We visited Niushoushan the day after our trip to Dabaoen Temple, but I haven’t had a chance to write about it until now. A lot has happened in the past few weeks, and I will attempt to retell all of this chronologically.
Niushoushan was constructed in the early 2010s after the excavation of Dabaoen Temple revealed the Buddha’s skull relic. The construction, primarily funded by the Chinese government, is reminiscent of the imperial sponsorship that Changgan Temple (as it was previously called) enjoyed while it enshrined the Buddha’s relics.
This new construction features a mix of modern, Indian, and East Asian architecture, drawing from cave temples and “Tang dynasty” aesthetics. Overall, it is a grand and impressive structure, but nonetheless I was rather disappointed.
It is—in all senses—a tourist attraction. There are no events, no services, not even an active monastic community. Adjacent to the majestic palace is a small monastery which houses a modest community of maybe ten monks who take care of the relics.
While the architecture is spectacular and the vision broad, there was not much in terms of research, and this led to quite a few errors in iconography. But again, this was constructed on a tight schedule and meant to be impressive rather than accurate.
By visiting this newly constructed site, a site meant to memorialize an integral part of Nanjing’s past grandeur, I noticed that these reconstruction projects are not very educational. They serve primarily to bolster national spirit and morale, exude pride in the greatness that China once embodied, and suggest that China’s current trajectory will restore it to that fantastic past.
I don’t mean to say that it is inappropriate for China to highlight its grand past. In fact, I appreciate that the country is rebuilding its past and letting the world see how majestic it once was. My issue with it comes from the inaccuracies that plague its presentation. I would enjoy it much more if, say, the spaces sought to replicate a particular time in Nanjing’s history.
Of course, every time we have modern architects reimagining what ancient Nanjing looked like, the most we will get is an architect’s imagination. It will never be fully accurate. However, there is still value in attempting to replicate and giving credit to the inspirations for the replication.
That being said, I think it is also interesting for an architect to have free reign and create this conglomeration of Chinese/Indian art to highlight the entire spectrum of Chinese Buddhist history. But even then, I think it would be helpful to identify the inspirations for each aspect rather than presenting it as an artistic Frankenstein.
Overall, I am glad that these sacred artifacts are being maintained and well-preserved, but I do think there is a lot more to do for this to become educational. Sightseeing brings visitors, but once they’re in the door, there needs to be much more to give them a sense of new perspective and understanding. Only then will they leave with piqued curiosity and appreciation.
A visiting group from another part of China came to stay at Tianlong Temple today, and they were planning on seeing a few other local temples while they were in the city, so I got to tag along.
Our first trip was to Dabaoen Temple (I believe the official translation is Grand Baoen Temple, but I find it weird to translate part and then transliterate the rest). Despite being founded in the third century, it went through a few periods of construction, destruction, and then reconstruction. Its most recent iteration was in the Ming dynasty, when the emperor built it to memorialize his parents. Unfortunately, it was burned down during the Taiping Rebellion a few centuries later.
This next part is hearsay, but apparently there were originally plans to build some commercial center, except once they started digging, they found the ruins of the temple and were ordered to stop. The government took over the area and built an enormous structure around it to protect the ruins from the elements, and then started digging—eventually finding hidden treasures untouched by the Taiping Rebellion.
Being an imperially sponsored temple, it’s almost a given that the temple must have housed quite a few treasures. Of these, the most significant one is a finely-crafted gold pagoda encrusted with jewels. While there were supposedly a lot of fine murals and paintings, those have all disappeared, although there are attempts in the exhibitions to reimagine what they might have looked like.
The pagoda housed a relic—although it was unclear what the relic was. They had it on an altar and gave it a fancy name of 感應舍利, which literally means “the relic of invoked-response.” This tells me nothing about the particulars of the relic and its origins. After some Googling, I found out that these relics aren’t relics in the usual Buddhist sense. They’re not remains of some holy figure, but rather jewels the emperor commissioned to serve as relics.
In this sense, I don’t see anything holy about them.
Sure, they’re beautiful crystals, and the case enshrining them is a masterpiece, but there is no religious significance to me. If anything, the entire space—which is beautifully imagined—is not much more than an attempt to help visitors conceptualize Buddhist scenes and what this temple might have looked like four hundred years ago.
Despite this though, there was an egregious attempt to make the space around the relics a “temple” in the sense that there was an altar (which is fine). What made me frown was a desk where visitors could make donations—except the donations aren’t going to support the monastery because there is no monastery. I suppose the argument is that the money supports the museum, and while I’m fine with this, I think it’s confusing to have it masquerading as a temple donation station.
From a Buddhist perspective, supporting an active community of monastics is very different from supporting a museum. While they’re both great causes, it’s misleading to suggest that the donations are going towards supporting a Buddhist community—or to provide maintenance for the relics which aren’t really relics.
Overall, I was extremely pleased with the conservation work and the items in the exhibit. The newly built scenes were nice too, and I did learn a lot from the tour.
Oh, this leads me into the tour.
So, having been a docent for quite a few institutions now, our docent today definitely knew her stuff (although part of me felt like she had simply memorized a script without having a particularly deep understanding of what she was describing). Still, being able to smoothly remember details about each exhibition and explain them to a group of twenty-some people is no small feat.
Now—an issue arose in terms of visitor experience. At the beginning of the tour, she instructed me to be in charge of returning the earpieces at the end of our tour.
Sure, that’s fine.
Then, halfway through the tour, she confirmed with me that I would help her collect earpieces at the end of the tour.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’ll help you collect the earpieces.”
“Then why are you still here?” she jabbed.
I was confused, “Why shouldn’t I be here?”
“I handed out 22 earpieces, and there are only 17 people here right now. How are you going to return the earpieces to me if people are missing?”
“Chill. The tour isn’t over yet.”
She gave me an exasperated sigh and kept moving.
A few minutes later, she pulled me aside again.
“I’m serious kid, if I don’t get 22 of these back, you’re going to pay for the missing ones.”
I looked her dead in the eye, “I’ll let you know right now that I don’t have money, and I’m not responsible for what other adults do during the tour. But, if it makes you feel better, I can assure you we’ll have all 22 back to you by the end of the day.”
While I wasn’t too bothered by the exchange, it did make the entire experience less pleasant than before the snappy attitude.
We kept moving, and I thought to myself, I have no idea who these people are. I’m just going to help her collect them—what else does she expect of me?
Like I said, at the end of the tour, I rounded people up and had them return their earpieces before letting them leave. She counted 20. We were missing two earpieces.
“I told you we’d be missing earpieces,” she glared at me. “Now pay for them.”
“Could you count them again?” I asked.
We went inside to count them on a table—21.
“We’re still missing one,” she insisted. “They’re 500 rmb each. I’m serious. You need to pay before you can leave.”
“I’m not the one who didn’t return my machine. I’m not responsible for other adults on this tour—I don’t even know them,” I explained.
Her coworker came up to us, “What’s the matter?”
My docent explained the situation.
“You’re fine,” the coworker said to me. “Please take some time to enjoy the rest of the exhibitions.”
“Why are you letting him go?” my docent lashed back. “Doesn’t he need to pay us first?”
We both stared at her blankly.
“… Is he Mr. Wang?” the coworker asked.
“No,” I answered quickly. “I’m just a tag-along.”
“Then he’s not responsible,” she said firmly. “I’m sure it’ll show up soon. Somebody probably just took it with them to the restroom or something.”
“You better find it and bring it to me, young man,” my docent’s voice was getting fainter as I stepped out the door and towards the other exhibits. “I’ll charge you!”
I laughed when I got outside. She never told me where to bring the earpiece, so even if I did find it, I wouldn’t know where to find her. Besides, I only had 100 rmb on me. If they really wanted to charge someone, they’d charge Mr. Wang, the tour coordinator.
But, I decided that I’d make an announcement once we got on the bus to make sure everybody had returned their earpieces—they did cost 500 rmb a piece, after all.
I browsed around a bit more, looking around at the exhibitions and gift shop before deciding that I was thoroughly unimpressed by their overpriced merchandise. Alas, such is the case for most gift shops anywhere.
When everybody gathered together to get on the bus, I checked, and all machines were returned. We were good to go.
Although, honestly if I had found a machine then and there, I wouldn’t have had any means of giving it back to the docent.
On Mondays, I have no household chores to do, and I close my laptop to take my research outside.
For my first outing, I went to Jiming Temple 雞鳴寺, a nunnery on the edge of Nanjing, adjacent to the city wall, which is in turn adjacent to Xuanwu Lake.
Upon arriving, I was surprised to see a line to purchase admission tickets. While I’m not a stranger to admission tickets for temples (they’re common for any historical temple in Japan), I doubted that Jiming Temple had anything on display that was worth charging admission for. National treasure statues? Probably not. Famous gardens? Unlikely.
But it was supposed to be a relatively popular destination in Nanjing, so I paid the 10 yuan and walked in.
It was old, that’s for sure.
The temple is built on a hill, so there are plenty of steps that lead to the various halls. While the buildings themselves seem somewhat old, the statues inside are probably no older than say, 20-30 years, and that’s if I’m being generous.
This is—however—not including the statues in the main shrine, which I couldn’t really see because it was closed when I visited.
Overall, I was a bit disappointed in the state of affairs—the menu-like array of donation options, the lack of any Buddhist activities, and the proliferation of people tossing coins in donation boxes for spiritual protection.
In a way, it reminded me of the malaise I felt at a lot of Japanese temples, except here it was much less tasteful.
They had given me a few sticks of incense at the door, and I offered it in the one, giant censer they had outside. Again—nothing was very orderly about this, and my years of shrine attendant training kicked in as I began to arrange the incense so that there would at least be room for others to place their sticks.
I didn’t spend too much time in the temple, opting instead to sit in the temple library for a few hours. I was impressed by its collection, although it was understandably limited to Chinese language resources. It was still nice to have access to all sorts of rare books though.
They even had a guqin on display, although I decided not to mess with it since I didn’t want to be kicked out.
After my library session, I had lunch at the temple cafe before continuing on my Monday excursion. From the temple, I walked to the city wall and took a stroll along it until I reached Xuanwu Lake and looped around there.
At the lake, I encountered an interesting memorial to Guo Pu (276–324), an esteemed scholar and influential founder of Fengshui. Similar to how Abe no Seimei has his own shrine in Kyoto, Guo Pu’s cenotaph is surrounded by people’s wishes.
Now, from the temple to the city wall to the cenotaph, there were a lot of museum-like exhibits that were meant to be educational. The only issue was that they weren’t executed particularly skillfully. Display cases had objects without any sort of explanation or labeling, and although didactic panels were helpful, they didn’t interact with anything else in the exhibit.
So I left the park, disappointed in the exhibit design, but pleased by the misty scenery which transported me to what I imagine Song dynasty scholars would have seen while strolling by on a wintry afternoon.
On my home, I happened across a sluice which was used to divert water from the lake and into the city. This was an amazing little landmark with an exhibition that was actually well-done. The panels, the samples of bricks and pipes used in the sluice, and the diagrams of how the entire thing worked blended smoothly with the sections discussing the history and significance of the lake itself.
According to one panel, there was a monster in the lake which would terrorize the locals at night. Eventually, they decided to pray at Jiming Temple for some divine intervention, and Guanyin appeared that night to seal the monster at the bottom of the lake by agreeing to release it again in the morning.
As a result, the neighbors did not announce that it was morning ever again, and the monster—thinking that morning had yet to come—has been waiting patiently ever since. It is interesting because Jiming literally means “rooster’s crow.” That is, presumably, if a rooster were to crow near the lake and the lake monster were to hear it, it would be released from its watery prison and terrorize Nanjing again.
I’ve always been a fan of such myths, and whether or not they’re true is irrelevant to me. They make certain places significant to the locals, and that itself imbues the space with a solemn feeling that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Next week, I’ll be meeting with a friend from Claremont I haven’t seen in about two years.
I got off the plane to a familiar feeling: the damp chill that defined my childhood in Portland. Through a window, I peered up at the gray sky—yup, very Portland.
But the similarities ended there. As I walked through the subway station, navigating my way to Tianlongsi, I began to realize how big and bustling Nanjing was.
Being the site of war atrocities and the regal capital of various dynasties prior, Nanjing is a city of history and heritage. Nestled in the Jiangnan region, it was nurtured by the boom of scholarly culture and commercial enterprises, developing a distinct flavor that distinguishes it from its northern counterpart: Beijing.
After about an hour on the train, I made it to my intended destination: Tianlongsi station. It was then, just as I was exiting the station, that I remembered—I forgot to bring an umbrella.
I chuckled to myself. This really did feel like Portland again.
I walked through the chilly drizzle, reminiscing about my afternoon walks home from school in the chilly rain.
And in a sense, I was returning home.
I turned my head and immediately saw the imperial glazed tiles. Home.
I started walking towards the towering complex. How long had it been since I had visited a temple? Despite living in one for months at a time while in Los Angeles, I hadn’t visited a temple since coming to China. A random shrine here and there, sure, but nothing that felt like a temple. The temples in China do not feel like active spaces, but rather as passive landmarks poised to charge admission and sell incense to tourists. Faced with such a predicament, I typically just abstain from going, as I presume it will lead to more disappointment.
But Tianlong Temple is different.
I was greeted halfway down the street by a young temple assistant in his 20s, perhaps only a few years older than me. He took my luggage and brought me to my room, where I got settled. After receiving the Wi-Fi password and key card, we set off for a quick tour of the grounds.
Since the temple is still under construction, it’s not officially open to the public. However, there is a growing team of volunteers—all trained with the unmistakable signature of Fo Guang Shan’s impeccable service.
The first thing I noticed was that they were all well-versed in temple etiquette. Moreover, they had the perfectionism of any experienced temple volunteer. The altars, flowers, and bookshelves were all meticulously cared for.
Most nostalgic of all though was the moment we started evening service. The comforting scent of aloeswood coupled with time-old chants brought me home in a different sense—back to evenings in my childhood temple, where the sound of slow, melodic chanting was interspersed with the pattering of rain on the rooftop.
After we concluded, I befriended some of the temple residents, including two young monks from India. I’ve since become their go-to English conversation partner, since they haven’t met anybody who speaks English since arriving in China.
The next morning continued my nostalgia, as the sound of a wooden board woke me from my sleep—and sent a rush of adrenaline through my body. I jumped out of bed and dashed to the bathroom, preparing for a line of people trying to finish washing up.
Except I forgot that I live in a sparsely-occupied hallway.
Nobody was in the restroom, and the next guy who walked in groggily about 5 minutes later stared at me, confused as to why I was brushing my teeth so vigorously at 6:05 am.
The rest of the day went smoothly. In my spare time, I helped arrange some supplies for the office, and in the evening I went out to browse the nearby mall, where I found a delightful bookstore and cafe. While I didn’t buy any books, I was enticed by the sale that Muji had going on. Besides, I thought to myself, I need more clothes to survive this chilly weather anyways.
I came out with three sweaters, three button-ups, two long-sleeved tee shirts, one pair of shoes, a phone charger, and a bag of hojicha latte mix. All of these—especially the last item—are winter essentials.
I’m looking forward to my month here. Between the familiar cold weather, delicious vegetarian food, and clockwork routine, I’m hoping that this month will provide a conducive atmosphere for my project.
A few months ago, I was debating where to spend my Winter Break.
Although school is out for roughly a month, Fulbright insists that we have to remain productive nonetheless, and so we’re not allowed to have too much fun. If we were, I’d probably be kicking back on a beach in Thailand—or meeting up with Pomona friends in Japan.
Staying on campus would have been pretty miserable too. There’s only one not-so-vegetarian-friendly dining hall open—with limited options—and barely anything open around the school. Besides, I wouldn’t have access to the library anyway.
If I were to spend my break trying to be productive in a non-academic environment, I’d want to spend it in a place where I can be fed, kept reasonably warm, and bask in the presence of friends.
Then came a message from a friend in Los Angeles.
“I’m moving to Nanjing,” he wrote. “Let me know if you want to come by for Winter Break. I can arrange for you to stay in the dorms.”
My friend is a monk, and his recent transfer to Nanjing helped me find a place to stay over the month-long break. However, he also warned that there really was not much going on, since the temple itself is still under construction.
Nonetheless, being in Nanjing would unlock a new region in China in terms of my research. I already predict that people here prefer green tea since it has more of a local connection. There are also a handful of tea-related landmarks—many of them doubling as Buddhist monasteries—which I hope will help me see how these mingle and present themselves.
And so, I wrote a proposal on why I should be allowed to spend a month in Nanjing, and after a few days, the embassy approved it.
Yesterday, I woke up bright and early again to ride the bus to the airport. Now, the bus only has a few time slots scheduled. I could either leave at 7:30 (and get there by 9) or leave at 10:30 (and get there by 12). My flight was at 12:20. Not having much of a choice, I woke up early only to get to the airport roughly three hours before boarding.
Fortunately, I had a friend with me.
After sleeping for the entire bus ride, we groggily unloaded the bus and waited in a McDonald’s. I had three hours before my flight, and she was waiting to greet a friend who had come to visit.
As we talked a bit in the restaurant, she mentioned that she and a few other friends had planned to come over for tea the night before.
In some earlier posts, I mentioned that my friend group primarily consists of international graduate students. I suppose that’s still loosely true, although the group has splintered off over the past few months. The once lively group chat has become silent, and the occasional prompt to plan an outing is typically ignored. Sure, it shouldn’t be too shocking for a larger group to split off into smaller ones, and it wasn’t like I had been left completely friendless.
Every so often, a friend or two would ask to come by for tea. It would always be a wonderful time, and depending on who came in, we’d either be chatting until 10 pm or 4 am, with topics ranging from Confucian theories on moral development to our own past instances of academic insubordination.
In the past week or so, the splintered friend group suddenly reached out after about two months of planning their own gatherings. I found it strange, but I humored their requests. I don’t mind playing host, after all. However, the person who often planned these never bothered to tell me about their plan to visit until they came to knock.
While I don’t mind playing host, some advance notice is nice. Sometimes they come in and I already have the kettle on (because I was planning on drinking some tea). But sometimes they come in and I have to scramble to get things in order, or drop whatever I was doing to entertain my unexpected guests.
But I knew that they had planned to come the day before. In fact, I received a message about having tea that evening. I would have welcomed them, but unfortunately I was in Putian and had far too many things to do that night.
However, I appreciated the advance notice.
Then I realized that my friend here sitting next to me was the reason why I had received a request so early in advance.
“SS (our mutual friend) planned tea a few times actually,” my friend, HM, mentioned.
“Oh? When was this?” I didn’t recall them coming over that often.
“A few days ago,” she continued. “We got there and your room was empty, dark, nobody was home.”
“Oh,” I was puzzled. “Nobody told me you were coming over.”
“Exactly!” she said with an exasperated sigh. “SS told all of us to just come because, ‘Oh, he’ll definitely be there,’ but she never bothered to check! So then we all showed up, only to realize that there was absolutely nothing going on.”
“Wow, that’s pretty sad.”
“Right? And that’s why this time, when SS told us we were going to have tea again, I told her she has to let you know we’re coming in advance. Otherwise, how are you supposed to schedule your evening?”
Thank you, HM.
While host-guest relations can be rather complex, a bit of courtesy on both sides goes a long way. While I won’t tell a guest they should leave, I hope that my guests will know to not overstay. Typically this goes well, although there was a time when SS showed up unannounced and stayed well into the night, doing her homework while I was trying to figure out how to get some sleep.
“What time do you usually sleep?” she asked.
“Preferably 10,” I replied.
“Nah,” she shot at me. “That’s too early for a college student.”
She stayed past 1 while I was completely confused about why she had shown up after sparse interactions for the past three months or so.
HM, on the other hand, lets me know well in advance before arriving—leaving me ample time to get snacks, choose a good tea, and clean up my room before her arrival. I was actually a bit disappointed to hear that the only reason SS asked in advance this time was because HM told her to.
After her friend came, we stuck around and talked for a bit more—debating the pros and cons of higher education in China, the inefficiencies of Fujian Normal University’s administration, and how age doesn’t always guarantee maturity. It was a nice shift from the usual topic of conversation, which—for the past few nights—had been focused exclusively on romance.
After they left, I waited around some more before finally going to my terminal to board the plane.
Next, I’ll talk a bit about my arrival in Nanjing. Despite this being my first time here, it feels strangely nostalgic.
I woke up extra bright and early yesterday to go to Putian, a coastal town famous for its shrine dedicated to Mazu 媽祖 (the patron goddess of fishermen) and its proliferation of traditional carvers.
Like my last visit to Putian, I spent the day with a friend who I will call Wenlin (because I don’t actually know his real name… Shaojun? I’m not sure). He’s a carver I met at the Buddhist Supply Expo in Xiamen a few months prior, and one of my friends in the US had commissioned a statue from him.
Since the statue was finished, I came to check on Wenlin’s handiwork as well as drop off another order.
He picked me up from the train station, and we started the morning by inspecting the finished statue. There were a few alterations I had made to customize the order, and he had completed them brilliantly.
Although, the gilded base seemed to have been scratched during transport, so I requested that they add a fresh layer of gold leaf, then coat it with clear lacquer. This dulls the gold, but I’d rather look at a bit of dullness than very obviously-scratched gold.
However, other than that, and a minor adjustment to one of the implements the statue was holding, everything seemed fine. Overall, I was incredibly pleased with how it turned out. After sending a few pictures to my friend back in the US, he responded and said he was pleased as well.
When I told my mom of this situation back when I first began ordering custom statuary, she was incredibly confused.
“Since when did you ever learn to tell if a statue is good or not?” she asked.
I thought about it for a moment. This isn’t a particularly common skill, after all. I suppose partly, it came from exposure. After visiting dozens of temples in the US, Taiwan, and Japan, I had acquired a familiarity with various styles of statuary. This developed further when I took art history courses in college, and then further yet when I interned at The Huntington over the summer. While my time at The Huntington did not directly involve Buddhist statuary, it still helped me hone a scrutinizing eye for any imperfections.
After lunch, I looked through Wenlin’s warehouse just to see their previous work. Indeed, the walk-around helped me formulate ideas for potential orders in the future. Unfortunately though, I had misunderstood the budget I was working with for the order I was supposed to place that afternoon. The range I would be working with was a lot smaller than I had expected.
It ended up being a very quick discussion, since my budget wouldn’t allow for very many bells and whistles, and I spent the remaining time discussing other custom orders that may or may not happen in the distant future.
Overall, despite the sudden shift in what I thought my budget was, the day went smoothly, and I am still very impressed by what they were able to do with the first ordered statue. Wenlin’s mom even made us noodles!
After dinner, I headed back to campus and finished packing for my upcoming trip to Nanjing, where I will be spending Winter Break. I realized halfway through the night that I had neglected to record a song for my guqin professor, and after playing furiously for about two hours, I recorded an imperfect track and resigned myself to the product of my poor planning. If he’ll allow me to record again later, perhaps I can get more practice in.
To start, I’ve been craving Mexican food for the past few weeks.
I’d like to have a taco, or a burrito, or a quesadilla, or an enchilada, but unfortunately these things don’t exist in Fuzhou. I got my hopes up at one point when I found a restaurant called Califresh, which supposedly offered all of the above on their menu. Unfortunately though, it was reported as closed online, so I don’t think I will ever know if they do a good job at making Californian Mexican food.
Ling Min—also a fan of Mexican food—was interested in trying what Fuzhou has to offer, so we took to the subways in search of a small “Mexican” restaurant near the city center.
It was a small establishment that could seat a maximum of eight guests at a time. Their menu, which was slightly more expensive than the Indian restaurant, featured a variety of burritos, spaghetti, and fried rice. Vegetarian options were sparse, but I made by with a vegetable and beef fried rice since Ling Min ate the beef.
While I definitely prefer the Indian restaurant, it wasn’t terrible (albeit slightly overpriced for unsatisfying portions), and it was a nice break from the monotonous flavors at FNU’s dining hall.
Upon returning to the dorms, I was met with a message from my other friends.
“Is there tea tonight?” one friend asked.
“Sure, what tea would you like?” I asked.
I began to boil some water when there was a knock on the door and four classmates came in.
“Do you still have Exploding Kittens?” one asked, referring to one of our favorite card games.
I grabbed the set from my desk and handed it to them. They began to set up the game as I prepared the tea.
It’s always fun to have good company, and I really enjoy having friends over for tea and games. While I typically appreciate tea alone as I work, having tea with others is a completely different experience.
I’ve always envisioned that I would eventually amass a sizeable library, but I never really purchased books until college. Although, even then, I leaned towards renting my textbooks rather than owning them. As the years went on, though, I decided that some reference books would be worth keeping, and so, my collection of books began to grow.
Some of these books would be required readings for classes, books I decided to keep after the semester ended. Others would be books I found on the free table in Mason Hall (like a whole set of the Onmyoji novels!!! Who would just leave those there???). And of course, every time I returned to Portland, I’d be sure to browse through Powell’s Books and bring home a few books that caught my eye.
These books have primarily been in English (minus the Onmyoji set), and they tend to be rather academic. From books on tea (thanks thesis), to scholarly works on Asian Studies, to a few facsimiles of calligraphy, my library was a reflection of my college life.
However, there was another side to my library. I had started collecting a few liturgical works here and there from my earlier trips to Taiwan. At first, I didn’t see much of a need for them. If I were ever to be at a temple, I’d just use whatever books they provided. But the books were ubiquitous, and on each trip, I’d find some beautifully-printed liturgies by Shihua, a premier traditional Chinese publisher.
Their accordion-fold books—which I prefer because it’s near impossible to lose your page—present the text in an easy-to-read font supported by comfortable spacing. I don’t feel like I’m staring at a wall of text, nor do I have to squint and guess what character it might be. After all, when recited, even a split second of hesitation can mean missing a character. And so, Shihua became my default for anything liturgical. Most temples used it too.
Which is why it was a complete shock to me—and the rest of my Buddhist friends—when Shihua closed down a few years ago.
The news came slowly, and my first sign that something was amiss was when their website stopped restocking. My fears compounded when I noticed that temple giftshops were pulling their books from the shelves and stockpiling them in storage for internal use. A gloom covered the temple, and in the offices, we whispered and wondered what would happen to the future of these publications. Who else would be able to print such beautiful texts, optimized so elegantly for the human eye?
At that point, I regretted not getting a set when I had the chance. Now, the once-ubiquitous golden covers were absent from tables near folk temples, gone from the shelves of monasteries, and could only been seen during annual prayer services. These sacred books, already prized as priceless treasures, were now even more scarce.
Meanwhile, other publishers came out to fill the void, albeit unhelpfully. Their fonts were too thick, their punctuation too bold. Their spacing was too narrow, making the entire tome wholly uninviting.
Since coming to China, I’ve been scouring the online markets for any of Shihua’s publications—or even anything remotely similar. If China was the capital of bootlegging, I sure hoped they had bootlegged Shihua’s books.
Unfortunately, I was out of luck. Some sellers presented pictures of Shihua’s elegant covers, then shipped me reprints of woodblock-printed scriptures. Others had similar products, but the ink they used was not nearly dark enough to pass as Shihua.
I had some luck in finding preowned copies of Shihua books, which were being resold by booksellers for significantly cheaper than what they would have been sold for in Taiwan. I suppose the Chinese market has yet to realize Shihua’s demise. Demand has stayed the same, but the supply of these books has dropped, and the books will only get rarer as the years go on.
I’ve since collected a few essential works, books that I know I will have to translate in the near or distant future. Of these, two are Shihua prints. I will be keeping my eyes peeled during my time in Nanjing, and hopefully I will be able to find more as they appear on the online markets.
But ultimately, one of my goals is to create a bilingual set: one which has elegantly printed Chinese, pronunciation in pinyin above it, and English translation at the bottom. This would free me from having to rely on external publishers who might—as Shihua did—suddenly fall to the ills of the economy.
As a result, I’ve spent more hours than I expected to on the phone with former colleagues in Los Angeles, discussing fonts, font sizes, and other formatting details for this project. The Compendium of Chinese Buddhist Liturgies, currently being completed one installment at a time, will hopefully be released as a full set by 2030. In the meantime, I’ll continue churning out translations, one line of dense Classical Chinese at a time.
As a new year unfolds, I’ve been thinking about what the future has to bring.
While these thoughts have been intermittent throughout the past few months, I’ve finally decided to take the time to process them rather than just have them pass through.
One year ago, I was in Portland, unsure of where I would be in the coming year. I had just applied to Fulbright, as well as to three programs in Japan. While coming to Fuzhou was a possibility, it was not one I thought was likely—especially considering the stringently selective evaluation process. Besides, given my obvious bias towards applying to programs in Japan, it was more likely that one of my Japanese routes would come through and I would end up in Tokyo, Yokohama, or elsewhere on the archipelago for my first year after graduation.
I still remember the day I emailed my advisor in a panic when I received that fateful email from Fulbright telling me not that I was accepted, but that I would have to wait for further decisions.
“I think you’re just going to have to wait at this point,” he relayed to me via email.
And so I waited.
It wasn’t long before I received an official Fulbright offer, which came with a request for a prompt acceptance. I didn’t have time to consider my other options—which at that point had yet to arrive—and perhaps that’s for the best. It was quick, easy, and simple.
After my accepting my Fulbright, my future seemed relatively assured for the next year. I would be in Fuzhou, China doing tea research. While the details were murky, the overall sense of time and location was set. But it was not until late-summer—weeks before my arrival in China—that I finally got my last few documents ensuring that I would actually be able to execute this project.
This reflection has made me realize how uncertain this world is.
Our vision of the future, no matter how we might envision it, is merely that: a vision conjured by our skewed perceptions of reality and our limited projections of what might happen.
If you were to ask 12-year-old Andrew what he thought he would be doing in the year 2020, he probably would have said something along the lines of being in pharmacy school or starting his first year at Google as a software engineer.
Twelve-year-old Andrew had never heard of the word “Fulbright,” nor did he know that people actually made careers out of researching Asian history and culture. How could he have possibly predicted he would eventually seek this path?
Thus, I have no strict predictions of where I will be in 2030.
I tell myself now that I will (hopefully) be done with school, perhaps with a doctoral degree in hand, and that I will be gainfully employed by some liberal arts college where I can teach a small seminar on tea to a group of engaged and curious students, and then spend entire afternoons in my office chatting with undergraduates over cups of steaming tea, an iron kettle eternally bubbling next to my desk.
But just as 12-year-old me was woefully inaccurate about where I would be as a 22-year-old, I know I will be equally wrong about my current predictions. However, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
While I recognize the need to have a goal and a sense of direction, I also have no qualms about shifts in direction. Paraphrasing one of my past teachers, the circumstances we are currently in are the best circumstances for us. Our circumstances constantly change, but as we adapt and respond to the changes around us, we are able to make the best of our circumstances.
Objectively, who is to say that one circumstance is ultimately better for us than another circumstance? While I might wonder what my life would be like had I gone to Japan rather than China, or if I had stuck with Computer Science rather than study the evolution of loose-leaf tea culture, these thoughts quickly fade as I come to the conclusion that I do not know—and will never know. These paths might exist in alternate universes, but in this present universe, I will only know the effects of my past choices and influences.
Surely, I would not be where I am today if I had stuck with the Computer Science or even the Psychology route. But would I still be here if my senior thesis was on calligraphy rather than tea? Who knows.
Looking back at these past choices, from the most impactful decisions to the minutest of thoughts and actions, each one has molded and shaped my path—even if I did not have the foresight to know what I was creating. Taking the Daoist example of the uncarved block, what starts as a canvas of infinite possibilities is gradually whittled down with each scrape, cut, and sanding, losing its realm of possibilities until its final shape is complete.
Does the carver know what the finished product will be? Can he see it within the uncarved block, using each of his precise movements to manifest it?
Perhaps a skilled carver is able to, but I am not a skilled carver.
My vision of the future is hazy—and not just because of the increasing wildfires ravaging our planet. I do not know what my finished product will look like. Besides, how do I know that my initial vision of the final product is the best that can be produced?
As I go through life one phase at a time, I try to make the choices that align with what I hope the future will be. Will my choices hurt others? Are they generally beneficial? Will they come back to haunt me later? Should the answers be sound, I proceed, venturing another step forward into the unknown and committing another slice to the uncarved block.
Granted, while my vision is hazy, having a general vision ensures that I don’t step too far away from where I want to be heading. I won’t lop off half the block with a sudden, impulsive addiction, nor will I suddenly decide that on second thought, I want to be an accountant and veer my life in a completely different direction.
While I am barely at the quarter-point of my life, I feel like there has been so much shaved off of the block that I am left with the task of fine-tuning the details. How much of these were decided when I was born in Portland, OR, where I was offered 13 years of public education, a cocktail of immunization shots in infancy to minimize my chance of dying young, and brought home by two loving parents who were committed to my well-being?
By these statistics alone, much of my life was decided in the instant the hospital’s florescent lights bathed my fresh skin. I was differentiated from billions of others in the world simply through the conditions at my birth, and these distinguishing traits compounded as the years went by. My upbringing, my education, my interests and pursuits—each of them influencing each other—created (and still continuously creates) the personality that I am able to call “me” today.
The web of factors that lead us to where we are now is too complex for me to begin to comprehend. Despite not knowing the full outcomes of our decisions—and the decisions made by those around us—these actions and thoughts made every single day reverberate through time, rippling into the depths of the unknown, affecting future decisions, future habits, and future outcomes.
Now, as I near the midpoint of my time in China, I have been pondering my next steps. Where will I live upon my return to the US? What will I do? How will these choices close or open doors in the future?
Recently, a few routes have presented themselves—often as half-jokes—but I am left pondering about their potential. I purposely avoided graduate school applications this round to leave time for another gap year (or two), but which projects will I pursue in the interim?
When it is time for me to make the decision, I will decide it based on my limited understanding, and it will irreversibly influence my future in ways I can and cannot see or even begin to comprehend.
But at the same time, I don’t feel like it will be a very difficult decision to make. Given that all of my choices lead to paths I am passionate about and eager to explore, I think I will be happy with any of them. My present choices are already limited by my past choices, and what I choose now will further my journey while defining my path just that much more. And with that, I know that whichever decision I make, the circumstances they lead me to will be the best circumstances for me. That is all I can ever know, after all.
Last week, I met up with a fellow Fulbrighter in Fuzhou to buy some tea. And so, we went to my usual tea mall and explored a few shops, looking specifically for qingxiang tie guanyin 清香鐵觀音, a lightly-oxidized oolong, and zhengshan xiaozhong 正山小種, which is what we’d consider in the US “black tea” (although in China it’s considered “red tea” hongcha 紅茶).
Upon arriving at the tea mall, we walked into a place staffed by an older couple with TIE GUANYIN in bold letters on the shop sign.
“Do you have any tie guanyin?” I asked innocently.
“No,” the shopkeeper replied. “We don’t sell tie guanyin.”
What a lie. But oh well, I’ve been hit with the “you look too young to actually spend money on tea, so I’m just gonna wave you away” treatment enough times now, so we went next door to another place that had a bold TIE GUANYIN sign on the door.
One middle-aged lady sat at the table and invited us to sit.
“What are you looking for?” she prompted.
“Qingxiang tie guanyin, and our budget is about 200 rmb per jin (500 grams),” I replied.
She brought out two varieties for us to sample.
Upon trying it, my heart sank. I had gotten ripped off on my previous trip. Last time I came here to purchase tie guanyin, I had sampled three varieties and ended up spending almost double the price for something that was comparable to what this shop was selling for merely 230 rmb.
While the flavor was mediocre, it was a very smooth tea. Rather than leaving my throat dry and course, it was very refreshing, although I would have preferred it a little bit heavier. It was something I felt like I could just gulp down rather than something I would sip and savor.
As she talked on and on about her tea-selling experience, I turned to my Fulbright friend and asked in English, “Thoughts?”
We had a brief exchange. Neither of us were particularly impressed, and so we decided we’d go elsewhere.
“Wow,” the shopkeeper said. “You’re foreigners!”
We nodded sheepishly.
I wasn’t sure what to think. I guess we both look Asian enough to pass the initial appearance test, and we were fluent enough to get by without raising any alarms. It wasn’t until we spoke in English that our friend the shopkeeper realized we weren’t from the local area.
In any case, we bid her farewell and walked in search of another tie guanyin shop. Being in Fujian, there are plenty of places that sell them.
My Fulbright friend was not particularly impressed, so we went to a second shop.
As soon as we walked in, our host remarked, “You’re not from around these parts, are you?”
We were taken aback. Our previous host didn’t realize we weren’t locals, but this shopkeeper was astute enough to catch that point before we even sat down.
“No, we’re from the US,” I replied.
“Ah, that explains it,” she continued. “I used to live in Spain. You Americans carry yourselves differently from those of us who grew up in China.”
While I can typically notice the subtle traits that distinguish an Asian American from someone who grew up in Asia, I hadn’t thought that it would be visible to the older generation. But I suppose her exposure to a variety of cultures helped her identify that we were not locals, despite our phenotypic expression.
After explaining what we wanted and what our budget would be, she brewed two types. Although I specifically requested qingxiang, she decided to give us a sample of nongxiang as well. Just in case.
While it was more fragrant than the other shop, the tea left a sense of dryness in my throat.
After drinking a few rounds and using the restroom two or three times, we decided this would be a good purchase (it was a bit cheaper than the other place), and that going to another shop might not be worth it.
To seal the deal, the kind shopkeeper gifted us a few samples of their Wuyi Rock Tea. She made it clear that these were very cheap, but that they weren’t too terrible nonetheless.
After making a small purchase of 250 grams, we ventured to Sanfang qixiang, Fuzhou’s most touristy place, looked around at some bookstores, and then met up with another classmate for Indian food.
It wasn’t bad, but I was really disappointed in the fact that the food here isn’t spicy.
We also ordered way too much. After three curries, two types of naan, rice, shawarmas, and a rice pudding dessert, my stomach felt like it was about to explode. But wow, that naan was really, really good.
While I haven’t been able to find a Mexican restaurant in Fuzhou yet, I’m glad to know that there are options for non-Chinese food here. While I don’t mind Chinese food, eating at the same dining hall every single day gets a bit tough.
A bunch of other things have happened over the past few weeks, but I won’t be sharing every detail about my adventures here.
I think my next post will be a reflection on the decade ahead.