Saturday, August 22, 2009

Amazing Tibet

We have been many places in this old world, but Tibet was one of the more interesting.  Up until now, Egypt, with its bleak landscape and legacy of ancient pharaohs, temples and tombs, has been the place that has been the furtherest removed from our Western view of the world.  China has also been very different.  It, of course, is the oriental world, almost the polar opposite of my occidental world.  But on top of the ancient customs, temples, Buddhist statues, is a veneer of the modern Western world.  Many people speak English, they have high-rise buildings, and they operate their everyday economic life on one of the most energetic forms of capitalism I've ever seen.  But the Tibet part of China is strikingly different.

Tibet is the top of the world.  This becomes abundantly clear the minute you step off the airplane and can't breathe.  After four or five days it is still difficult to breathe, especially after some exertion.  Our first day there we did nothing except veg in our hotel room and try to acclimatize.   It's worth noting that every room is equipped with tanks of oxygen.  

We took a van trip from Lhasa to Shigatze, the second largest city, and spent the first several hours climbing up the sides of mountains on a serpentine, two-lane road until we reached a high plateau.  Nestled in between snow-covered mountains (in July) is the beautiful Yamdrock Tso Lake with its crystal-clear waters.  Like nearly everything, it is sacred to the Tibetans.  

A little further down the road we passed the glacier that fed the lake.  

There was not much traffic on this road, mostly just tourist vans and buses, but there was a lively trinket-selling trade at nearly every stop.  You could take a picture sitting on a yak for a fee.  

Vendors set up shop on a blanket spread out on the ground at every intersection or pull-off.  Prayer flags could be seen flapping in the breeze at prominent points, especially at points overlooking the river where "wet burials" were performed.  Look it up on Wikipedia.

We were interested in the agriculture.  Green crops were growing in the fields in every valley.  

The yellow-blossomed rapeseed seemed to dominate at this time of year and bathed the countryside in a yellow glow.

 Farmhouses with their stone walls and enclosed pens for animals were everywhere.  Prayer flags few on staffs on each of the four corners of the houses.  Most appeared to be new.  I saw very few rundown or abandoned farmhouse anywhere.  There was lots of new construction.  I understand that the Chinese government is pouring lots of money into Tibet, its poorest province, partly to improve the lives of the peasants and partly to quell any dissent.  

Once, while stopping by the side of the road for a break, our guide asked an old grandmother squatting by the side of the road if we could tour her nearby house.  She consented and this little tour turned out to be the highlight of our trip in Tibet.  The lady of the house turned out to be not the grandmother but a beautiful young mother of about 30 who took great pride in her home. 

 It was an extremely humble home.  The kitchen featured a cast iron, yak dung-fueled, cooking stove and a cupboard.  No running water.  There was an electric bulb in the center of the room and a small TV that did not appear to be working.  

There were places for sleeping with yak-hair blankets.  The courtyard featured a primitive loom.  All the wood trimmings were highly colored with delicate designs.  

Around the courtyard were pens for animals, and plastered on the stonewalls were yak dung patties set out for drying.  Once they were dry they were stacked on top of the wall until time for use.  But the family was delightful.  Humble but happy, and gracious to a fault.  And the young mother, in her native soiled costume, had the face of an angel.  

That Tibet is Buddhist is obvious.  One only had to look at everyday people walking down the street on any city or any side road spinning pray wheels--old people, businessmen, monks, housewives and shop girls.  

We visited the Jokhang Temple, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism, and saw a side of Buddhism we had never seen before, much different than what we had seen in Thailand or China. 

 Outside the entrance were dozens of people praying by holding their palms together, genuflecting, then kneeling down, and then fully prostrating themselves on the ground with their foreheads touching the stone pavers.  Then they rose, only to repeat the motion hundreds of times.  To make things more comfortable, they had homemade mats to lay on and pads on their hands to protect them as they slide down into a prone position.  After a hundred or more motions, they paused to get a drink of tea or visit with a neighbor.  And then they went on all day or more.  Many were old women, but some were young women wearing designer jeans (probably tourists).  

In side the temple, things were chaotic.  There was a long line of pilgrims waiting to get in, all lined up belly to bum.  People were selling yak butter to use in fueling candles.  The line inside snaked around the interior wall but disappeared into side rooms featuring Buddha statues and bodhisattvas, all of whom were honored by some active of devotion, including pushing money through the wire screens protecting the statues (they were made of gold, after all).  The inside of the Temple was dark, noisy, dirty, smoky, and crowded, almost like a market place.  Indeed, in one corner there were several monks selling prayers they wrote on small pieces of paper.  

The yak butter smoke was overpowering both to the nose and the eye.  From every side of us there loomed yet another Buddha figure, large and small, smiling and grim, comforting and threatening.  

Compared with the inside of a Mormon temple with its solemnity and simple decor, this was a strange experience.  But no one could deny the devotion of the adherents there that day, and it is inconceivable that God would withhold His blessing because of what I considered to be the grotesque nature of their religious practices.  

Our peak into this exotic religion continued with a tour of the Potala Palace.  Built as it is like a cap on a stoney hill in the center of Lhasa, it is an architectural wonder.  It is no longer a religious site (although some monks apparently inhabit the place), but is run as a museum by the Chinese government.  We paid our money and showed our papers, and proceeded to climb the steep, snaking stairs up the front.  We ran out of breath every 20 steps or so.  So we paused and went another 20 steps. 

It is quite well maintained; the step are in good repair and it had a fresh coat of whitewash.  After some effort we got to the top levels and began winding through a labyrinth of rooms housing more Buddha figures.  There were dozens and dozens of these rooms and hundreds of statues.  On the very top we saw rooms that had housed various Dalai Lamas, including the 14th, now in exile.  Here there was none of the chaos of the Jokhang Temple, but there was still the bizarreness of the Buddhist figures.  This palace is one of the most recognizable images of Tibet and one of the more remote places on earth; Elva and I were in awe that we were actually standing there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Little Primer in Chinese Poetry

I told them I hated poetry, which was a preposterous statement given that I was standing before a British and American literature class at the Xi’an International Studies University in China, where I was the teacher and poetry was part of the curriculum.  But it was true. 

I have never really enjoyed poetry: too hard to read, too obscure, too much of a mental investment to understand the meaning.  But I soldiered on with Robert Frost’s “The Path Not Taken” (one of the few I do like) and a few others by Dickinson, Burns and Poe, but Wordsworth and Whitman I left alone.  Mid-semester I instituted a poetry exchange where I taught them an English poem, and they told me about Chinese poetry.  In the end I learned far more about poetry than they did.

From an Early Age

The Chinese are crazy about poetry.  They learn it from an early age and even have poetry parks.  One day last month I was sitting next to a large statute dedicated to some of China’s most famous poets.  Through an interpreter I asked a 9-year-old boy if he knew any poetry.  Without hesitation he recited in Chinese, not a child’s poem, but a poem by the renowned Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai.  In English it is rendered as follows:

Thoughts On a Tranquil Night

Before my bed a pool of light—
O can it be frost on the ground?
Looking up, I find the moon bright;
Bowing in homesickness I’m drowned

Li Bai Gazes at the Moon

When I asked an 11-year-old the same question, he recited a poem by Wang Zhihuan from the same period:

On the Stork Tower

The sun along the mountain bows;
The Yellow River seaward flows.
You will enjoy a grander sight
By climbing to a greater height.

Climbing to a Greater Height

And how old was he when he first learned this poem?  He was seven.  It was taught in the context of trying to achieve higher goals — “climbing to a greater height.”  Nearly every grade school child in China can recite either of these two poems.

Wanting to impress my class, I found a Tang-era poem I liked on the Internet, a long one, and as I started to recite it to them, the whole class of 80 students started to recite it along with me.  They had learned it in high school.  Poetry is part of the curriculum at every level.  They are tested on it in order to advance from one grade level to another, or as part of their college entrance exams.  Typically they are given a few lines of a poem and must fill in the rest.

The Golden Age of Chinese Poetry

For the several thousand years the Chinese poets have been writing verse, perhaps the most well-known are those who wrote during the period of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).  It is almost universally regarded as the golden era of Chinese poetry.  According to one account, this 300-year span produced almost 50,000 poems written by over 2,200 authors. 

This as a time when China was administered by a large cadre of well-educated scholars who had to pass exacting civil service examinations to gain government positions, and a mastery of poetry was part of these examinations.  Moreover, writing poetry was a favorite pastime of the Tang court. 

Du Fu

One example is Du Fu, who is called by some the “Chinese Shakespeare.”  He was a prolific poet, writing on a wide range of subjects, and nearly 1,500 of his poems have survived him.  In his early years he traveled widely throughout China before landing a secure government job, which unfortunately was later disrupted by a rebellion.  The last 15 years of his life were a time of turmoil.  He has been called the “poet historian” because his poems reflect the times in which he lived.


A contemporary of Du’s was Li Bai (quoted in the poem above) who was a little older than Du Fu and a poet “rock star.”  The two met in mid careers and even wrote poems to one another.  He received the epithet “knight errant,” translated literally as “wandering force,” because of his never-ending travel throughout China.  He too wrote about the trials of common people.  He was enormously prolific but only about 1,000 of his poems are extant today.  He is one of China’s most beloved poets and he has become one of mine too.  I particularly enjoy this poem written in seven-character quatrain:

A Reply

I dwell among green hills and someone asks me why;
My mind care free, I smile and give him no reply.
Peach petals fallen on running water pass by,
This is an earthly paradise beneath the sky.

The Structure of Classical Chinese Poetry

Like English poetry, classical Chinese poetry adhered to certain structures.  Many poems rhymed, usually with the first line rhyming with the second line and the third line with the fourth line, although this was not always true. Chinese is a tonal language with four tones: high, rising, dipping or falling.  In another form of poetry, the poet matches the tone pattern rather than make the verses rhyme.  Thus, the pattern in which the tones occur in the first line is matched in the second line, and the third with the fourth.  There are, of course, many other patterns.

Many of the poems of the Tang era were written in quatrains of four lines with either five or seven Chinese characters in each line.  An example of this is by the poet Wei Lingwu.  In Chinese, the characters look like this:


Reading from right to left and from top to bottom (the old Chinese style), first comes the title and then the poem in seven-character quatrain format.  Translated into English it reads as follows:

At Chu Zhou on the Western Stream

Where tender grasses rim the stream
And deep boughs trill with mango-birds,
On the spring flood of last night’s rain
The ferry-boat moves as though someone were polling.

Trilling Bird

Hidden Meanings

As with most poetry, a poem has more meaning if one understands the story behind it.  In this case, the author was a government official who had been demoted from the capital to a remote place called Chu Zhou.  He compares himself to “tender grasses” (or “lonely weeds” in another version) near a western stream.  Above him are mango-birds or orioles trilling or chattering, which many experts interpret as court officials who are always flattering the emperor and looking down on the people.  The next two lines paint a picture of heavy rain and a surging tide where a ferry boat would be needed to transport the court across the river, but although the boat moves there may not be anyone guiding it.  And thus Wei Yingwu writes a poem and also takes a stab at the royal court that has excluded him.  Such “between the lines” meanings by court poets were common.

Tang Court

Translating Chinese Poetry

Translating a poem from Chinese (particularly the ancient Chinese of more than a century ago) can be challenging because it cannot be done on a “word for word” basis as might be the case with the romance languages.  For example, with the Chu Zhou poem above it obviously took many more English words to convey the meaning expressed in just seven Chinese characters in each line.  Fortunately there is wide latitude in choosing which English words can be used to express the meaning of the Chinese characters.  Thusly, this same poem can be rendered this way too:

I prefer the lonely weeds grown along side the creeks;
To the oriole above, chattering in the grove.
With a downpour the night cast, over bank the spring tide cast;
Sequestered is this crossing, free is the ferry floating.(1)

Either way the loneliness of the author, his alienation from the court, and the aimlessness of the ferry remain.

At Chu Zhou

This latitude makes it easier to translate a Chinese poem that rhymed according to its own pattern into an English rhyming pattern while still retaining the meaning of the poem.  Though daunting, there is no shortage of Chinese and English-speaking scholars who have done it, often with very pleasing results.  Accordingly, on the last day of literature class I expressed my appreciation for all they had taught me about poetry and left them with this poem from the poet Xue Tao as translated by Xu Yuanchong (2)

Farewell to a Friend

Waterside reeds are covered with hoarfrost at night;
The green mountains are drowned in the cold blue moonlight.
Who says a thousand miles will separate us today?
My dream will follow you though you are far away.


Note: Material and suggestions for this article were provided by Yuan Yue (English name, Rhine) and Zhang Yuan (English name, Christine), both students at the Xi’an International Studies University. 


(1) Translated by Yuan Yue (Rhine)

(2) Xu Yuanchong, 300 Tang Poems, Peking University, 2008.

Amazing Story of Amanda de Lange

Amanda de Lange looked out the bedroom window of her high-rise apartment building in the ancient city of Xi’an, China, and contemplated the chain of events that had brought her to this far-away place, half a world away from her original home.  Before her stretched kilometers and kilometers of other high-rise complexes, public parks, and streets that made up this large metropolitan city, and behind her slept more than 50 tiny orphans that made up her brood of castoffs from a society that struggles to keep up with its burgeoning population.  She recalled that her patriarchal blessing said that she had a great mortal destiny awaiting her, but she never dreamed that it would fulfilled in this way and so completely.  It had been a long and difficult journey but also one where the hand of the Lord had been unmistakable.

Her family life when she was young would certainly not have been an indicator of what was to come.  Born of Afrikaner stock in South Africa, her family had been plagued over three generations with alcoholism and divorce.  But then the unexpected happened.  Through the auspices of a friend, she joined the Church when she was nineteen and a few years later she went on a mission to South Africa.  To Amanda, these were more than just ordinary events: They were spiritual manifestations of God’s hand in her life.  “I gained renewed hope and an all-important understanding that I was a child of God and that he loved me beyond measure.”  This reassurance laid the foundation for the rest of her life.  

Post-mission she attended and was graduated from Brigham Young University.  Not having found a spouse, she pushed on with her life.  She taught English in Taiwan for seven years and became fluent in Mandarin.  When she was unable to acquire a permanent visa to remain in Taiwan, she took a job teaching in an international school in Xi’an and settled into her new life.  Then a seeming opportunity came her way.  She lined up a job teaching English in South Korea, a job that brought with it the chance to obtain a master’s degree.  She was within days of embarking on this new direction in her life when events took a turn.

Over the months in Xi’an, Amanda had been volunteering at a huge government orphanage housing about 500 children.  The situation for these tiny ones was grim.  Amanda found herself yearning to do something to help.  And then she found herself sitting across the table at lunch with a Chinese woman discussing how a foreigner, like herself, could become more involved.  It was during this luncheon that the words forcefully came to her mind, “Why don’t you start your own orphanage?”  She quickly dismissed the idea because starting an orphanage in a bureaucratically-inclined country as a foreigner would undoubtedly involve numerous permits and expenses.  But the idea would not leave her.

As it turned out her lunch partner was well connected, and her Heavenly Father had led her to the one person in the country of 1.3 billion people who could help.  Amanda recalls that, “there was no bureaucratic red tape, no requests for money, no mountains of paperwork and no endless waiting.”   A few months later, permission was granted and a few days after that six tiny babies arrived at her apartment.  Just as with her baptism and mission, Amanda felt the Lord’s presence behind this life-changing event, and she received a quiet spiritual confirmation that she was to remain in China and do the Lord’s bidding.

Amanda had always been impressed with the story of the starfish.  

Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf's edge and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.

The man was stuck by the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached, the person continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.

As he came up to the person, he said, "You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can't possibly make a difference." The person looked at the man. He then stooped down and picked up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, "It sure made a difference to that one!"

And thus was the Starfish Foster Home named, and it accurately reflects Amanda’s drive to “make a difference.”

Over the last four years, a total of 80 little starfish have passed through her loving hands.  Periodically Amanda roams through the city orphanage looking for more.  She does not choose those you would expect—the cute ones, the adoptable ones.  She brings home those she describes as “medically fragile”—the scarred ones, the unadoptable ones.  Usually this means babies with cleft palates, holes in their hearts, or with spinal bifida.  These are babies that are likely to perish in a large institution for lack of attention and care.  Cleft palate babies must be fed with special care because it is difficult for them to suck and receive the nourishment they need.  

And special care is what they get.  Amanda now presides over a small army of paid nannies and volunteers that feed, bath, and care for these fragile ones.  She is like the CEO of a small company.  There is a budget, a daily schedule, routine tasks, and a to-do list a miles long.  Trucks arrive weekly with loads of food, formula and diapers.  She operates a small kitchen to feed her growing staff.

She not only cares for her little charges, she repairs them.  Some come into her care only skin and bones, but soon they develop into the fat, cuddly, smiling babies we all like to see.  When they are ready, Amanda and her helpers take them to hospitals all over China seeking out specialists to fix up the cleft palates, sew up the holes in the hearts, and close exposed spines.

As Amanda and I talked about this, 3-year-old Shawn burst into the room full of vim and vinegar from his daily outing with the nannies.  “Manda, Manda,” he cried as he sought a place in her lap.  Shawn is a scamp.  The other day he climbed to the top of a dresser to look out a tall window.  As they cuddled, it was hard to imagine that when he first arrived his chance of survival was slim.  All his ribs showed and his bones pressed against his thin skin.  He was so small that the smallest-sized Pampers went clear up to his armpits.  Now his future is much brighter.  Next month he will be adopted by a family from France.  And thus it goes—salvaged, repaired, adopted.  So far, 20 little starfish have been adopted.

Later, I held tiny Sophia on my lap and gazed into her face which unfortunately was marred by a double-cleft palate.  She had arrived in a condition similar to Shawn’s, but she has since thrived.  Soon she will have her cleft palate repaired through the generosity of my home ward.  She looked up at me and touched my face as I looked into her deep, dark eyes and speculated on what unexpected life she might be able to live now that she will be adoptable.  

But things have not always turned out so well.  One of the early starfish, Susan, came to her at three months old with a heart condition.  A small operation put her right for awhile, but later an infection set in and swept her away.  Amanda lay with her in her arms as her breath grew shallower and shallower until finally her spirit slipped beyond the veil.  And she is not the only one that could not be saved.

Although Amanda grieves at the loss of these little ones, she looks at it from an eternal perspective.  The tie between her and Susan (and the others) has not been permanently broken.  She knows she will see them again.  She has a scrapbook of all her little ones that will ultimately go to the adoptive parents, but as she stands before her window her eyes fill with tears as her fingers trace over the images in Susan’s scrapbook.  Could it be, she wonders, that through God’s tender mercies she might be permitted to raise these lost ones through the childhood denied them on earth?

But in the meantime there is work to do.  Shawn breaks into the room again.  “Manda, Manda,” he cries.  He has come for a hug and then he’s off.  Her cell phone rings.  It’s the central orphanage.  Does she have room for one more?  You can guess the answer.  And thus Amanda’s unexpected life goes on in an unexpected place.