony of life.
Modern life appears not to appreciate humility or simplicity. But nature does not care what kind of car you drive, what phone you use, or the diamonds and pearls you wear… Instead, sit next to a lake, stretch out on the soft grass with friends, and watch the magic of a setting sun. Nature by your side.
Without the basics of compassion, self-discipline, and humility, it is impossible to achieve the potential of who we are as humans. To over-achieve and find happiness in the simplest of things.
West Lake still holds magic for me. Its history and beauty, and the romance of culture it creates. It is where I fell for my favorite verse of the Dao de Jing. It is at the heart of who I want to be. To become.
I suppose this person is someone Xi Shi could be impressed with, and just maybe, if I can become such a man when I ascend to heaven, I can sit with her and have a cup of tea… or perhaps 一杯白酒.
When one is humble, one can be brave.
* Special thanks to my niece Miu Miu Qiu who helped with the photos, and Happy Year of the Rabbit to all on this Lantern Day Festival.
“At the end of the day, if there is no compassion, there is nothing.”
Isn’t what all religions teach? I mean, scrap the name of the deity, animals you can/cannot eat and attitude towards women… religions aren’t that different.
Thank you, Fabrizio ~ I wish you continued safe travels. You touch on one of the simple truths in life and something that attracts me to the philosophy of the Dao: the common thread of wisdom found in every religion. This thread, if realized and practiced, can be the perfect uniting tool for people worldwide.
🙂 Amen to that 🙂
Dear Dalo (Or should I say ‘Dao’?) 😉
Shu Hang below.”
I guess Heaven below is difficult to find… And China might be a bit far…
What led you to live most of your adult life in China? It is an unusual “road”. (Though I lived most my childhood in Africa. I can relate.)
“Xi Shi, One the four Beauties…” (Who were the other three?)
Beauty. “The shimmer of light on the water… Swaying – or weeping – willows…”
Beauty seems so important for the Chinese. One of the many things Westerners don’t understand about China. (Have you ever thought of working for “State”? – Department -? Maybe you could advise them against many blunders…
The Greeks (More my source of reflection) only cared for three things.
Le Beau (Beauty)
Le Bien (Good)
Le Vrai (Truth)
(One day I shall look up the Greek words). A few things I find interesting in that. There are three dimensions, not two opposing variables as often, i.e. black and white, good and evil.
The other… question is how does articulate those three (Beauty, Good, Truth) with Lao Zi (Lao Tseu?) Compassion, Self-discipline, and humility. Reminds me of a Factor analysis where one tries to “interpret” mathematically calculated factors based on the meaning of the variables… (Nerdy I know)
(And I love the comment about simplicity being harder than complexity…)
Dao de Jing. I imagine this is what I would call Tao te King or Tao te Ching? (Chinese “Western” spelling often misleads me…)
Your verse 67 is a great source of inspiration.
I remember stumbling on another, in the business library (imagine?) in Graduate school. Went something like that:
“one should not have objectives. Objectives are finite. If you do not reach your objective, frustration will come. If you do, what will you do next?
“The road or the path (Tao, Dao I imagine) is the answer, because the road is infinite…”
And that, my friend has inspired all my life…
If you ever find, or know the original “verse”, do share.
Going back to the lake, allow me to share a few verses of one of the most famous French poems, by Lamartine: (Beauty is universal)
“The Lake”, by Lamartine:
… Un soir, t’en souvient-il ? nous voguions en silence ;
On n’entendait au loin, sur l’onde et sous les cieux,
Que le bruit des rameurs qui frappaient en cadence
Tes flots harmonieux.
One night, do you remember? We sailed in silence
One heard, in the distance, on the wave and under the skies
Only the sound of rowers striking in rhythm
Your waters of harmony…
Have a rich road, “Peng Yu”
I’ve probably over-extended myself. But I wanted to comment fully on your excellent post. One last question: How would you say, Beauty, Good, Truth in Mandarin?
Thank you, Brieuc. I left for China originally on a nine-month contract and expected to be back in the States, but little opportunities kept popping up, and if there is ever a time to take risks, it is in your youth, so I dove right in. It is funny you ask about the four Chinese beauties. Just the other day, I was talking to a friend about them. They are Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diaochan, and Yang Guifei. Yang Guifei is my favorite because I lived in Xi’an at the beginning of my China life, and she was from nearby Xi’an and very famous. Xi Shi was the most beautiful, and Yang Guifei was the most powerful.
The number of stories and poems these women inspired must be in the thousands 😂. I could see how the same feelings and emotions could inspire the poem by Lamartine (“The Lake”), as humans worldwide are similar. Interestingly, Yang Guifei was also a Daoist nun, granted it was just a title to protect her, as Daoism was the dominant religion/philosophy at the time in China. Daoism is also huge Xi’an and while there are many Daoist temples throughout China – the ones in Xi’an are a bit more special to me. One temple (pagoda) in the countryside dates back to 600AD. It is said to be built by foreigners (Christians from the West) on the site of Lou Guan Tai, which at that time was held in prestige as the Vatican City. When the foreigners arrived, the officials understood the teaching of Jesus as the West’s answer to the Dao de Jing. Fascinating times. Yeah, the spelling of ‘Dao’ has shifted over the years… in the Chinese mandarin pinyin system, it is Dao while the older Wade-Giles spelling uses Tao ~ but the thoughts are universal – a great philosophy, with many great verses.
There is eloquence in every line of the Dao, so it reads like poetry. As I wrote in an earlier comment, there is a common thread in every religion: the philosophy behind the Dao de Jing. Also, you mention “Beauty, Good, Truth” – and there is a famous idiom in Chinese which is precisely these three words/characters: 真善美 (Zhen Shan Mei). Interesting that these three words correlate well with verse 67 🤔. So much out there to learn and experience 🙂. I wish you a great Friday and coming weekend, Brian. I enjoyed your comment a lot, it allowed me to go back in time again. Take care ~
Fascinating. I have copied your text to my Word “draft”. To study it in time. So you learned Mandarin “on-the-spot”, or did you already know the language. (This will always be a major regret of mine…)
Duly noted: Zhen Shan Mei are the Chinese equivalent. I will study that too…
Xie xie (Kam Sai) for your thoughts. They always make me think.
Ha, yes, it was easier to learn Mandarin on the spot, mainly because I was young, free, and could dive into the culture entirely. Developing great friends there helped a lot. Here in Czech, my time every day seems so short (and Slavic languages so much more difficult – especially grammar) that I miss those carefree days of being able to study freely. Cheers to spring right around the corner!
A wonderful learning whatever the circumstances. I had a good smile when I read “Slavic languages so much more difficult”. LOL. As a matter of fact, in all my travels, Czech has been the most challenging, language-wise. I always try to learn, anywhere I go, some of the basic vocabulary. Hello goodbye, thank you, please. etc. In Czech? Zip. I mean any language where beer is called pivo is difficult… 😉
We always have to pay to make art by separation from the moment. But these pictures are truly beautiful ~ real art ~ and they bring me somewhere I would never be without them. Likewise, your writing relaxed my soul like wind through bamboo. Thank you for stepping aside from these moments long enough to bring us inside them too. 🙏
Thank you very much, Ana. You have such a magical way of describing this post, especially my writing ~ when I photograph and write, both are creative outlets, but the processes of both are very different. At times, they can seem almost contradictory to each other until, when put together, they become complementary. Seeing and photographing West Lake made me see it in a different light, with part reflecting on the history/culture and the other part reflecting on the present and how everyone around the lake wrapped themselves up entirely in the experience. So very happy you were able to envision the scene and feelings.
Haha, I had a similar experience with being both poet and musician ~ one requiring the operator always to be strictly in, and one always a bit out, of time…
That is perfectly said ~ and given a choice; I like the feeling of floating a bit out of time better 🙂
Me, I could use a little grounding! Or more than a little! Haha!!
Well done photography 👌👍
Thank you very much, Vikas!
‘Simplicity is harder than complexity; it takes effort to think clearly.’ No truer words are spoken. I love the romantically melancholic photography and articulation in this post. You always write and photograph in such a soulful way! Blessings for this year 🙂
Thank you very much. The feeling upon returning to West Lake was inspiring, but yes, there was a mix of melancholy in the joyful memories of the past ~ this is what I love about revisiting places and the memories they contain. The photos were able to capture this feeling, I believe because this is what a place like West Lake holds for all who visit 🙂
Incredible. I am taking it slow, breathing in a breath and pondering the beauty of your words. Thank you!