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A Chin Shih of the T’ang Dynasty,
An immortal of today,
I tread on the purple mist,
And heavenward I go.

Lü Dongbin (呂洞賓)

八仙

The Eight Immortals

The Chinese concept of Hsien or Immortal denotes a being which is at once ethereal and worldly. The character hsien () is composed of two pictographic elements, “man” and “mountain”, symbolising one who has retired from the world in order to live a hermit’s life in the mountains. Chuang Tzu (莊子) has described hsien as a spiritual being dwelling on a mountain, whose flesh was smooth as ice and skin as white as snow; that he was gentle as a young girl and required no food to sustain life, but inhaled the wind and drank the dew.

An immortal sometimes assumes human shape and indulges in human pleasures, but nevertheless is possessed of supernatural powers. He resides in the upper spheres, but sometimes descends to earth to convert and “immortalise” deserving mortals. Like human beings, he may be chastised for misconduct and banished to live on earth for a period of time and then reinstated in heaven.

Immortality is said to be attainable by taking the Elixir of Life, a drug, the secret formula for which is forever eluding ordinary intelligence, although some of the ingredients were revealed to be cinnabar, or red sulphide of mercury, realgar, copper carbonate, mica, sal ammonia, nitre and ochre. Immortality is also attainable by cultivating the mind, with Tao (道) as the model: quietude, passivity, gentleness and self-effacement being the main characteristics to be aimed at.

For one reason or another, many famous figures in Chinese history were included in the ranks of immortals. They might be philosophers, statesmen, physicians, magicians and poets. Li Po (李白), the poet, for instance, was considered one and Chang Liang (張良), the Han Dynasty statesman was another. The list goes on and on. Because of their great number, “hsiens” were classified and described as celestial, terrestrial or divine. Celestial hsiens were those who have ascended on high and make their abode in heaven; terrestrial hsiens remain on earth for an indefinite period without growing any older; divine hsiens or demi-gods dwell on the Isles of the Blessed.

The Eight Immortals are the best known figures in Chinese mythology. They lived in different centuries. How and when they got together was never described. The number “eight” has some peculiar significance, a kind of “perfect” number, as exemplified by the Eight Trigrams, the Eight Regions, the Eight Directions and so on. In this case, “eight” signifies certain conditions of life, namely: youth, age, poverty, wealth, aristocracy, plebianism, masculinity and femininity. It was not until the Yüan Dynasty (1260-1368) that the term was first applied to the specific group that we know today which consists of Chung-li Ch’üan (鍾離權), Chang Kua Lao (張果老), Lü Tung Pin (呂洞賓), Ts’ao Kuo Chu (曹國舅), Li T’ieh Kuai (李鐵拐), Han Hsiang-tzu (韓湘子), Lan Ts’ai Ho (藍采和) and Ho Hsien-ku (何瓊). The “Eight Immortals” theme was often used by the Yüan Dynasty dramatists, on which many short plays were written for performances on special occasions. Hence their traditional popularity and why these Eight Immortals have continued to appear in all forms of Chinese art throughout the centuries.

T.C.Lai (賴恬昌)

The Eight Immortals

Swindon Book Company, Hong Kong, 1972

Country Cigars

Forbidden Peak Press is a small literary journal based in Hanover, New Hampshire.

We focus on finding and publishing emerging and established writers, poets and travellers who use their language to add depth and understanding to our lives, and who demonstrate an affinity for the written word.

Their inaugural issue is out now, featuring a fresh and unique mixture of poetry, prose and travel writing from all corners of the globe, including Country Cigars; a creative piece of Sichuan based non-fiction by J H Martin.

You can read Country Cigars and the first issue of Forbidden Peak Press for free here.

Count von Keyserling & Ku Hung-ming

 

 

Count Hermann von Keyserling (1880-1946), a Baltic German aristocrat, best known for his travel  writings and philosophical musings, left behind a detailed account of his meetings with Ku Hung-ming in his Travel Diary of a Philosopher, published in 1925.

 

 

I spend many hours each day with Ku Hung-Ming and his friends and supporters. He is a man of such wit and such a fiery temperament that I am sometimes reminded of a Latin. Today he was explaining at great length how wrong the Europeans, and especially the sinologists are, in considering the development of Chinese culture quite by itself, without comparison with that of the West: for both have evolved, according to him, within the frame of an identical formula. In both there has been an equivalent of antiquity and medievalism, renaissance and enlightenment, reformation and counter-reformation, Hebraism and Hellenism (to use the terms of Matthew Arnold), rationalism and mysticism; and the parallel is to be drawn even in detail: even in China, for instance, there has been a Bayard. I do not know Chinese history sufficiently in order to test the soundness of these comparisons, and I rather suspect Ku Hung-Ming, as I do the majority of his countrymen, of practising rather too cheap a form of intellectualism, such as flourishes, for instance, in Southern Italy. This much, however, is true: all historical conditions are special manifestations, brought about by particular circumstances, of the natural forms of human life, which are the same everywhere; and since all possible combinations of circumstances vacillate round a few types whose sequence appears to be subject to one rule, it cannot but be that all peoples of comparable temperament also pass through comparable stages. Now Western Europeans and Chinamen are singularly comparable; they belong essentially to an identical fundamental type, the type of the “men of expression,” to which the Indians and the Russians, for instance, do not belong.

It must be possible, therefore, to establish historical parallels. Nevertheless, my attitude towards the value of such comparisons is sceptical. Time may possess one single significance in itself — it certainly is not so in reference to men. The Chinese are men of long, and we of short, breath, for us mobility, for them quiescence is the normal condition. How, then, can one make valid comparisons? We boast of our rapid progress: thanks to it, we will probably always remain barbarians, since perfection is possible only within given limits and we are perpetually changing ours. Nor do I accept it as agreed that we will continue to advance for long at the same rate: every direction in life is limited inwardly; we too will one day reach the end, and probably earlier than we think. — I have often heard the following argument, especially in India: since all cultures we are aware of start at a relatively high level — and this is correct — this presupposes that there has been before an exceedingly long period of slow ascent. Most certainly not! Every idea contains within itself, not only in theory but de facto, the whole of its consequences; it strives for actuality; it becomes embodied wherever matter permits it to do so, so that, as soon as the mental processes are set in motion at all, they take place with great rapidity. For this reason, as long as consciousness is asleep, aeons may pass before anything new happens; this may occur either in the primordial state or, as in China, at a certain level of culture which has once been reached. But once it has been wakened, development takes place with extreme rapidity. How long was the span of time from the awakening of the Greek spirit to its perfection? A century. How long did it take from the discovery of the principle of aviation until it was applied perfectly in practice? Not ten years. In the same sense it may very well be that we too shall shortly come to an end, and stop progressing at a level of development which will be not nearly so far ahead of that of China as we suppose. For in the modern sense of the word we too are progressive people only for the last hundred years.

Ku Hung-Ming does not miss a single opportunity of having a dig at Laotse. His fundamental thesis is that Confucius is the infinitely greater of the two because he understood significance as profoundly as Laotse, but did not retire from the world, but expressed his profundity in his mastery of it. If Confucius really had been, and had achieved, what Ku asserts of him, then, of course, he would be incomparably greater. However, this is not so. It would appear to be contradictory to nature that the same man should live altogether in profundity and prove himself, at the same time, to be a mighty organiser of the surface; each one of these problems requires a special physiological organisation, and I know of no accredited case in which a man possessed both to a similar degree. Kung Fu Tse and Laotse represent the opposite poles of possible perfection; the one represents the perfection of appearance, the other perfection of significance; the former, perfection within the sphere of the materialised, the latter, within the non-materialised; therefore they cannot be measured with the same gauge. But Confucius must no doubt appear greater to the Chinese because they are practical to the extreme as a nation, and to this extent they have no direct relation to profundity as such. The more I see of the Chinese, the more I notice how uninteresting their thoughts are. Their thinking is not their essential quality: their existence is the expression of their depth. Thus Ku Hung-Ming is far more important as a man than as a writer and as a thinker.

The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, Count Hermann Keyserling, 1925

Volume 1

Volume 2

 

黑龍

Amongst White Clouds

Edward A. Burger

Amongst White Clouds is a look at the lives of zealot students, gaunt ascetics and wise masters living in isolated hermitages dotting the peaks and valleys of China’s Zhongnan Mountain range. The Zhongnan Mountains have been home to recluses since the time of the Yellow Emperor (黃帝), some five thousand years ago…

…One of only a few foreigners to have lived and studied with these hidden sages, director Edward A. Burger reveals to us their tradition, their wisdom, and the hardship and joy of their everyday lives. With both humor and compassion, these inspiring and warm-hearted characters challenge us to join them in an exploration of our own suffering and enlightenment in this modern world.

– amongstclouds.com

Further Reading:

China’s Hermit Tradition and Zen Beginnings – Bill Porter

Edward A. Burger – Director’s Facebook Page

Hermitary – Resources and reflections on hermits and solitude

 

Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds

Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar

 

In the first anthology of short stories from Myanmar published in the West, seven of the leading contemporary Burmese language writers and seven new voices from the ethnic regions, guide us on a sweeping journey, from the cities to the mountains, of this once pariah nation. 

Written in scripts until recently censored and outlawed the anthology presents a country that goes beyond the familiar lens of isolation and dictatorship unveiling a storied and diverse landscape of people and place. 

From the child imprisoned in Yangon in the south to the jaded miner of Kachin in the north, these stories, each set in a different region and era, reflect on Myanmar’s troubled past and pose questions for the future of a country undergoing a transformation of global importance.            

Featuring stories translated from Burmese, Mon, Karen (Sgaw Karen), Kayah (Kayah Li), Shan (Shan Gyi), Kachin (Jinghpaw), Chin (Lai Hakha) and Rakhine.

Although the limited print run of 750 copies of the anthology has already sold out, an e-book version of the anthology will be made available on all online platforms soon.

 

Singular not merely in its collaborative breadth, it is unprecedented: it is the first time in a half-century that such an ambitious and eclectic literary undertaking has been able to occur at all… 

…we can’t yet speak fully, even in the expressive terms of national literature(s), of a ‘Burmese thaw’. Hidden Word Hidden Worlds is however a brave and notable first step towards its real possibility.

Martin Kovan, Mascara Literary Review

 

… the diversity of the authors is one of the book’s greatest features. There is something extremely refreshing about a publication that did not select authors based on their reputation (some are first time writers) or based on how economical the translation of their stories would be, but rather on the basis of each story’s ability to open a door to new perspectives.

– Richard Roewer, Tea Circle

 

…The collection neither distorts nor downplays the very real points of political, ethnic, and cultural tensions between the dominate Burman and the minority peoples of the hinterlands. These stories highlight the personhood and agency of the everyday individual—which may have otherwise been lost to some larger narrative if told from a central Burman perspective. Fascinating and smart, the eclectic collection of short stories found in Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar is recommended as much for its ability to serve as a primer on the ethnic diversity of Myanmar as it is for the enjoyableness of the stories.

– T F Rhodan, Asian Review of Books

 

Further Reading & Listening:

 

The Court Martial – Letyar Tun, Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds (Asia Literary Review)

Myanmar Launch of Hidden Words Anthology – SADAIK

PODCAST – Storytelling in Myanmar with Letyar Tun and Fiona Ledger

In Conversation with Letyar Tun & Lucas Stewart – Writers Centre Norwich Podcast:

Listen to the podcast on Soundcloud from the WCN’s website here or on Player.fm here

An Interview with Lucas Stewart – Asia Literary Review

The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar – Lucas Stewart

Hidden Worlds – The Irrawaddy, July, 2014

Shadow Signatures (A Legacy of Burmese Literary Pen Names) – Lucas Stewart, 2014

The Lady, the Writers and the Ex-Prisoners – FreeSpeechDebate, February, 2013

Parallel Lines – San Lin Tun (New Asian Writing, 2011)

Burma or Myanmar? Burmese or Burman? – U Khin Maung Saw

The Women of Burma – Daw Mya Sein (The Atlantic, 1958)

Modern Burmese Literature – U On Pe (The Atlantic, 1958)