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Previously in Atlantic Abroad:

Chile: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Russia: Beware the Eighth of March.

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April 30, 1997

Of Bird Songs and Buddhas

Hong Kong

Setting out to see the Yangzi gorges before they are inundated by China's immense and immensely controversial new dam project, I expected to leave my musical interests at home. But one of my first impressions from the road had to do with sound. I made my first sight-seeing stop in Hong Kong at the Bird Market, which occupies a dark, rather squalid alley thick with bamboo cages and cigarette smoke. In parks you will see men walking their finches and thrushes, even hanging the cages in a tree and leaving their darlings to themselves to commune with lost nature. At the market you see birds caged individually or in cowering masses, but their fate is better than that of the bushels of live grasshoppers and little lizards that are gathered up in cellophane for bird food. The Old Masters of the Low Countries often painted fallen angels as insects, and here one sees why: there is something particularly carnal and predatory in those skeletal yet juicy grasshopper legs. But most overwhelming was the harsh, brilliant wall of sound coming from the birds: a cacophony of very precise territorial, emotional, or other mysterious messages absolutely like the great bird concerti in the works of Olivier Messiaen, that astonishing composer who has been so much on my mind of late. And here I thought I'd left all that at home.

Hangzhou, mainland China

"Under Mao," my guide Mr. Zhou informs me as we approach Hangzhou's Temple of Soul's Retreat, "people were encouraged to believe in Communism." The success of that campaign may be gauged by the goings-on at this mid-twentieth-century Buddhist theme park. Lingyin Si, as the Chinese call it, has been a place of worship since 326 A.D. The rocky face of the so-called Hill That Flew From Afar is carved with Buddhas and inscriptions dating to the tenth and fourteenth centuries. The nearby temple complex is not the first to have been built on this site but the sixteenth, war and other disasters having claimed the previous fifteen. What we see today is a Qing Dynasty creation, coarsely restored; to thin out the crowds that flock to the pre-existing two temples a third in the same style has been added within rather recent memory. (Qing -- 1644-1911 -- is China's rococo. In pristine form its monuments can induce vertigo with their gaudiness and excess. Clumsy modern touch-ups and knock-offs, as here, however, merely magnify the flaws.)

It is off-season now, yet the place is teeming. Villagers come here on pilgrimages, their heads covered in terry-cloth dish towels. So do city folk from near and far. Before the monumental gilt statues, which glisten like copper, they hurl themselves in prayer, shaking their clasped hands in apparent agonies of contrition, although I'm told they are asking for blessings of a fairly material and mundane sort (better jobs, more money, more happiness). Outside, they light fat red candles and toss bundles of incense into huge urns. Mr. Zhou laughs. "That man told those visitors, 'Buddha watches over everyone, even Mao and Deng.'"

We passed through the billows of incense to the principal shrine, where Mr. Zhou excuses himself to purchase incense and pray. Later, as we clamber on the Hill That Flew From Afar, I remark that he, apparently, is a Buddhist. "No," he replies. Yet he bought incense and made his wish, just as the pilgrims do. "Yes," he replies, at a loss to explain. "I wish for happiness for myself and my fiancée." He is a professional man, small of stature, with the high, polished brow of a scholar, and with darting eyes behind heavy glasses. He relishes debate. You would not suspect him of superstition, but there you are.

We exit through a ghastly outdoor installation of monumental Buddhas from all over China, reproduced in cement. After the amble through the precincts of the Hill That Flew From Afar, sculpted so gorgeously by nature and the devout hand of man, these crudities look particularly profane. Yet they, too, proclaim the vanity of the Communist preachings. Buddha watches over everyone, even Mao and Deng.... He has endured. He will prevail.

Matthew Gurewitsch writes on culture and travel for publications including The Atlantic Monthly, Town & Country, Live!, and Departures.

See the dispatch from Chile by William Langewiesche, The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie.

See the dispatch from Russia by Jeffrey Tayler, Beware the Eighth of March.

Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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