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July 20, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Echoes from the Bamboo Forest: Finding Neverland


Hopefully, some of you will remember the utopia-like world of the ‘Common-wealth’ (the hyphen is inserted intentionally) or Datong (大同) that I introduced in my previous article. The ideal world of the Common-wealth, as described in the Book of Rites (a Confucian classic), is said to embody the spirit of the popular motto Tianxia wei Gong (天下為公), or ‘The World Belongs to All’. I consider this passage as one of the most important and influential texts in the history of Chinese political philosophy. At the same time, one should realise that there are other conceptions of utopias in Chinese culture, outside of political discourse. The most famous of these is undoubtedly ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ (Taohua-yuan, 桃花源), immortalised in the short but extremely well-known prose work by the 4th century poet Tao Yuanming. So famous and beloved has it become over the centuries that the Chinese now use Taohua-yuan as a synonym for ‘utopia’. We shall return to PBS later.

A brief mention must be made of the utopia(s) as conceived by Buddhists, particularly those in China. As many of you will have heard, the supreme goal of Buddhists is to attain Nirvana, a transcendental, unconditioned state that fully liberates one from all kinds of Dukkha (‘suffering’, ‘stress’, etc.), and from the repeated cycles of rebirth (Samsara) altogether. Among other things, Nirvana is characterised by the complete extinguishment of one’s karma, positive or negative.

This is not necessarily the goal of all Buddhists, however. Pure Land Buddhists, for example, may not aim directly for Nirvana itself, instead wishing to be reborn in the ‘Western Land of Bliss’, which is a kind of ‘paradise’. This is achieved (note: I am not a Pure Land expert) by constant attuning of the mind towards that state, especially through frequent devotional chanting of the name of ‘Amitabha’ (or Omituofo in Chinese), who is the Buddha presiding over that realm.

In contrast, there is an increasingly influential movement known as ‘Humanistic Buddhism’ (Renjian Fojiao, 人間佛教) that attempts to reverse the centuries-old trend towards deification, esotericism and (some would say) superstition within Chinese Buddhism (The stagnation of Chinese Buddhism over the last millennium is an important issue, and well worth further investigation). Humanistic Buddhism aims to re-focus people’s intellect and energies back towards the human condition, endeavouring to create a better society for all human (and other sentient) beings, i.e. a ‘Pure Land’ in the here and now. This movement is especially popular and influential in Taiwan, largely through the efforts of renowned masters such as Yin-shun, Sheng-yen (recently deceased), Hsing-yun and Cheng-yen.

But back to Peach Blossom Spring. Tao Yuanming’s fictional account tells of a fisherman—a contemporary, interestingly—who wandered too far along a river and got lost. He “found himself in the midst of a wood full of peach blossoms”, where “the lush grass was fresh and beautiful”, and “falling blossoms were dancing gracefully in a thousand hues”. Hoping to reach the end of the forest, and to discover the wellspring of the river, he entered a cavern and proceeded towards the glimmer of light at the end of a narrow tunnel.

As the fisherman emerged, the landscape suddenly opened up to reveal a wide expanse of flat land, and “houses arranged in good order with fertile fields, beautiful ponds, bamboo groves, mulberry trees and paths crisscrossing the fields in all directions. The crowing of cocks and the barking of dogs were within everyone’s earshot.” (This last sentence echoes a famous line from the Tao Te Ching, and reveals an unmistakable Daoist influence.) Even more surprisingly, and crucially, the people living in this secret land were peaceful, nice and friendly, i.e. markedly different from the people in the society of the fisherman (and of Tao himself). Their ancestors had (so the story goes) run away from the tyrannical Qin dynasty (the first imperial dynasty, centuries earlier) and hidden themselves from the harsh reality that, frankly, was not so different from Tao Yuanming’s own time.

But Peach Blossom Spring is not simply a protest against wars and tyrants. For one thing, its depiction of ‘utopia’ seems deceptively simple and entirely attainable, and very much in line with the secular humanism that characterises mainstream Chinese culture, including Daoism and Confucianism. As a literary work so loved by generations of Chinese ever since, however, it works its charm mostly through its ending, by creating a timeless interface where Tao, the fisherman, the people of PBS, and subsequent readers like you and me all meet and share in the same longing for a simpler, better world. Having been well-treated by the PBS people, the fisherman bade farewell and made his way back outside. However, he betrayed his promise to them and left marks along the way. Most unforgivably, he told the local official about Peach Blossom Spring, but try as they did, they could never find the way again. Even noble-minded recluses (highly regarded in Chinese culture) like Liu Ziji (a real-life contemporary of Tao) failed in their attempts to find ‘The Lost Road’. Eventually, we are told, ‘there was no one who “sought the ford”.

Four translations
Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land’—arguably the best contemporary Chinese theatrical play, by Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai. Fantasy and history, tragedy and comedy, laughter and tears are all juxtaposed here, in a very literal way.


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