Luoyang: "Questions and Answers"
January 18, 2008
Dear Family and Friends,
My old friend Konrad is curious about my traveling lifestyle. He writes, "How did it all begin? How would you suggest one get started?"
The reasons for my travels are varied and complex and Konrad deserves a proper response. In the meantime, I can offer two simple answers to his questions:
It all starts for me when I choose a place where I have never been before. I buy a guidebook, prepare a tentative itinerary, make an airplane reservation, book a hotel for the first night or two, and just go.
Another factor, believe it or not, is when I see an appealing photograph in a travel magazine. I say to myself, "I want to see that." This is why I chose Luoyang and the Longmen Caves. I simply had to see the caves. I had to see what was in the picture.
Begun in 386 CE, this UNESCO World Heritage site houses over 100,000 statues in 2,000 caves or niches. The guidebooks describe Longmen Caves as a masterpiece of Buddhist rock art.
The visit to the Longmen Caves is, for me, what independent travel is all about. I enter the site and stroll down the countryside pathway. On my left is the broad Yi River and an elegant arched bridge. Beyond the bridge are forested hills. On my right I approach a rocky cliff. At first there are several small caves and niches with many excellent carvings. Some of the caves are up on the hill so I climb the stairs. The view of the river and the bridge is even more dramatic. Finally, "my picture" comes to life: Fengxian Si, dating back to 675 CE and the largest of all the caves.
My dear friends, how can I describe this breathtaking, jaw dropping, stop dead in your tracks, colossal sight - this ancient "masterpiece" of grand spiritual beings carved on to the face of a tall cliff? I dare not try.
Despite the winter weather, I continue towards a second bridge. I cross the river and walk back to the entrance of the site. Along the way are more temples and caves. As I look across the river I have a great vantage point to appreciate the grandeur of Fengxian Si. Through the winter haze and falling snow I just barely make out the largest sculpture, the 17m (56 ft) Vairocana Buddha. Its face was reputedly modeled after the empress Wu Zeitan. The statue's enigmatic smile has earned it the nickname the "Eastern Mona Lisa."
There is nothing enigmatic about my own smile. I am cold and wet and tired from the long walk; my umbrella is open to protect against the snowfall. And I was never certain that I could cross the river at the first bridge and find the exit. Yet I am grinning from ear to ear as I recognize my good fortune. Longmen is another extraordinary treasure.
The snow is falling faster and I am exhausted, but my driver insists I visit the Guanlin Temple. Sometimes it's comforting to have an insistent driver.
The Guanlin Temple is dedicated to Guan Yu, an heroic general of the Three Kingdoms period (220-265 CE). Like other temples I have seen, the grounds are handsome and harmonious. Stone carvings of real and imagined animals guard and decorate the buildings and the gardens. The temples are filled with colorful statues and paintings of the red-faced, bearded ferocious general-king-god along with his well-tailored consorts and menacing comrades.
Did you know that my very first job was as a well-tailored English teacher at Haaren High School on the West Side of Midtown Manhattan? (That era was almost as ancient as the Three Kingdoms period. Actually it was during the Two Kingdoms period of King John and King Michael - Lindsey and Quill.) Since many of the students lived in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, the school sponsored a Chinese Culture Club. Each term the members produced a newsletter filled with Chinese writing and drawings. It was mimeographed. (I told you this was ancient history. Xerox machines? A later Kingdom.) I assume that the club members, most of them immigrants, discussed the eminent Guan Yu.
Lifted word for word from the Lonely Planet guidebook, here is a measure of important Chinese Culture:
"Lord of the Magnificent Beard"
"Red-faced, black-whiskered Guan Yu is one of the most popular of all Chinese gods. He appears on altars in restaurants and shops, as a character in the opera and video games; you'll often see him pasted on to front doors. He's known in the West as the god of war although like many Chinese deities he has a confusing assortment of names and roles, also going by Guan Di, Guan Gong, Guan Laoye, and, best of all, Meiran Gong (Lord of the Magnificent Beard). His various personas are revered by Taoists, Buddhists, entrepreneurs, the police, secret societies, gangs and the unwell alike. So how did one god come to take on so much?
"Like many folk heroes, Guan Yu was a real person, born in Xiezhou, sometime during the 2nd or 3rd Century CE. Apparently he was a formidable general while alive, but it was only after he died that his career really took off. Guan Yu's growing popularity as a personage in hand-me-down legends caught the attention of the Buddhists, and in the 6th Century, they inducted him as Protector of The Dharma. The Taoists were a bit slower on the uptake, although they eventually found a spot for him as a demon-smiting immortal in the celestial palace – after he received a Song emperor's seal of approval, of course.
"But it was the 14th Century novel, "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" that gave Guan Yu the biggest boost of all. His heroic exploits as a military general were immortalized against a backdrop of action-packed storytelling, and his character traits – loyalty, bravery, righteousness, benevolence (and arrogance) – came to be inseparable from his divinity. He thus symbolizes loyalty and honor to secret societies and rebels; honesty and prosperity to businesses; protection and peace for the common folk and the power of healing to those who are ill.
"Understandably, China's emperors took no chances with such an omnipotent being. They officially promoted him to the rank of celestial emperor in the late Ming dynasty, tacked on the nom de guerre god of war in the early Qing dynasty and finally extended his title to a tongue-twisting 24 characters in the 19th Century. And who's to say what's to come next?" *
And who's to say what's to come next for me? After today's brilliant and snowy adventure to Longmen Caves and Guanlin Temple, a warm shower and a hot bowl of soup are surely on my schedule.
After that? Who knows?
"Who knows" is another response to Konrad's thoughtful questions: One of the unique qualities of independent travelers is that they do know where they are, of course. But frequently they don't know how long they will stay or where they are going next. As for me, I usually have a general plan for an onward journey, but it's snowing, so who knows?
As the song says, "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow." Maybe I'll just hang and enjoy the special qualities of Chinese culture in Luoyang. I met Scott, an American businessman here, and he assures me that this city of 1.4 million is "a happenin' place." Any more questions?
I do have one final thought:
Konrad mentioned that he is healthy and that he has the time and the resources to travel. He also mentioned that in the past he has been a little adventurous. So, my wish for Konrad, and for everyone, is that after you see the photographs of the huge carvings of the Buddha, the disciples and the kings, you will decide that you too "simply have to see them."
If you are reluctant to travel to the other side of the world, or to cross an ocean, then maybe you can drive to the other side of the state or even to the other side of town. I urge you to choose your own picture of a site that you simply have to see, and just go.
That's how it starts, Konrad. You just go.
That's how it started for me. I just went.
Cheers from Hirsute Jan.
I shaved off my own magnificent beard years ago. The "Guan Yu" black aged to a "Confucius" white.
* “China.” pg 410. Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd. Australia. 2007.