Visiting a Friend in Putian

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.

Tada, the final piece!

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.

One of the requests I had insisted on was having glass eyes. While traditionally done with crystal, filling the eyes with glass give the gaze a much more realistic and striking look, especially when the lighting is right.

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.

Just one of the many shelves of statuary I got to view during my visit.

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!

The noodles had an unexpectedly Vietnamese feel to them. I suppose it’s because it’s vermicelli? It tasted like something my mom would make at home.

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.

Book Collecting: Liturgical Works

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.