The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once imagined an emperor who ordered his mapmakers to devise a perfect map of his empire. To capture every detail, the makers required ever larger maps until ultimately their map was just the size of the empire itself — perfect at last, but completely useless. China is not only the right setting for a fantasy project on a continental scale, but in fact over the last few thousand years the Chinese have undertaken Borges’ project: China is the elaborate, embellished, unfinished map of itself. In other places, things have labels; here, things are labels, and as a result the landscape is its own user’s guide. Because Chinese can be written horizontally or vertically, buildings can beam a logo from the top and slogans down the sides, and they do, along with flashing digital displays worthy of Times Square. Even dense alleys of window vendors are hung with dancing LED characters.
This is not a new thing nor is it confined to walls. For thousands of years, in China nature and human works have been revised for beauty. Nature is not a pristine wilderness to be viewed from outside, but rather an inspiring canvas for the human hand to rearrange — and inscribe. In front of our apartment, the dirt field of August is now the Chinese garden of September, with inlaid meandering stone paths and two artful boulders (and fifty trees and shrubs, by the way, very nice!). The stones in the path outline Chinese characters, and the boulders each have carved inscriptions. Each boulder took two workers about two days to carve (around ten characters), using (very loud) grinders.
Writing, especially calligraphy, is not easy in solid rock. So the many inscriptions that define Mount Tai (Taishan), written up the cliffs, over the boulders, down the waterfalls, present in every view, are especially impressive and beautiful. Taishan is one of the “five sacred peaks,” which we climbed with Morgan’s 8th grade class as part of their “week without walls” ultimate field trip experience. (Rianna’s week without walls took her to Mongolia.) Taishan towers across the poetic landscape in many proverbs. Things can be “as heavy as Taishan,” as in “Though death befalls all men alike, it may be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather.” If you fail to acknowledge greatness in another person, you “have eyes but cannot recognize Taishan.” Accordingly, a very important person is “Mount Tai and the Big Dipper” — in English, Mr. Big. Emperors traditionally begin their reigns with long marches to the summit, and auspicious sacrifice to the god(s) of Taishan. Their treks and poetic musings are then carved into the rock. Writing is everywhere, more than a thousand separate inscriptions, some thousands of years old and at least one poem inscribed in 1990. I tried not to pester others too much for translations, but it seems that many of the inscriptions are celebrations of Taishan itself, the “peaceful place at which all the oceans meet.” The mountain is its own travelogue, history, and tour guide.
Confucius said, “after climbing Taishan, the world becomes small.” On our hike, the world quickly sank into haze and our remaining energy became small. The way up is a broad stone staircase between low walls, very steep, quite like the Great Wall. Perhaps an hour into the climb we looked up into the greenery to see a ribbon of stairs impossibly high above us, and then above another rocky shoulder, still more stairs, and finally the tiny red dot of the East Gate to the summit. One mile above sea level seems like a modest climb, but when that mile is 7200 stone steps, well, you might just groan at the awesome beauty of it all. At the top is an extensive village with shops, a dozen temples, and a big hotel where we spent the night, an island above the clouds. It was sunny as we arrived, but soon clouds blew up from below, streaming up the mountainside. By night and the following morning, Taishan was enveloped in a dense fog. We took the cable car down, an option not available to the emperors. The car bounced out of the landing pad into an empty whiteness. Even the 8th graders fell silent as we made our descent to the bottom of the world.
After I posted a picture of Taishan on Facebook, my teacher David Young connected me to his translation of a poem by Du Fu, written in the 8th Century:
How to describe a peak
that has produced such reverence?
…there’s the greenness that surrounds it–
all creation is contained
on those dark slopes, that sunny side
layers of clouds refresh
climber and climbed alike
the birds fly up and up
beyond our straining eyes
someday I want to stand
right there on the summit
the other mountains dwarfed
spreading in all directions!