Lesson #5: How to enjoy the scenery in China
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the Chinese seem to have a very objective standard as to what qualifies as “scenery.” On more than one occasion, we have been told by a guide, “This is the end of the scenery,” even as miles of once-in-a-lifetime mountain vistas or cavernous expanses of hundred-million-year-old cave formations stretch out before us-or at least so it appeared to our untrained, un-Chinese eyes.
Determining whether something meets the Chinese criteria for scenery requires a rather simple formula: Can this mountain/limestone surface/stalactite/stalagmite/other rock formation in any way be described as resembling a dragon/horse/camel/turtle/jellyfish/baby Buddha/beautiful lady/Monkey King/other animated form? Try this simple example:
Which of the following features is scenic?
a) A mountain resembling a tiger.
b) A mountain resembling a scenic mountain.
Did you get the right answer? Answer B-”a scenic mountain”-can’t possibly be scenic, because there is no way to tell a story about it, and every worthy piece of scenery needs a story. Why? Duh - to set the scene. And let me go ahead and spoil it for you: every single story ends with “…and he/she/it/they turned to stone.”
Let’s take the tiger-mountain from our example. You can see (well, you can’t see, but trust me, what you can literally see is, ironically, not all that important when it comes to Chinese scenery) that this mountain is a mother tiger, and she is crouched, facing the river. This is because-”some people say”-she had brought her cubs down to the river to bathe and play one day and, in the sudden tumult of a flash flood, they were washed away. But she returned to the river the next morning, hoping for a sign of life, and she repeated this ritual every morning forever until, eventually…she turned to stone.
Now, what would you call a mountain like this? Tiger Mountain? Mother Tiger Mountain? You are not understanding. The proper Chinese name for a mountain such as this is something along the lines of Mother Tiger Yearning For Baby Cubs Lost in Rushing River…Mountain.
As far as I know, there is no such mountain, but it is inspired by several real examples, including one that was listed on the map as Yearning For Husband Mountain. No, it does not resemble a 35-year-old Jewish woman on the Upper West Side responding to messages on J-Date, but rather a married Chinese woman with a baby on her back. She is looking out over the river in anticipation of her husband’s return from war; he, of course, has been killed in battle and will never return, but she continues to wait every day. (Oh, and I totally almost forgot-she turned to stone.)
Now I am probably being superficial. There is a moral to most of these stories; Yearning For Husband is supposed to provide a cautionary tale against all war. Even Mother Tiger…Mountain could offer a message of extra-special concern for one’s cubs: i.e., always keep your kids safe, and never let them ride dangling from the side of your motorbike with its unenclosed engine as you weave in and out of traffic at excessive speeds on a half-paved road.
Such a mountain and its moral would be really helpful here.