Wednesday, September 26, 2007

China: Ascending Mount Taishan

"Professor John Paul, I have a question for you: It has been keeping me up at nights, thinking and wondering... In many paintings created from the west... Why is there no mountain?"

The question was asked by my new Chinese friend and translator, Wang Qi. She repeated the last part for emphasis and waited for my answer: " Why is there no mountain?"

What a question! We were on a lumbering tour bus, winding it's way upward past lush forest glens, rocky outcroppings and temples half shrouded in swirling veils of atmospheric mist. We were on our way to ascend to the summit of the greatest mountain in China. The great mountain of the east and the first mountain under heaven, Mount TaiShan.

What was she really asking me? It gave me an electric thrill just to ponder the true meaning of her question as my brain searched for an answer to this strange-sounding inquiry. "Why is there no mountain?"

Having just lectured at the International Symposium on the Comparative Research of Contemporary Chinese and Western Art Education, I had learned what "The Mountain" really symbolized...

I had a discussion during dinner the previous day with a famous professor from Peking University, and we were asking each other questions about aesthetics. In China, the term aesthetics refers to an appreciation and knowledge of art- not just in technical terms- but as a hierarchy of beauty and as a moral force. (Tell an American artist that their work should reflect a hierarchy of beauty and be a moral force and you will be called a damned fascist.)

I asked the Chinese professor about this hierarchy, and I was told in no uncertain terms that the most beautiful and moral thing on Earth was : "The mountain." The next most beautiful thing was "The mountain, against a sunset" Next came "The mountain in fog" followed by various combinations of water, trees, rocks, flowers and other aspects of nature.

To this I answered that in my painting classes back in Los Angeles, I liked to give my students an assignment: I ask them to bring to class an object that they find beautiful. I stunned the Chinese aesthetics professor by telling him that some students might bring a finely crafted porcelain vase holding a rose, while another might bring in an old worn shoe.

"How could an old shoe be beautiful?!" he burst out. I defended that the shoe could be beautiful because it reflected the journey of the wearer. It 's form had been creased and weathered through years of fulfilling it's purpose, which was to protect the tender foot of its owner. The materials may appear stained and discolored in fascinatingly unexpected ways over time. It could certainly be beautiful, I argued.

The professor from Peking laughed. "But, could an old shoe be a moral force?"

Before I could formulate a suitable Zen-like retort, the professor continued: "The mountain is symbolic of where the Earth meets heaven. It is where the gods dwell. It is the Emperor. it is unmovable, eternal, unshakable. It is symbolic of the ever-lasting. The mountain is like a god."

So, when my translator asked me "Why is there no mountain" in most western art, she was really saying "Why is there no GOD in most western art?."

Why is there no sacredness in most western art?
Symbolically, literally...I was shaken by this observation.

The ascent to the top of Mount Taishan helped me to understand the cultural connection and reverence the people of China have for the mountain...

The base of Mount Taishan features a huge map, describing the various ways to scale the home of the gods. We would be going to the tip top!

Here I stand in the first stage of the ascent: a huge open square-shaped courtyard. In Chinese aesthetics, the square symbolizes the Earth. The tall stone columns are carved with dragons, symbolizing power and eternity. They lead up to a second courtyard, shaped like a circle. The circle symbolizes the heavens. Thus, Mount Taishan is where the Earth and the heavens meet.

The towering detailed dragons are so incredible... and in between the two rows of columns in the center of the stairway rests this huge stone carving representing the ancient Emperor's climb up the mountain...

The Emperor would have traveled with an army, aided by elephants and horses. The carving depicts the seemingly endless layers of clouds and steep cliffs.

Finally, the Emperor is shone as a proud figure seated on his mountain-top throne.

Here is the circular courtyard at the top of the stairs, representing heaven. It is here that we board a bus to take us to the waiting cable cars. ( Elephants would have been cool, too, but it would have taken months to reach the top).

Rising up into the mist...

Finally we reach the topmost series of summits. Here I am with my new friends and translators, Qi ( In white) and QuinHua. Both lovely ladies are art aesthetics professors in China. What wonderful people!

The first temple can be reached by a steep set of about twelve thousand stairs ( seen disappearing down to the right.) I would have taken that route if I could, but our tour time was limited. We still have a lot of climbing before we reach the sacred temple at the very top...

The smoke is incense being burned in the shrine. A steady ringing of a huge bell fills the air.

Thousands of metal locks are placed on the shrines by married couples who scale the mountain. They leave the locks and then throw the keys off the side of the mountain to symbolize everlasting love.

The smell of burning incense , smoke, tolling bells...

The beginning of our steep ascent by stairs...

Beautiful Professor Zheng from Tsinghua University is a remarkable woman who scampered up the steps with ease...

At the top of the steps sits the highest shrine of Mount Taishan...

The temples in the clouds...

...and ancient walls where Emperors of the Qin, Han and Tang dynasties carved their identifying marks directly into the rock.

The final shrine is buzzing with activity.

An amazing day at Mount Taishan, in Tai'an, Shandong China.