A Tale of Two Sages

Behind the Tombstone

2017, Alone in the cemetery. The thoughts of a story whirling in my mind…

I can hear the sound of lonesome insects whizzing and chirping in the hot Spring air. Away from the hordes and crowds, it seems as if they are a chanting chorus for the dead. I look down at my feet and wonder if it’s possible to hide my shoes within the folds of the grey robe that I’m wearing. I want my disguise to appear somewhat convincing. Decathalon didn’t exist during the Spring and Autumn period (722–479 BCE), so this inconsistency will surely be noticed. I raise my head and look straight in front of me.

The tombstone does a good job of obstructing my view. The grey color matches the hue of my robes that I’m wearing. Here for centuries, the resident within the tomb could have never guessed that I would be keeping him company, incorporating him into my story, or at least using his headstone as a convenient location for the start of an ancient storytelling arc.

I want the element of surprise on my side. Surprise and a grand entrance are the reasons why I came to this spot alone and delegated my colleagues, my team, with the task of picking up the group at Qufu曲阜 train station.

Shock and awe, or at least a bit of mystery mixed with humor combine to make a very unique and unforgettable first impression. Even if everything else goes haywire this week, at least I have these moments alone at the tombstone to collect myself, to get my mind ready for the journey into the unknown that is sure to come.

The Gate

2009. An Autumn Day. Blue Sky and lips beginning to crack….

The main gate outside of Beijing’s Confucius Temple dates back to the Yuan Dynasty, the period of time when the Mongolians ruled a vast territory that included what is now mainland China. It’s rare in Beijing to have a wooden structure that has survived for so long in the country’s capital, with much of the original wooden architecture being destroyed or rebuilt through massive reconstruction projects, coupled with with the destruction of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The temple itself was originally constructed in 1308 during the reign of Kulug Khan (1308–1311). He was the 3rd emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, but his reign was cut short due to his unexpected early demise.

As someone who is not a Chinese scholar, but rather a foreigner who has simply lived and worked in China for a number of years, I have to wonder what sort of role Kulug Khan played in the construction of Beijing’s Confucius Temple? For centuries the Mongolians were outsiders, barbarians to the North. From the Chinese side of the Wall, their hordes were viewed as a pack of wolves nipping away at the massive backside of the Chinese Empire. On the other hand, these “hordes” were groups of people with lives and needs of their own…not a pack of wolves at all. The slithering snake-of-a wall to the South of the steppe surely seemed a snub in the face of these nomadic peoples. The jewel of Chinese civilization, both elitist and enticing at the same time. It’s no surprise that when that jewel was seized in the hands of the Mongolian leaders, the affect of the treasures within were all-too-alluring. The Chinese maintain that the Yuan Dynasty was just another one in the unbroken ebb and flow of dynastic chains over thousands of years. Confucius may have come centuries before the Mongolian rulers sat on the dragon throne, but the new emperors heard the echoes of his words and would fall in line, continuing the age old tradition of rites and ancestor worship.

Turtles in the Pool

2022. Early May. A Spring day that begins with a sizzling Sun….

My daughter climbs into the stroller, knowing full well that it’s time for us to leave our apartment for a walk. This is something that she’s been able to do now for some time as she can anticipate when it’s time to go out in the world. Just a stroll around the block is an opportunity for discovery…a magic carpet ride. It’s early May and it’s mid-morning, so the weather is beginning to get a bit hot. I strap on her hat to keep the Sun off her neck and toss her recently purchased velcro lavender Summer footwear underneath the stroller. I call it “Summer” footwear, but in Taiwan she could really wear these all year round. I know that this won’t be a long journey, so I don’t even put an extra diaper in Luna’s vehicle. Maybe part of me just wants to live dangerously.

We take the elevator downstairs and leisurely walk South, past the convenience store where I pay my bills, “Mosquito Park,” the scallion pancake (蔥油餅)shop, the local donut shop, and Dalong Elementary School. After the elementary school there’s a small square with a stage where a passerby might see a lone karaoke center at night. The sidewalk widens in front of the stage to make a small plaza where there are concentrated clusters of pigeon excrement left by the birds which flock and feed on seeds in the afternoon. The plaza has a number of Confucius’ famous expressions engraved into the surface, alternating amongst different languages, reminding us that we are nearing Taipei’s Confucius Temple.

“To have friends come from afar is happiness, is it not?”

This is the one that always sticks out to me, the beginning statement in Confucius’ Analects. Are we friends from afar? I think to myself as we wait for the walking signal to change. Crossing the street, I can see the wall of Taipei’s Confucius Temple, lined with cute little statues of monkeys demonstrating the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” expressions. We arrive at the front gate and walk through, under the warming Sun. Just before we reach the next archway into the main part of the temple we pass small, colorful, playful statues of Confucius. He appears cartoonish and welcoming, as if he just finished a cup of coffee with Papa Smurf. We glide through this archway and see the small pond bisected by a stone bridge waiting for us. The turtles in the pool underneath the pond make no sound. My daughter perks her head and makes a small chirp of recognition. It’s a sound that I can imagine the pigeons in the plaza begin able to communicate with her. She cocks her head in her stroller and turns her eyes towards me.

“Can I get out and say hello to the friends in the pond?” I feel her gaze communicating with me. I bend down and make sure that her hat is secured on her head, the piece of cloth tailing in the back protecting her vulnerable soft flesh from the subtropical Sun.

Clack.” My finger presses the button in the center of her stroller harness, releasing her from her binds. She arches her back, an Olympic synchronized swimmer underwater, stretching her feet towards the ground and pads down in her tiny lavender shoes.

My daughter bends over to examine something on the ground — a fallen leaf, the shadow overhead, the stain of water, or perhaps just to get a feeling for the paved surface. In the background on the wall at the Confucius Temple is an image of the mythological “qilin” 麒麟,a four-legged chimerical creature said to have appeared at the imminent birth or departure of a great sage.

I look over the stone hand rest next to the murky green pool below at the turtles and carp meandering back and forth playfully with one another. My daughter walks over the small archway bridge, silently. The only other sound I can hear is the tinkling of the fountain in the pond, and an occasional splash that a fish’s tail makes as it whips the shallow water. The, as always, are in no hurry.

The Arrival

2017. I hear the sound of unhurried footsteps waking my unhurried heart behind the tombstone.

I know what it’s like to lead a group of students from the pick-up point at the high-speed rail station in Qufu at the beginning of a 5 day experiential education and travel program. My team would have been waiting outside of the station for over an hour as they chat with the drivers. They would have checked that each and every seat on the buses had working seatbelts for the group. All of the educational handbooks explaining background information about Confucius’ life, the sites we plan to visit during the week, the hotels, emergency contact information, reflection questions, etc, would be neatly stacked and piled behind the driver’s seat. Next to these handbooks would be two crates of fruit to provide the students for a healthy snack. In an effort to promote sustainability, there would be gigantic water-cooler jugs of water fitted with hand pumps so that students could fill up their refillable water bottles. It was all in my head, and I had picked up countless groups at various train stations throughout the years.

Standing in front of one of the many tombs in the Confucius Family Cemetery, I take my time to start telling Confucius’ story. At the same time, this is my first chance to size up the group, and for them to do the same for me.

The train station was the usual first impression of a group of students. It was my time to take the stage, be a leader, talk about our company’s core values, issue them the “rules of the road,” get a sense of the group, know which students were the ones quickest to be engaged with the material, and which ones were quickest to zone out with their heads down in their phones. The pick-up at the station was always the time to make that connection with the teachers, get to know their backgrounds, their quirks, their wants, needs, and expectations. It was a chance for me to make my mark, professionally. I was the lead facilitator for the entire week. The entire group of students’ fortunes were in my hands. It was up to me and my team to keep them safe, well fed, engaged, and hopefully happy.

But I decided to take a calculated risk this time. I decided to trust my team and delegate the all-powerful train station pick-up in order to make the theatrical entrance from behind a sacred tombstone amidst Confucius’ family cemetery. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the mound behind me was my stage backdrop, the tombstone the curtain, the pathway leading up to the tombstone my stage, the students my audience.

Lights….Camera….Action….I step out from behind the tombstone to speak as the students arrive. The story of Confucius begins.

I based my whole narrative of Confucius on this short animated film. Leading numerous groups of students to Qufu 曲阜,Confucius’ hometown, I committed this story to heart and stretched out his life’s tale over the course of multiple days. On the day the groups would climb up Mt. Tai, I told one segment of the story at the bottom of the mountain and informed the group they would hear the next part once we reached the summit.

The Journal

2009. Tourists, cyclists, and locals passing by. The gate across from me sitting as it has for centuries.

I find a stone pedestal just across from the gate to sit down on. Putting my backpack on the ground, I don’t mind the dust that swirls around on the street. I try not to think about how many dirty feet have tread where my backpack rests, how many people have spat on the ground as they do here and there as casually as one would scratch behind his or her own ear. I open up my backpack and pull out my water bottle with one hand. With the other hand I reach inside for my diary and fetch it, the fringes already beginning to fray due to the dry air and dust that permeates the city and rests between the spaces on on the pages. If you rub your tongue on the back of your front teeth, you’re able to taste Beijing, a mixture of grit, overconfidence, and layers of history that refuse to be erased.

Turning to the next empty page in the diary I take my pen out and turn on my timer for 15 minutes while I grab a pen. I put pen to paper and start to write what I can in Chinese. This is a mental exercise that I give myself each and every morning. When I can’t think of the Chinese characters, I pause and look up, my back hunched over, left hand gripping the diary, right hand suspending my pen, mid-air. When I look up I can peer into the temple and see the statue of Confucius in his power pose, arms crossing his chest so that his fingers point upwards at the opposite shoulder making an “X” formation. One hand rests within the other.

The Chinese word that I am struggling with comes into my mind, and I continue my diary entry. I thank the Sage for helping me recall my Chinese characters and pour over my notebook while the world walks by. The workday will soon start.

The traditional pose and hand gesture scene with most statues of Confucius, one hand held within the other, signifying a respectful greeting, charged with eagerness to exchange knowledge.

The Return

2022. Crossing the bridge.

The weather gets hotter and my daughter becomes quieter. We share these moments of serenity together along with no one else except for the Confucius himself. Of course there is the gatekeeper who greeted us at the temple and took our temperature, but that’s in the other courtyard. Here we only have the tinkling of the water, the splash of the fish, and the bobbing of the turtles in the pond.

My daughter will be hungry soon. Lunch time is approaching. A thread runs through our chest, linking past with present and future.

Beijing.

Shandong.

Taipei.

Where will we meet Confucius next? Will he always be with us, creeping by our sides like our guardian angel? Will my daughter grow up here amidst visits to the temple, greeting turtles in the pool? What will she write in her diary, and will she ever discover mine from before, or will my life and adventures from times past remain as distant as the Spring and Autumn Era during the time of Confucius…ancient history, long forgotten but always there?

Questions don’t always need answers. It’s the asking and searching that keeps the adventure of life alive.

My daughter crosses the bridge to go home the thoughts of a future story whirling in her mind.

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