Sunday, September 18, 2005

Another Day, Another Mountain

So that's another day spent clambering up and down a mountain and you might be beginning to wonder why the hell I bother. To be honest I'm not sure really, it's probably because I need the exercise. Anyway, this time it was Tai Shan, the most important of China's 5 Taoist mountains. According to Chinese mythology the first being, Pangu, creates everything, although it takes him considerably longer than the Judeo-Christian one, requiring 18,000 years to complete the task instead of just 6 days, and by the end he is understandably shagged out and so lies down to die. His various body parts become different parts of the earth, with his head becoming Tai Shan, hence its importance (so, what part of his body is your town made from?). It's not as pretty as the other mountains I've seen so far, but it makes up for it with oodles of temples, gates, pavilions, arches and steles; oh yes, and calligraphy. It seems like every emperor of China came up here to add his "tag" and some deep, wise philosophical quote (though it could just as well be sponge cake recipes for all the sense they make to me). Hardly a single stone escaped the royal graffiti brush. Oh, talking of quotes, apparently, seeing as Tai Shan is such a deeply spiritual place, this is where important people come to make memorable quotes. Confucius said "the world is small" whilst Chairman Mao said "the east is red". Erik Jelinek, being neither important nor philosophical, said "bloody hell, I'm knackered". But then, we can't all be great thinkers.

But wait, it hasn't all been mountains these past few days, I have also been nurturing my cultural education. Close to Huang Shan there are a couple of villages that have, miraculously, escaped China's rampant modernisation for long enough to be recognised as rather special. They retain a lot of original Ming and Qing architecture: narrow alleyways, beautiful courtyards and intricately carved wood panels. Plus, on the way up to Tai Shan I stopped off at Qufu, ancestral home of Confucius and his descendants, the Kongs. Kong Zi, as he is known to the Chinese, lived over 2500 years ago and his philosophy of respect for authority, social order and conservatism is one of the main reasons (at least in my opinion) that China developed so quickly into such a powerful empire. During the Dark Ages China was miles ahead of anybody else in pretty much every respect and could well have expanded far beyond its borders. Except for their introspective conservatism, another Confuscianist product (OK, perhaps an oversimplified view of Chinese history and culture, but I'm not writing a book on the subject, so there). And although Confucius was never valued in his own lifetime he has since become deified and his descendants became rulers of Qufu and are the oldest aristocratic family in China (the present head of the House of Kong is the 77th direct descendant of Confucius, though ironically he now lives in Taiwan). However I was a bit disappointed with the mansion and temple there as they had very little in the way of information and history.

Today is also the mid-Autumn festival here in China, which is apparently the second most important one after New Year. The festival represents the end of the harvest season and is a time of happiness and plenty when families get together and look at the bright, big moon together (fat chance of that happening here tonight though as the notorious Chinese haze is obscuring the view). But that doesn't interest me much really. What I'm really interested in are mooncakes. These are the traditional pastries that are eaten during the celebrations. Traditionally they are made with lotus seeds and egg yolk, but nowadays they come in a dizzying variety of flavours, both sweet and savoury (western companies have gotten in on the act too, with Haagen Dazs offering ice-cream mooncakes and Starbucks doing coffee and tea flavours). The closest comparison I can draw would be to British mince pies, and they are just as moreish. In fact, I find it hard to manage a day without having my mooncake "fix".

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