Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A myriad of mountains

Xu Xiake died three hundred and seventy years ago today. He was an intrepid traveller exploring his native China with pen in hand, so to speak, recording the details of his journeys with literary flare and a romantic style. He also made significant geographical discoveries. Extracts (all too few of them) of his travel diaries are available in English in Julian Ward’s academic analysis - Xu Xiake (1587-1641) - The Art of Travel Writing.

Xu Xiake was born in today’s Jiangyin of East China’s Jiangsu Province. As a boy, he studied ancient classics but rather than taking the imperial exams, he developed an interest in history and travel books, and in travelling. During his lifetime, he journeyed with his servant Gu Xing all over China, mostly or very often on foot.

China Culture lists Xu Xiake’s main contributions to geography as: a detailed and scientific study of the karst landform; correcting some mistakes of the records on the source and waterways of Chinese rivers; observing and recording the species of many plants, explicitly putting forward the influences that landform, temperature, and wind speed might have on the distribution and blooming of plants; conducting a survey on the volcano relics of Tengchong Mountain; and a detailed depiction of the phenomenon of terrestrial heat, the earliest of its kind in China. He died on 8 March 1641. A little more biographical information is available at Wikipedia and China Culture.

Xu Xiake recorded his travels in great detail. These notes were later arranged by a friend and prepared as a manuscript, but this suffered through the ages and was only printed in 1776 when part was already lost. Not till 1928, was a modern version of the diaries printed, by the Commercial Press in Shanghai.

Julian Ward first saw a version of the diaries in Xi’an in 1988, and then decided to research them further for his PhD at Edinburgh University - An Analysis of Literary and Philosophical Aspects of the Travel Diaries of Xu Xiake (1587-1641) - completed in 1996. Subsequently, in 2001, Curzon Press published Ward’s Xu Xiake (1587-1641) - The Art of Travel Writing, which is an extensive academic analysis of Xu Xiake’s diaries, and, unfortunately, contains all too few substantial passages from the diaries themselves. After a chapter on ‘The History of Chinese Travel Writing’, other chapters focus on subjects such as ‘Coveting Strangeness’, ‘Old Certainties and New Discoveries’, ‘Mountains and Caves’. The extensive bibliography lists various Chinese language editions of his diaries, the earliest of which is the 1928 edition.

The following two paragraphs are extracted from Ward’s book:

‘The present text of Xu Xiake’s diaries has more than 600,000 characters, of which the early trips to famous mountains constitute 50,000 and the journey to southwest China well over 500,000 characters. Popular myths surrounding his method of writing have arisen from romantic descriptions in contemporary biographies, which played on the image of the sensitive man at one with Nature. . . [One biographer wrote:] ‘After travelling for several hundred li, he would clamber up a broken rock to a withered tree and burn pines in order to gather together some tassels. He would then dash of a record of his journey, which was as good as a writing manual or a great work of art, something which even the greatest writers could not have improved.’

For much of his long journey, Xu managed to write his diary entries on the day in question. There were also, however, several instances when he had to wait several days before finding an opportunity to write up his experiences. On one such occasion, at a temple in Guizhou, he elaborated: ‘Entering a hall to the rear, I went up to a clean table and, using the ink and paper I was carrying, proceeded to write up several days of my journey. The jumbled chaos of my lodging was no match for the cleanliness and exclusion of this place. The monk, Tanbo, was most solicitous, bringing me tea and snacks from time to time. In the afternoon, two big and two small elephants came by, stopping in front of the temple for a long time . . . I was quite intoxicated in drafting my diary.’ ’

And here are three further (undated) samples of the translated diary taken from Ward’s book.

In Hunan
‘Since Cold Water Bay, the mountains and the sky had opened out, broadening the field of vision, while on either bank of the river water-eating rocks hove in and out of view, each one a sensual and visual feast. On entering the Qiyang region, the rocks took on a strange form and a shining appearance: as we passed through the region, they gradually presented a lofty form till by the time we had reached here, they seemed to surge out of the earth. On entering Xiangkou, the mass of towering interwoven cliffs was transformed into precipitous cliffs, rearing up into the sky.’

In eastern Yunnan
‘At the front of the courtyard was a flowering cassia tree whose mysterious fragrance floated all round, filling up the distant hills and valleys. Previously when I had passed through the valley and circled the ridge I had marvelled at its scent, thinking it to be heavenly fragrance descending in the distance, never imagining it was produced by blossom. The sweet-smelling cassia and the colourful chrysanthemums made me think about this secluded region and I regretted there was no monk with whom I could share it.’

In Guizhou
‘Followed the mountain path to the northeast and entered a bamboo thicket: towering trees and layered cliffs, above and below mysterious, crossed crags and penetrated the azure, as if in another world. It was like this for five li, then the cliff to the west sloped down from the summit falling to great depths to create a valley, in the middle of which was a marsh of still water, dark and deep blue. Slid into the water from the base of the rocks, but there was no ebb or flow: it was a truly ancient secluded pool, hidden in the valleys of a myriad mountains.’

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