- Return to My Peach Blossom SpringA Daoist "Paradise" in China Today
I am in a double haze—my own jet lag plus the mix of smog and rain outside the car window—as we lurch through endless outskirts of Xi'an. If all goes well, this journey will total thirty-six hours—two flights, three car rides, and a few hours of rest at a small hotel, all for a half day at my destination. But it's not just the length of the trip that makes me wonder if it is a bad idea to try and return to the mountain that has long been connected to my Daoist practice.
In my early twenties, I received a Yale fellowship to examine living Daoism. I was based at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, but soon learned that my professors focused on texts and history rather than contemporary practice. I'd have to find cultivators on my own. I eschewed major city temples and the most famous (and most crowded) Daoist mountains. I felt it would be easier to connect with practicing Daoists in quieter areas.
I ended up in the Zhongnan range 终南山, a historical haunt for practitioners, and chanced on Mount Taixing 太兴山. A lush land of peaks and waterfalls, giant ferns and small Daoist temples, including some perched impossibly on the ridge, it attracts serious cultivators more than tourists. Here I found a teacher, Master Lin (name changed to protect privacy), and lived in his dilapidated temple guesthouse. After trying many types of meditation, I found my practice soar under his tutelage. I connected with his soft-spoken personality, his lilting voice, his sparse but effective guidance. I would wake early and stay up late meditating, [End Page 170] spend my days wandering the paths, chatting with other monks or lay cultivators. In my youthful exuberance even the spiders in the guesthouse that devoured me every night felt like part of the experience.
I still dream of the place and often wake expecting to see the temple rafters. Other dreams blend the Zhongnan range with the Colorado mountains of my childhood, where I hiked, cross-country skied, and hunted for gemstones with my father.
That I had stumbled on this mountain, was among the first foreigners to visit, and felt that it was impervious to modernization, made me think of the Peach Blossom Spring (taohua yuan 桃花源)—the enchanted land of Tao Yuanming's 陶渊明 3rd-century Daoist-inspired tale.
A fisherman of Wuling once rowed upstream, unmindful of the distance he had gone, when he suddenly came upon a grove of peach trees in bloom. … The wild flowers growing under them were fresh and lovely, and fallen petals covered the ground. … It [the grove] came to an end at the foot of a mountain… There was a small opening, and it seemed as though light was coming through it.
The fisherman left his boat and entered the cave, which at first was extremely narrow, barely admitting his body; after a few dozen steps it suddenly opened out onto a broad and level plain where well-built houses were surrounded by rich fields and pretty ponds. Mulberry, bamboos, and other trees and plants grew there, and criss-crossed paths skirted the fields. The sounds of cocks crowing and dogs barking could be heard.(Hightower 2000).
The story further relates how the happy villagers in this "utopia" have lost contact with the outside world. They are generous with the visitor, offering food and drink. When he is ready to leave, they tell him there is no need to mention this place to others. But the fisherman marks his route back and when he reaches the city, tells the magistrate who sends others to return. However, they can never find the marks or the magical place again.
I believe the story endures because of the allure, especially in grim times, of a paradise outside time, but also because it has so many meanings. I have often been struck by how the language implies that the cave passageway is just wide enough for a person (caitong ren 才通人), suggesting [End Page 171] that mystical epiphany is a solitary...