Leaping Dragon, Perching Eagle

I’m headed to China for two weeks on a Wofford College faculty study trip. At first I wasn’t very excited about going. I’m not a city boy, and our whole 14-day excursion would mostly take place in vast Shanghai, a coastal city of over 20 million people, China’s New York, a pulsing vortex of trade, commerce and consumerism.

As my guidebook begins, “Shanghai is the most dynamic city in the world’s fastest changing nation. It’s an ever morphing metropolis that isn’t just living China’s dream, but is setting the pace for the rest of the world.”

The way I saw it, I’d be headed halfway around the world to experience the triumph of capitalism, something I could see at the mall on the west side of Spartanburg.
I probably would not learn much about the endangered wildlife of China, or the agricultural people I’d read about for decades in novels and stories by John Hershey, Pearl Buck, or Han Jin, or the misty mountain and river scenes so common in the Chinese poetry I love, or vast problems with pollution in the countryside, and certainly I would not get to add a wild Chinese river to my “paddler’s life list.”

Then several Sundays ago a review ran in the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW about a book by Martin Jacques called WHEN CHINA RULES THE WORLD. I ordered a copy. It’s changed my attitude about the trip.

Jacques argues it’s not a “rise” China’s going through. It’s a “reemergence.”

“China is not emerging on the world-stage as a new powerful nation state. It is regaining lost international status, becoming the first ancient civilization to reemerge and reclaim its status as a dominant power… China was the wealthiest, most unified and most technologically advanced civilization until well into the 18th century… It the West’s run of dominance, not China’s period of malaise, that could end up being the fluke.”

We in the West, Jacques says, are missing what’s really happening with China’s rise if we believe that it’s simply about economics: “[China’s rise] will also marginalize the West in history and upend our core notions of what it means to be modern.”

Jacques warns that “skyscrapers and stock markets [might] look like those in the West but… the country’s cultural core resembles ancient China far more than it does modern Europe or the United States.”

Going to Shanghai could be something historic. It could be like visiting Rome 2,000 years ago, or London in 1800, or New York, not now, but in 1925 when “the American Century” had just begun and we had achieved what Jacques calls “economic lift off.”
Ancient China is something that has always interested me-especially the great Chinese poets, Confucianism, Buddhism. These remain formative touchstones for me, along with my own Western culture in my life as a poet and writer.

When I left South Carolina after college in 1977 I landed at a poetry press in Port Townsend, Washington, out on the edge of the American continent, and my mentor, the poet Sam Hamill, a Chinese scholar and translator of the great Chinese masters, set me to work typesetting THE GREAT DIGEST OF CONFUCIOUS, translated by Ezra Pound. In seven small sections Pounds transmits to poets like me what he sees as the core value of the Chinese culture, values that poets should share as well: “If the root be in confusion, nothing will be well governed. The solid cannot be swept away as trivial, nor can trash be established as solid. It just doesn’t happen.”

Remembering this long-ago act of discipline setting type has awakened in me the notion that even within the teeming streets of Shanghai that look so Western on the surface I might very well find China’s “cultural core,” its Confucian “root,” and experience it.

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