Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Camellias

It rained so hard that we canceled the hike for fear of landslides. Instead of tramping along the flank of Tiger Leaping Gorge, we visited Yufeng temple, a Scarlet Sect lamasery at the southern foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The main hall of the temple was undergoing reconstruction, and so we climbed to the topmost courtyard to pay court to "the King of the Camellias."

We were too late to see the thousand camellia blooms. The tree flowered in the spring and early summer for 100 days, putting out 20 000 blooms in 20 batches. Without its floral attraction, the tree was still an impressive sight. It was not very tall but held up a great canopy of branches. The 500-year-old tree was planted in Emperor Chenghua's era in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which made it older than the temple. It was completely appropriate that the temple was built around the tree, and not the tree grown in the temple.

If the tree was blooming, a close examination would show that it put out two kinds of flowers, bigger pinks with nine pistils, and smaller whites with single pistils. The explanation for the miracle was that the tree was not one, but in fact two trees. Growing at first side by side, they became so entwined through the years that they were now indistinguishable from each other. Voluptuaries of the sun and rain, they became one in their joint pursuit of essential needs, outliving the generations of monks that tended them, displaying every year the hue of youth.

In the afternoon of the same day, we visited Black Dragon Pool. The lake park was sacred to the Naxi people, still is. The water was a dark green jade, spanned by stone bridges that somehow looked airy. The connection between dragons and water, for the Chinese peoples, is an ancient one. In mythology, the four seas are ruled by four fraternal Dragon Kings. The name of the park in hanyu pinyin is heilongjiang. The last character, jiang, is made up of two parts: the water radical and the work stem. A jiang is a man-made lake. The English word "pool" is man-made in the wrong sense, but mystical in the right sense, the sense of the Chinese character.

Sitting in a cafe that overlooked the impenetrable pool, I thought about the destructive force of water. TH emailed me a few days ago that his cousin and his cousin's grandson were killed by a flash flood in Arkansas. The rain swelled the river, and the familiar camping ground, situated ideally on a slope, became a death pit for 20 people. Hard on the heels of this piece of news came another shock: the daughter of a colleague and friend suffered a fatal accident in New Zealand. Later I learned that RS fell while skiing and broke her neck.

Entwined with these mortal thoughts was the thought of love. I started dating GH just before leaving for China, and throughout the trip I was full of longing for him, for him to long for me. Shadowed by death, the budding love appeared at certain times ill-omened, black and red. At other times, however, it is thrown into blinding relief.

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