Monday, August 16, 2010

A Year ago in Sichuan

I had an unforgettable experience in China, in July 2009:
Tuesday morning I woke up among the industrious people of Chengdu, Sichuan, and ventured forth into their bustling sidewalks. Several million of us hit the streets at about the usual time in the morning haze; we all went our various ways to perform regular tasks and to work busily toward daily objectives and larger life purposes. Just like people everywhere, really, doing their thing.

In this city of China, it all happens in the thickest smog I have ever seen.

Of course, being human, my family and I had to contribute to it. How could we not? My traveling family and I caught a cab for the airport. Whizzing along on the elevated freeway, I could survey the big urban picture sprawling into graybrown haze in all directions. Multitudes of tall apartment buildings and office towers loom in the fog like oversized tombstones in an old thriller movie. The near ones are shrouded in gauzy stillness, with the distant ones stretching beyond the pale of vision--obelisks of invisible humanity.

Then we boarded a plane and flew from the worst of air to the best of air. Nestled in a steep valley of the Minshan range of the eastern Himalayas is Jiuzhaigou, the "valley of nine villages." It is the opposite extreme from the teeming Chengdu metropolis. The two disparate locations, both in Sichuan province, are only a few hundred kilometers apart.

The Chinese administrate, with admirable sensitivity and care, two stunningly beautiful national parks here. If the yellow dragon of Huang Long could drag some of that pristine air from those cold alpine ridges down to the plain of Chengdu--oh! how beneficial that would be for the children of that crowded city. I have had the same thought about my home in the Blue Ridge mountains and the metropolis if Charlotte, a hundred miles away.

The next day,we rode buses with many other tourists from the bottom of one of those deep gorges up the long, verdant valley of the Juizhaigou Reserve. The bus stopped at the second village and we got out to take a walk. A colorful cluster of low stone and masonry homes were brightly festooned with red and yellow walls displaying elaborately-detailed multi-colored art. A special arrangement of structures and flaagpoles stood at the village entrance. A gentle flapping of long banners chanted their fabric cacophany in the mountain breeze. I walked over to this entrance to have a closer view.

There I came upon the local Ben/Buddhist shrine. It was a row of nine stupas, which are tall, white stone monuments with chunky square pedestals that support half-egg-shaped domes. Considered by some to be an elemental pagoda, each solid structure is formed as a kind of free-standing steeple with monumental adornments. Each one of these nine identical stupas is capped with a short rod-like spire.

A small Buddha statue, visible through dingy glass, is enclosed in each stupa at the height of about two meters. Beneath each icon, painted in wide black strokes, within a circle about the size if a human head, is a swastika.

There they were--nine swastikas all in a row upon a set of Buddhist stupas. It disturbed me. Didn't these village people know what had happened in the wide, depraved world seventy years ago? Had they not heard that the beast Hitler had absconded with their ancient symbol and used it ruthlessly to motivate his band of Nazi thugs, and then a clueless nation, to commit murderous crimes upon millions of unsuspecting Jews and other people?

I had seen the symbol, in all its blatant starkness, in numerous other residential displays in this region, and had been perplexed by its uninhibited display. Were these isolated people seeking to re-appropriate a tarnished component of their heritage? Or were they, God forbid, identifying with its usurper? Do they even have a clue about the atrocities inflicted beneath that swastika banner between the years 1933 and 1945? I don't know. But I didn't take the time to go and tell them. Me no speaka the language.

I then joined the family for a walk along their pristine lake. I pray for them; I pray for all people on planet earth.

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