If architecture were defined solely by the question of thermal enclosure, the buildings of the Xiangshan campus would be tiny. The program is set into the buildings like a boy in his father’s suit. While the classrooms offer limited heat and some thermal enclosure, the thermal enclosures are connected only by unheated spaces. Virtually every room has the ability to spill out into interstitial spaces such that the life of the classroom might expand and contract with the seasons. In my own classroom, we rarely use the door proper, opting instead for entering and exiting through a secondary passage behind a screen wall.
The conception of space, in addition to being all of the things described elsewhere in this journal, is intimately tied to the way the body moves—like many traditional Chinese buildings, routes are indirect, and large spaces are often accessed by “sliding in a corner.” One must rise and fall, and can not presume that he ground is flat. Each of these spaces is its own calibrated poem—deceptively simple and deeply moving. The absence of control points and the availability of multiple routes offers true freedom of movement: something strikingly absent from most campuses in these days of fear and paranoia.
In the afternoon I reflect further on Fridays review, giving a brief lecture about material reasoning and the transformation of concept into form. I encourage the students to know when to disregard their teachers. I illustrate the lecture with examples drawn directly from the work I saw Friday. I outline, in simple language, the limitations of the pedagogical underpinnings of their design studio; I tell them the ways in which they can shift their own focus within the boundaries of a studio that is too broadly drawn. I explain that as teachers, we too are under great pressure, and often attempt to do too much in too little time—a nod to Wang Fei, who is undertaking a herculean task. The subtext of the lecture and the mornings critique is to empower the students as partners in their own education. As I conclude my lecture, I connect the discussion to one of the unique words Wang Shu has taught me. It is an effort to close the circle—to connect the nurturing but subversive energy I am offering with the Master himself. I remind them that I am here at his invitation, and it is my role to help them understand things that might not be taught in their regular classrooms.
The lesson continues as I introduce the next problem—in describing the work, I let them push back, and negotiate some of the terms on which it will be done. I outline the first three pedagogical aims in the order they will appear to them: 1) to understand the implications of choosing a single section cut, 2) to explore the narrative as an important part of architectural drawing, and 3) to build a relationship with a living context over ten years old. The topic of the drawing centers around the movement of water, and transforming a piece of the nearby mid-rise fabric through montage. They are to add to and transform what is there rather than replace it. My hidden aim is to encourage them to value the existing community and urban fabric. I inform them that the terms of the project are negotiable, providing the result allows us to explore my stated aims.
We walk into the neighborhood; instantly, our group swells as people in the community gather around with the students. I describe what I see in the neighborhood as the class asks questions about the boundaries and limits of the problem—can they work in groups, what should be drawn, how it should be drawn. I take the opportunity to describe the way the street section works—how it acts like a river—and let them see the neighborhood through my eyes. It is fairly clear that the larger crowd that has gathered does not speak English, but they nod their heads, and act as though they too are participating in the discussion. Young women in high heels and impossibly short skirts cock their hips as they munch on corn cobs—old men sit side saddle on their mopeds. It seems I have offered everyone a break from the monotony of the day—I am sure they will be late on the way to somewhere.
Negotiations complete, I divide them into groups. They want me to create the groups, so I deliberately do a poor job, simply splitting the group as it stands. I place poor English speakers together, create unnecessary gender divisions, and all manner of problem. When they protest, I agree with their criticisms and suggest that they modify their groups to suit their needs. They see what I am up to, and quickly get to business, rushing off to choose and document their sites of study. Tomorrow I will likely return to the river, and tell them stories about the Cuyahoga. I am not sure I can do Gary Newman the way I did Paul Robeson, but I may try. It will tie nicely to my original discussion of people and the land, and will allow me to quietly introduce a few principles of public policy to the discussion.
In anticipation of Junichi’s arrival I buy a three dollar bottle of booze. From the laughter of the women in the store, it seems I am in the company of the best Chinese winos. It will serve the purpose for the necessary toast, and, when the time comes, Junichi and I can drink on another dime.
The bus motor starts at 7:48 every day. The parking brake is released and the are doors closed at 7:49. The bus is rolling as the clock turns over to 7:50. How a culture with such punctual buses is perpetually late is beyond me—except for the fact that if the buses did not run on time, nobody would get anywhere, and nothing would get done.
The bus roars through traffic, splitting lanes, and running onto the sidewalk as if our lives depended on its timely arrival. Yet, we are all racing towards empty classrooms, where bleary eyed students will slowly trickle in. There is something wonderful about it all, in that one has the time to slowly get into the space of teaching. The beginning of class and the end of class are ambiguous, as if we fade to and from black.
I arrive to a hive of activity—opposite of the norm. The Wang Fei bargain is repaid by the clamoring of students. They are all working when I arrive, and the walls and tables are filled with work. It is nice to arrive to a hive of activity, and I thank them for all of their work. We begin with valuable discussions of Friday’s critique, and of the purpose of the workshop itself. The weather has turned cold: one can feel the snow country blowing on the wind, even if it is thousands of miles away. It is a struggle to keep warm as we begin the discussions.
I turn to the students, and ask them to choose which work we will discuss first—they hesitate—it seems this is not a common practice. Finally I call upon a student, who chooses himself—the others laugh, but are thankful not to be chosen. Eventually, the pattern is set, and we begin moving from student to student, one student discussing the another person’s work in turn. I continually create opportunities for them to speak and lead the discussion—gradually, more and more of them do. We discuss the intricacies of material reasoning and the idiosyncrasies of working with fugitive materials—materials that change and decay with time. We discuss residues, ugly beauty, and manipulating decay. The class grows increasingly lively as they recognize the way in which a simple project can be a substantial platform for the investigation of ideas.
As we adjourn for lunch, four of the students approach me, and invite me to eat with them at the student restaurant—an invitation I graciously accept. How far we have come since the first days. On the walk we discuss the way in which Wang Shu’s campus is a gradual progression of the courtyard form, and other details of the various buildings. At the restaurant, my students see to it that I am well cared for: they watch the clock, they mind the food, and they obtain napkins. They transform what is little more than a cafeteria into a magical banquet. I am served fish, tofu, beef, chicken, and shrimp. A guest is always served the best food, and in most cases, that will mean you eat a lot of animal protein: the tofu was my request.
In the few trips I have made to China I have become quite accustomed to the flavors and textures—so much so that I have hardly commented on them in this journal, something I will now correct. To eat the local cuisine is to understand how limited the Western appreciation of texture is. Even in simple dishes the range of mouth feel is quite large. That is doubly true in Hangzhou. Because it was once the Imperial seat and the Emperor came from the North, the city features versions of Northern dishes not typically seen in other Southern cities. When I eat with Wang Shu, I try to sit next to him, if only for the lesson on what we are eating.
Meat is typically butchered through the bone; skin, heads and thin shells are meant to be eaten. One separates the meat from cartilage and bone with ones mouth, depositing the inedible bits on the plate which is more akin to a bone dish. Solid food is picked directly from the serving bowl, or more politely transferred to small plates that are easily replaced. Bowls raised, soft food is conveyed noisily in. Hau Ru has given me a hard time for not making noise when I eat my noodle and pork soup, “you are in China now, make noise!” I personally think he is baffled that I manage to do it silently—thank or blame my older brother for teaching me to be quiet. Aside from this one quirk, I am fairly adept at local dining.
When the eating pauses, we conclude the discussion of the campus with talk of the relationship between Wang Shu’s work and Suzhou gardens. I then turn the discussion to the school itself, and probe them about the nature of their classes—the way in which subjects are taught. I mention a four hour lecture I sat through in 2006 by a senior professor at the school. The students immediately know who I am talking about, and we say his name together. They use a venerable term I taught them, “bla bla bla.” I am then presented with a gift—small tickets to films the students are screening each Saturday: Fellini, Jaques Tati, Ingmar Bergman, Wim Wenders, Stanley Kubrick—many are films I will be showing as part of my class at the University of Utah in the spring. The woman next to me says, “they are very little, but they mean a lot. . . I made them.” After I mention the shortness of our time together, she says, “even when it is a very short time, it is sometimes as if you have known the people for a very long time, that is the way it feels.” I tell them it is far to soon for such things—that even though professor Satoh will join us tomorrow that we will work together until the end of the week, which I now fear will come far too soon.
Wandering through a bookstore, I came upon racks of large magazines—or, more precisely put, large magazine format books. Each is a monograph of an artist or school. An entire aisle was dedicated to contemporary Chinese oil painters. Seeing the quality of the paintings reminds me of the sign at the Nanshan campus pointing to the various painting departments. That there are several is telling of the seriousness with which painting is pursued.
I decide to purchase a few of the books. One is of painter Liu Ya’nn, and another is of Liu Yaanshou: the pages are already worn, and the bindings broken due to the fact that the bookstore is the busiest reading room I have ever seen in my life. Perhaps people are attracted to the paintings, but hesitate to purchase the books because of the lusciously painted nudes—some of them exhibit a sexual power and technical mastery that makes Mel Ramos look amateurish (and I like Mel Ramos). Other pages feature incredible portraits of people in the snow country to the west, drawn against a white landscape.
As I navigate the three story establishment I have to work in order to not step on people reading in the aisles and on the stairs. For every person purchasing books it seems, dozens more are reading—I doubt I have ever seen this many people reading in one place, even in major public libraries. Among my other finds are several books made to teach children proper writing technique. Minmin laughs when I write, since I “do it all wrong.” I may be able to imitate the character, but am a long way from being consistent or appropriate with the order of my strokes. We will see if with everything else I find time to practice before I go.
It is hard to believe that I am half way through. The time seems both short and long. There is still much to do, with the students especially. My intention of visiting other studios is as of yet completely unrealized—
Spent a good deal of time working on an essay I may never finish. Friday’s critique re-awakened several deep felt concerns about education. This is not the place to describe them. What Wang Fei is doing with his students, introducing analysis and mapping, is very important. I question, however, whether certain methodologies adopted from Western schools are important in general, and if they don’t obscure a more vibrant thread of investigation.
I am speaking directly of Material Reasoning, a process I have taught many times, in which students work through direct action in one medium, and come to know it to such a degree as to be able to transform the very thread of project into the medium of architecture. It is a process that requires discipline, and requires an understanding of the difference between transliteration, and translation. Translation being at once faithful to the original, but, by necessity generative, in that one language might not posses the vocabulary of another. To my eye, aspects of Material Reasoning that had found their way into the studio work I saw on Friday were given too little time to be of meaning. The notion of teaching mapping alone would be enough to fill a semester, much less teaching mapping, engaging in a process of translation, and confronting a highly complex functional program. The students simply emphasized the mapping and the organization of the building; any teaching value of moving from one to the other was largely lost.
Beyond the organization of one studio, it raises a larger question in my mind that has to do with the way in which architectural education becomes culturally specific, or if it should be culturally specific. It bothers me that the morays of American graduate schools are directly appearing in Chinese schools. In some ways, these methodologies might obscure the uniqueness of the students, their relationship with language, and the Chinese conception of space.
Many of my colleagues in the United States now have steam coming out of their ears—but I will continue anyways. I will describe three things that are culturally specific that could contribute greatly to the curriculum if they were addressed more directly:
The halls of my classroom building are lined with drawings the students have done, what first seem to be roof plans of a traditional village. To examine the drawings more closely is a delight—as each has a series of idiosyncrasies. In many cases, elevation and plan are conflated, such that the drawing takes on a narrative quality—structures and trees bend to tell you what they are. My mainland Chinese students in the United States also did this, and seeing these drawings brings back warm memories. While the assignment likely intended that they render an objectively projected roof plan, the possibilities of the narrative drawing as a tool for exploring the city are great.
The Chinese language is well equipped for describing space, and the better equipped for describing the ‘energy’ of space than the English language. Last night, I learned a word for which there is no English synonym. It specifically deals with the notion that to paint the visage of something, one must paint the interior energy first. To move right, one must first move left, to move back , one must first move forwards. It is at once gesture, counterpoint, energy, and interior spirit. To describe the concept in English seems only to reduce the magic of the fact that in Chinese there is a word for what in English is nuanced or indescribable. The availability of this vocabulary is an incredible opportunity for exploration that exceeds the limits of Western conceptions of space.
Wang Shu has helped me, through well chosen words and his work, to understand the degree to which the Chinese conception of space centers on void rather than form. By this he means more than negative space, he deliberately seems to use the word void to imply absence (I will have to confirm this with him—if he does not intend the meaning, he should). One senses this hollowness in many places, especially temples, in the way that they seem to dematerialize as one moves through them. Shadow is essential to the concept of the void. Corners and details—the connective tissue of perspectival space—are obscured. It is the embrace of ambiguity, layered depth, and indescribable limits.
In relationship to the current curriculum I make a simple proposal: 1) make a more direct connection between drawing, writing, and design, and 2) run the analytical program in parallel. Abandon the complication of translation in favor of a more direct and painterly approach that would foster the direct incorporation of the above concepts. [At a minimum, design a material reasoning problem around the question of void.] To that simple change, I might add a second parallel track—to engage things that can not be directly controlled through the exploration of natural materials—either done in intermittent sessions, or continuously. The method seems much more in keeping with the way Wang Shu practices architecture, and seems much more likely to nurture those tendencies that are culturally relevant, and relevant to the agenda of the school.
After Dinner Saturday, I broach the subject with Wang Shu and colleagues: a lively discussion ensues between all present. After I suggest I might be crazy for proposing such a thing, Wang Shu confirms that he is crazy too. Red wine and tea consumed.
As I set out this morning, my feet hurt so much that I wondered if I would even be able to walk. Surely, if I were stalked by a wild animal, I would be dead meat. Fortunately, or sadly (depending on your ability to run away), the sum total of the wildlife I have seen in Hangzhou have been several dozen birds, a handful of fish, and five squirrels. I dare say they are among the most photographed squirrels in the world.
West lake is still crowded, even on a cold day. It was raining, but the rain was so soft it could not be felt—as if it were simply fog that tired of sitting in the air and slowly fell to the ground. It is a strange feeling to see the ground get wet but feel no rain. This did not dissuade the lovers, and to my joy, it did not dissuade the musicians playing traditional instruments. At one pavilion, strangers gathered, and sang songs. I walked and walked, snacking on local food as I went—sweet black rice, corn on the cob, and some concoctions that are impossible to identify.
Chiang Kai-shek’s former villa is just up the way from my hotel. It is strikingly modest by today’s standards. It has been left dilapidated, and what might have been the garage and some lower level rooms have been given over to snack concessions. The building is treated as if it is invisible, despite its obvious presence.
Met Hau Ru, and we traveled to the Emperor’s farm—constructed during the Song Dynasty when Hangzhou was the capital of China. Like most other historic sites, this one is also a reconstruction. Understanding the thoroughness of the historical erasure is overwhelming. During the Song dynasty, the West Lake was still connected to the Quintang River, the Emperor would sale into what was then an inlet on his way to the palace. That a geographic change of this scale is recorded in the history of the city only reinforces the sense that the surrounding mountains have witnessed far more than will ever be known in our short lives.
The farm is arranged according the the Bagwa, a form of geomancers compass those familiar with Feng Shui will recognize. Hau Ru mentions the ways in which the communist regime disparaged this farm—I would equate it to the way historians speak of Marie Antoinette milking cows. Hau Ru posits that in truth, the farm may well been a place of agricultural research and learning. This leads to a wide ranging discussion of the political history of China, and questions regarding the transformation of the Chinese language. Hau Ru offers that the most powerful Westernizing force in China was in fact Communism. A point that utterly makes sense, but as yet had never occurred to me.
I have come to understand through both Hau Ru and Wang Shu the ways in which the Chinese language has changed. It was the communist regime that forced people to write left to right. The plain language movement in the decades preceding the Revolution saw the introduction of simplified Japanese characters in lieu of more artful Chinese ones: an effort to modernize and make literacy more accessible. The net effect of these actions, combined with the introduction of punctuation was to forever change the Chinese language. While it may be more accessible in its present form, the visual symbolism and ability to make poetry through composition has been undermined. I am told that the change is so thorough that many Chinese are unaware of how many characters are Japanese in origin.
Hau Ru and I also discuss the generational nature of the changes, especially as culture is concerned. For the first time, I begin to understand the nature of what Hau Ru calls the lost generations—people born in the forties and fifties, during the throws of the Revolution, who did not receive any education. As China modernized in the 90′s, most of the factories in which those people were employed closed, and they entered the welfare rolls. While people in their thirties and forties are at the vanguard of the economic expansion and cultural reawakening, there is a large percentage of what in the United States would be the Baby Boomer generation that have been left behind. Now when I stand in the park, listening to people sing old songs, I look at the faces, and wonder how many have romantic longings for a time they felt more at home in.
The immensity of China’s aging unemployed population is staggering.
Our conversation turns to agriculture, and the government policy of re-settling farmers to the city. It is contrary to the policy that he and I both advocate for environmental reasons: decentralized and dispersed farming. Hau Ru cites a statistic that I have heard from more than one person here: that three million American farmers feed three billion people. Whether the statistic is accurate or not is unclear—that it is spoken as such by the Chinese government is. With China’s entry into the WTO, the government is dreadfully frightened of an influx of surplus American grain. There is fear and uncertainty enough on both sides of the ocean. The government policy sees mass industrialization of farming as the only way forward. In the midst of the environmental degradation we are already seeing, it is difficult to even fathom the impact of this policy encouraging concentration of agriculture. The population influx to urban areas is so great that ring roads of once distant cities are meeting; Beijing, I am told, is seeing the construction of its sixth ring road.
There is an incredible thirst for modernity as defined by gleaming towers, financial means, and comoditization of virtually everything. I would never wish to deny any person the freedom of upward mobility—but there must be a sustainable medium between a landlocked peasantry and utter industrialization of life itself. It is as if the failure of the Great Leap Forward is being repaid in spades with strides so large as to dwarf all others. Within all of this, there is the presence of global business, establishing positions within what stands to be the largest market in the world. It seems every other add on television is for Proctor and Gamble product or a foreign cosmetics company. And no discussion of agriculture misses the way in which global investment companies are positioning themselves to influence the price of pork. To imagine that the government can keep control of markets and the banking system indefinitely is pure folly.
What will happen when global business rips its leather straps, and rises from the table? I feel as though I am standing in the midst of what will be yet another calamity in the nation’s history. China is already a paradise for business, if only by virtue of the absence of critical media and environmental advocacy. That said, the absence of a meaningful regulatory framework is the true cause for fright. That the government has appointed a single official to steward each river is a small step towards addressing this. Consider for a moment, however, how many advocates each American river has—in the form of local persons, environmentalists, non-governmental organizations, regulators—and consider that all of those persons have the Clean Water Act behind them. That the Chesapeake Bay is still in a state of environmental collapse is indication enough that even that volume of effort is not entirely effective. What is a single government official to do without the force of law, and an educated populous? The calamity to come will likely make the Cuyahoga river fires seem quaint.
Hau Ru and I adjourn from the farm to a coffee house, where we wait for colleagues from the school. A group of us are all off to dinner. Hau Ru orders french fries in the mean time—and they are damn good—even after a week in China they seem exotic. Ultimately arrive at the restaurant, where Wang Shu has a table waiting–waitress immediately slides him an ashtray–she knows him well. A fantastic banquet, artfully chosen by Wang Shu and Lu Laoshi. Much talk of friend Tagiuri’s love for Chinese balls. . . . a love we all now share.
Arrive to an empty critique space.
Met Wang Fei (turns out I had been misspelling his name all this time). He is a little younger than I am, is practicing in Shanghai, and has taught at UNC and U of M. He is surrounded by four friends, all from Shanghai—well educated, but inexperienced as critics. Why I thought he was an old Chinese man is beyond me—perhaps it is the respectful tone that is used for all of the faculty.
The students are more late for Wang Fei’s presentation than they are for my class. Hau Ru explains that tardiness and absence are endemic to the school. In fact, he reports that my class is very well liked. I now understand that it is a high compliment that most students arrive only half an hour late. It is further explained that the Chinese, despite being subject to many rules, generally despise them, conforming only when truly necessary. It is a freeing realization: lessons for next time.
As the review begins I am in my element. At the conclusion of the first presentation, the critics are hesitant to speak. I have three distinct points based on nothing more than observation of the drawings—in the midst of silence, I simply begin speaking. My comments are translated several times, and, despite my having heard the presentation in Chinese, set the tone for the review. Wang Shu’s entry to the room draws attention and a crowd—but we simply continue the review, until Wang Shu interrupts to introduce me to the Dean. It dawns on me that any doubts I have had about what I am doing or my position here are misplaced.
Wang Shu joins the next review, translating and expounding upon my comments. In a flash, he calls for ‘Teachers Tea’: “Has Tagiuri (my friend to whom I owe this trip) told you about Teachers Tea?,” Wang Shu asks. It is a relief to have the warm cup. The review space is cavernous and unheated—I can see my breath, students gather around us closely. Wang Shu asks the students to attempt to present in English, but I protest, and the presentations proceed in Chinese—with my comments translated by the other critics. It is remarkably easy to understand the work based on drawings and body language. After several more projects, we break for lunch.
Lunch is a sea of discussions—again, I am happily in my element. Much warmth with Wang Shu, Lu Laoshi, Hau Ru and Joe, a colleague teaching another workshop. I broach my morning quandary regarding suburban mid-rises with Hau Ru—we vow to walk the subject neighborhood together—he confirms that there is no respect for the urban fabric I am concerned about. Great discussion on Foucault and the way in which his writings are framed in graduate schools. I outline the philosophy of my course, and Wang Shu confirms all of my suppositions about nutrient pollution in the adjacent stream. Addressing the larger group of critics he says, “The food here tastes good, but the materials it is made from are very poor . . . even in Hangzhou, where there is water everywhere, we do not have enough water.” Some talk of Chinese Government policy follows. I lay out my core principles: use water many times, move water slowly, disperse rather than concentrate.
We return to the hall, and the critique continues. Hau Ru and Wang Shu take their leave to attend a meeting, but the crowd remains. It is a pleasure to see more of my students’ work, and a pleasure to be able to have a high level discussion with them without employing pantomime. I talk to Wang Fei’s critics about the nature of development in China, and encourage a young woman to forgo a PHD and pursue practice.
Bus back to Nanshan and noodles in the room—attempt to make further dent in bottle of bad wine. Too tired to go out, but too restless to read. Will hopefully see Hau Ru tomorrow. Dear Friend Frank Chow comes in a week for a last minute visit.
Wake with a start, too early. I am gripped by the feeling that the neighborhood I walk through every day will soon be destroyed. There are no plans I know of now, but, it seems inevitable. The Chinese talk of history in thousands of years—Hau Ru describes the city during different dynasties. In the time of Marco Polo, Hangzhou was estimated to be the largest city in the world—teaming with a million people. It was also reputed to be the most beautiful. In that context, it is easy to understand why preserving what to the Chinese is the recent past is a new concept. The notion of saving anything of the very recent past, say, the last half century, seems to be a more remote idea.
Yet, in the neighborhood I walk through each day I see so much that is good. The section of the street with its terraced shop entrances echos the shape of a stream channel; they effectively direct floods both natural and human. Shops are so packed with merchandise that business spills into the street, and the traffic is a roiling mix of people, bicycles, and cars. It is no foul to walk in front of a moving car, the driver (most times) will not hit you: the only crime is to stop moving. Men smoke and play Mahjong as women stand and talk in the shadows of shop fronts. People finely dressed somehow manage not to get dirty. It is a mode of life and business I have experienced before, on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, and in the neighborhoods of Hanoi, a scene played out all over Asia. Yet, I see this this mid-rise fabric being replaced by high rise towers at an alarming rate. The breadth of the boulevards, the length of the blocks, and the height of the walls is enough to make me feel like a Lilliputian.
I wonder, what the absence of these places will mean for the life and culture of the city. The mid nineteenth century renovation of Paris did more than remake a city, it spawned a change in thinking. By enabling movement, it created new collisions between people and traffic, and people of different social strata. The thoughts that arose from those collisions changed Western thought. What then, is the net effect of diffusing the street? Is it a form of anti-egalitarian violence? The possibility of combining existing mid-rise fabric with new found mobility is intoxicating, as it might spur transformation from within—bringing about an evolution of this particular urban form. The new square walls and avenues are more likely to segregate. One can argue that the internet is the new street—yet as I am so directly aware, it is a street subject to the yoke of regulation.
As I warm the shower water, I resolve to discuss this thought with Hau Ru and introduce it in the Classroom. Dressing well for presentations, and anticipating the return of Wang Shu from Croatia.
Few of the temples and pagodas around the West lake are the same buildings they were a century ago. What had not been lost to the ravages of fire or war in China’s long history, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Some were re-built at one time or another, only to be torn down again. That temples stand, and are being re-built is testimony to the resilience of culture, and the persistence of faith.
In the face of this destruction and reconstruction, relics take on a special significance. Lei Feng Pagoda is the ancient foundation visible beneath the modern steel superstructure hovering above. Lumps of brick are strewn with coins, as people seek to invoke the magic of the place. The pagoda constructed over the ancient foundation is a gift to Hangzhou, if only for the restoration of its profile rising above the lake, absent in any form between 1924 and 2002. That its interior is a modern museum does not seem a disappointment to the hundreds of tourists at the site. I only briefly wonder whether the use of elevators in lieu of stairs somehow diminishes the journey to the top. The view obscured by fog, I am glad to have energy enough to visit another temple.
I watch a young woman pray to the four directions at the Jingci Temple. As she does, I invoke my own prayer, the concluding words of the sweat lodge. Seeing that we both do the same ritual thousands of miles apart confirms our common membership in the human family. She deposits her incense into an enormous cauldron, billowing smoke—to look inside is to see the trails of a million prayers. Monks stand and pray; people scurry about depositing offerings on brightly colored fabric. Purses are left on pillows to reserve a place to kneel and pray. Fifteen columns quietly stand to the side, witnesses to a thousand years of history. They are the remains of the original temple. It is as if they know that the current reconstruction will also pass: they wait for their moment to come again.
Hau Ru had pointed out that the reconstruction of the Drum Temple was incorrect. As I stand amidst these buildings, I wonder how much it matters, how long it will be before the chance comes to make it correct, or to make it what the people of that age think is correct. I sympathize with my friend’s sadness—if it were my city, I might feel the same way. From the outside, I marvel that the will exists to make these relics stand again. Preserving the exact material of what was does not necessarily preserve the life that filled it—authenticity in the truest sense is conferred by acts of pilgrimage and ritual. Precise simulation is a luxury that might not be shared by a people who after many years are still in the process of waking up from a long nightmare.
Exhausted, I walk home by way of the market, and secure provisions for a Chinese version of ham sandwiches. I crave more solid food. My once happy feet are aching so much I wonder if I shall ever wear shoes again. Walking home, I pass people in the thoroughly modern ritual of staring at a video screen: it feels refreshing. Returning to the room, I make my sandwiches, and open the pages of a new book.
Wandered the lake, exploring temples and pagodas. Posed for photos with young Chinese women, but drew the line when a man wanted me to pose with his bride (much to her relief). It seems there are many westerners around the lake, but few as tall as I am. There are men and women in wedding clothes everywhere. The lake is beautiful; with 1.7 million people in the city proper it stands to reason that there are many wedding parties at the lake each day. Most of the couples are in western wedding dresses and tuxedos one might expect, but several wear traditional garb with beautiful gilt fabrics and embroidery. To see the shimmering cloth against the lake with the setting sun glowing through the mist is moving. Couples in love stroll across low bridges; elderly watch the lake and the world from benches—their children have done well enough to afford them an old age of comparative comfort. The old men walk and sing, and the gossiping grandmothers sit on newspapers to keep their slacks clean. That I miss the one I love is made easier by seeing the life and joy around me.
I walk with a sense of freedom, delighting in the textures beneath my feet. I feel the carved paving stones through the soles of my shoes. I close my eyes, and navigate for a time by following the textures. Many modern sidewalks in China have patterned stones to guide the canes of the blind, this is more than that: the walks of the West Lake are a celebration. Newly carved stones are intermingled with re-used fragments. It seems certain that the stones outlive the path, but find themselves used somewhere for all eternity. Round bridges, level changes, and an absence of railings abound—it is a festival for the feet and body. That I have yet to see a wheel chair, or someone seriously infirm, is a troubling fact of my visit—something that chastens my joy. It stands to reason there are at least as many people in that predicament as there are people getting married. That painful observation made, I wish to point out to the enforcers of American codes that I have yet to see an elderly person stumble, or a person walk off a bridge. There is at least one life ring, should anyone loose there way.