In the preface to my book In search of the folk Daoists of north China I updated an ancient topos:
The “search” of my title is partly inspired by a popular genre of Tang-dynasty poetry, wherein the poet embarks on an arduous climb in search of the abstruse wisdom of a mountain recluse—only he isn’t in. Typical Tang titles include “On seeking the hermit of West Mountain and not finding him” 尋西山隱者不遇 [English version here].
Now mountain recluses, with their archetypal long white beards, are definitely not the type of Daoist I am looking for here—”pacing the void” that is rural north China, my search is for ordinary peasants who perform rituals among the people; and the arduousness of the journey is more likely to entail getting stuck in endless traffic jams behind coal-lorries, and enduring banquets with cadres in unsightly modern county-towns apparently bereft of all tradition. So the concept still has a certain resonance; in the immortal words of Alan Bennett’s clergyman, “Some of us think life’s a little bit like that, don’t we?”
Talking of seeking Tang hermits, I think of Gary Snyder‘s translations of the Cold Mountain poems.
In a fine post on “the Facebook of the 7th century”, the splendidly named Randi Hacker sparks classroom engagement by introducing his students to Tang poems written by men who had come to visit other men who were not, alas, at home—status updates, indeed:
Some of the more convoluted and humorous titles of Tang occasional poems from the “Sorry to Have Missed You” category:
- Going to Visit Censor Wang on My Day Off and Not Finding Him Home
- Walking in the Hills and Looking for the Recluse, But Finding Him Not In
- Spending the Night in Reverend Ye’s Mountain Chamber. I was expecting the senior Mr Ding, but he did not come
- Answering the Poem Left by Mr Su, Nominally of the Bureau of Forestry, When He Stopped by My Villa at Lan-tian.
I love the “Nominally” in that last one. I might add my own yet-unpublished
- On Visiting the Hunyuan Bureau of Culture, Only to Find a Bunch of Sozzled Apparatchiks who wouldn’t know what Culture was if it Bit them on the Bum.
This will also chime in with the intrepid explorations of Hannibal Taubes in search of decrepit village temples—often either locked, or their precious Ming-dynasty murals plundered or covered over in cement.
At least on our recent fruitless search for the Dragon King temple in Jinjiazhuang we were compensated by a chat with the splendid hereditary yinyang Zhang Nan.