Beida Library

The library. For me it was where I spent a good part of my childhood, browsing, reading, discovering. Like with many others the fascination has stuck with me, and when travelling I always look up local libraries to get a taste of what everyday life would be like if I lived there. What books are in the shelves, what kind of carpet on the floors, plants. How are the reading spaces arranged, the architecture, the colours. How do people use it.

At the moment I’m living in Beijing and yesterday I had time to revisit Beida (北京大学Beijing University) and its enormous and spectacular library.

It’s grey, intertwining stairways and buildings combine contemporary aesthetic simplicity with traditional Chinese roof tiles. I won’t go as far as calling it beautiful, but the structure does posses a certain lightness and organic feeling which is curious and uplifting for such a huge concrete construction.

Compared to the atmosphere created by long haired lazy cats under the shading ginkgo trees, and students sitting reading in the walk ways, the cold, tiled inside of the library is a little disappointing. However, it’s very popular among the students, who all live in dorms on campus and rely on the quieter space of the library for reading and studying.

Yu Hua: An orphaned ghost donates her eyes

Yu Hua‘s (余华 1960-) short story ‘This story is for Willow’ (此文献给少女杨柳) from 1989 is about an extremely shy young man living in a town called Smoke. He prefers to go out at night, pacing the streets when no one else is around, but one night a young woman walks towards him and that experience changes his solitary life.

The young man cannot get rid of the presence left by the woman. She starts to manifest herself from his thoughts, she moves in with him, becomes his semi-invisible ‘ghost’ wife.

Beijing willows. Photo: Astrid Mo

Talking to a stranger he calls ‘the traveller’, the young man explains his relationship with the girl thus: “One evening several days ago a girl came into my mind. In some way that is not at all clear, she spent the night with me. The next day when I woke up she did not leave, and I caught a glimpse of the look in her eyes. Her eyes had the same look that you are looking at me with now.”

The traveller in turn tells the story of how he once was blind, but had a cornea transplant from the eyes of a 17-year-old girl named Willow Yang, who had just died in a car crash. He came to Smoke to find her parents.

Later the young man himself is hit by a car, brought to a hospital in another city and has a cornea transplant from a 17-year-old girl called Willow Yang, who has died from cancer.

The young man travels back to Smoke and looks up Willow Yang’s father, who shows him her old room which has a drawing of a young man in it: “A long time ago, when Willow was still alive, one day she suddenly had thoughts of a young man, a stranger to her. She had never seen him before, but he appeared more and more and more distinctly in her imagination. This is the likeness she drew of him.”

Sitting with the traveller towards the end of the story, the young man recognizes him as the man in the drawing.

The two basic characters; the young man and the girl Willow, are repeated in different stories, which overlap each other so as to allow the young man to have a conversation with an offset version of himself; the traveller. Time is strangely and irregularly circular, revolving around the city of Smoke and the eyes of the dead girl, which binds together the ‘different’ characters.

It is interesting to note that in some stories of Chinese mythology, the ‘hun’ souls (魂) of the prematurely diseased are described as orphaned souls ‘guhun’ (孤魂) caught in the human world. They are to be pitied as well as feared, for they cannot join their ancestors before they find another soul to replace them, and so they seek to cause other people’s deaths.

The girl Willow Yang, has in one story line/time circle died in a car crash and in another from cancer, in both cases when she was only 17 when it happened. When her eyes are transplanted into the living young man/the traveller, the traditional ‘zhiguai’ (志怪 strange tale) takes on a contemporary dimension. She could be interpreted as a guhun, who causes the young man to be run over by a car just like her:

“[Guhun] devote themselves to leading others to their deaths: they draw the stroller towards the river’s edge, or cause automobile accidents on the very site of their own accidental death.” (Schipper, 1993: 38)

On the other hand Willow’s eyes give back the eyesight to those who have lost it and thus helps them to continue their life. This 1980s zhiguai illustrates how time can be experienced to move in unpredictable circles back and forth between the spheres of life and death, sometimes overlapping each other. And like all good zhiguai it revolves around the complex relationship between humans a ghost, which is never just a simple good vs. evil.

For more about the zhiguai tradition in contemporary fiction, including an analysis of different Yu Hua story, this article by Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg, University of Aarhus, is available online.

Cited works:
Schipper, Kristofer: The Taoist Body. Berkely: University of California Press, 1993.
Wang, Jing (ed): China’s Avantgarde Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Unexpected poems

In a small room with a big window in central Berlin I came across a translated volume of Tang-poet Bai Juyi (白居易 772–846).

Some of the poems bring to mind the familiar skizma between official employment in the city and a romantic tendency towards recluse in the country side. In this one, however, he seem to have achieved a possible symbiosis:

In the Palace

Gates massive, a ninefold silence;
windows darkened, the whole room still:
a perfect spot to practice mind cultivation.
What need to be deep in the mountains?

(translated by Burton Watson)

Though rightly famous for his social criticism (as in the poem Liao ling – Reflecting on the Toil of the Weaving Women) it is these short pieces like simple and sparkling still-leben from another time, that touch me the most. Reading them is like eating drops of semi crystallized moments. Still soft in the center, the first bite releases the sent of real moments lived by a real person in real time. Like this poem which seems to flow from the image of the well, melting sounds and light into a liquid stream of night keeping the poet company in his sleep:

Early Autumn, Alone at Night

Parasol tree by the well, cold leaves stirring;
nearby fulling mallets that speak an autumn sound:
I sleep alone facing the eaves,
wake to find moonlight half over the bed.

(translated by Burton Watson)

Thank you unknown person for leaving these unexpected poems fro me to find.

For more poems by Bai Juyi there is this website which has a few of his works online in both characters and translation, or the Burton Watson translation: Po Chü-I – Selected Poems. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Feminist daoism and Laozi’s mother

Reading Kristofer Schipper’s book The Taoist Body from 1982 in the park today (see picture) I was intrigued by the chapter on Laozi’s birth and its concluding remark: “We can now assert without any hesitation that in this world the body of the Tao is a woman’s body.” (Schipper, 1982: 129)

One of the oral myths on the birth of Laozi relates how an old woman becomes pregnant after drinking a drop of ‘sweet dew’ (gan lu甘露). She carries the baby for 80 years, but only during the day time, at night baby Laozi leaves the womb to study the Dao. When he is finally conceived (through his mother’s armpit some stories say) he already has a long white beard and is able to walk straight away. Seeing this strange ‘old child’ (Laozi 老子 literally means old child as well as old master) his mother takes fright and dies.

Many interpret from this story that Laozi was his own mother. Before his birth Laozi was Lao Jun (jun君 a term that, according to Schipper, is gender neutral but often used for female deities. It is however often used to designate lords or gentlemen, at least in a secular context) and chose to manifest him/her/itself as a woman because the female body is the only body capable of ‘transformation’ (pregnancy).

Thus in this genesis of Laozi, from gender neutral divine being to woman to child, there is no father. According to Schipper this is only one of the examples of how feminine qualities are seen as superior to masculine within Daoism. He also cites a Daodejing commentary which strain that “[man] must pattern his mind after that of the earth and that of woman.” (Schipper, 1982: 127)

The feminine powers (de 德) include ‘non-action’, gentleness, creativity and knowledge of the techniques of the body. Of course this is not feminism; it is just a positive valorisation of a gender specific construction of characteristics. The interesting thing is that not only women have to conform to the feminine ideals, but men as well. It is telling, though, that many of the cited commentaries address and center around men. Even though women and female principles are valued (and indeed there were and are female Daoist priests and divinities) we must not get carried away; the primary readership seems to have been men, and it must be remembered that men were still far above women in the general social hierarchy of pre-modern China.

Whether this story of Laozi’s birth was inspired by biographies of the Buddha or the other way around (there certainly are parallels) it can be said to be an important part of the understanding of Daoism today. No mythology is pure in origin, and neither is any reading of that mythology absolutely objective. Thus the fact that Schipper is an ordained Daoist priest as well as an academic of the 1970’s, has given him some rare insights into the scriptures and practices of Daoism, but it might also have influenced his ‘feminist’ reading of the Daoism and the story of Laozi’s mother.

Of course this doesnt change the fact that I found it interesting enough to write a (rather long) blog post about it!