Kaaren Strauch Brown
Banished to these southern waters
I’m lucky to be alive
With just enough to wear and eat
I’m ready to live out my days
I gave up hope long ago
Of achieving high rank or position
Han Yu (768 -824 CE)
Three Hundred Tang Poems
From my tenth floor hotel room window I watch the bikes below me, riders wrapped in triangles of bright color, the urban garden. Puddles reflect the red, yellow, and green of hypnotically blinking traffic lights. I shake off the last remnants of jet lag. The rain is the typical good news, bad news. The Shanghai air will be breathable; however, a rainy day is not the best day for visiting a garden.
The Garden of the Disgraced Official, the name captivated me when I came across it in a guidebook. Of course, I would visit it! Two days of alternately sleeping, eating, and wandering through my immediate neighborhood have made me impatient to move on. Tomorrow I will be traveling south to Hangchou to join Norma, homesick Norma, teaching English to medical students, desperate for Texas barbeque sauce and a good gossip.
Retirement means starting a new book, a new chapter would be much too short. Fantasies of the carefree life have given way to the need to find an organizing theme for this book. Travels with Esther? No, much as I enjoy new experiences, traveling is not a central activity for me. On the other hand, a trip to China is not to be lightly thrown away, especially when it also offers the chance to spend time with an old friend.
Today, it will be Suzchou and the garden of Wang Xianchen, exiled from court five hundred years ago for doing his job too well, or perhaps, for not doing his job at all. After all, the Censorate was a branch of the centralized bureaucracy. Wang Xianchen reported directly to the emperor, the eyes and ears of the emperor, responsible for checking administrators at each level to prevent corruption and malfeasance. And, of course, a censor was in a position to accept bribes. According to Chinese historians, they were feared and disliked, having to move around constantly to perform their duties—and to stay alive.
I thought of the two names for the garden: the first, which had drawn my attention as I perused guidebooks, the Garden of the Disgraced Official; and the second, which appears in all the Chinese tourist bureau descriptions, the Garden of the Humble Administrator. So, was Wang Xianchen self-effacing or corrupt?
In any case, the long dead Imperial Censor gave a new meaning to the phrase, “cultivating one’s own garden,” perfect for a woman looking for a garden to cultivate. Although, I think with a small internal smile, there is some irony in a librarian visiting the Garden of the Imperial Censor.
My raincoat is red, the color for luck in China. I stand out among the pastels surrounding me at the train station. It is enormous, full of chattering Chinese, full of signs I cannot read. I recognize the ticket counters, each with a unique label, each with its own long line of patient individuals and families. It takes a minute to acclimatize, to try to put the noise to one side, to remember my instructions.
“Just stand there, as though you’re talking to yourself. Speak loudly enough to be overheard, mind, and say, ‘I wonder how I go about buying a ticket to Suzchou?’”
Somewhat dubiously, I comply. Immediately, three young Chinese, each eager to practice English, offer to help. A young man manages to gain ascendency, primarily because he will be taking the same train. Before I know it, I have my ticket as well as a voluble train station guide. We chat as he makes sure I am in the correct line. I learn that no question is too private for a curious Chinese person to ask.
“Do I dye my hair? Why does the hair of Westerners come in so many colors? Am I married? Did I have children, grandchildren? Why am I traveling alone?”
We have a short, melancholy conversation about his own marriage prospects, dim, not enough women willing to marry a man who will never be wealthy. We separate at the train, our seats in different cars. His parting advice is to visit the silk markets. I sigh internally; shopping is not my forte.
The trip is short, barely enough time to fall into a reverie. As I disembark, it seems that everyone wants to practice English, especially with someone like me, looking for whatever passes as a taxi. Before I know it, I am at the garden gate of one of the four most famous gardens in China. It’s quite unobtrusive; probably I would never have found it on my own. The driver, his young son (the English speaker), and I set a time for pick-up.
“I take you to the silk markets then.”
Clutching a map, I wander along a long hall into the Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician, first of three subsidiary gardens. The name, I read, comes from a poem by a famous scholar-official who, when disappointed with political life, retired to raise vegetables, announcing as he did so, “This is the way of ruling for an unsuccessful politician.” According to my map, the Affiliated Garden lies to the west and the Hermit’s Farmhouse is to the east. The latter has a teahouse, the perfect place to finish up.
I look around, everything softened by the now gently falling rain. A series of pavilions artfully arranged around a large lake lie before me. Before I have a chance to move into Wafting Fragrance Hall, I am hailed by a Chinese woman and her young (I’m going to guess about five-year-old) son, husband standing quietly behind her, camera at the ready. She has no English to practice. Sign language is universal.
It is my first encounter of many with the desire of Chinese families to have a photo of their child standing next to a westerner, especially today, a westerner in a red raincoat. I nod, “Yes, a photo is fine,” but point to Wafting Fragrance Hall as a suggestion that we might complete this inside. No luck, a picture in the rain is what they want. I shrug. The task is quickly completed, followed by many smiles and some minor bowing. We part. I briefly wonder how they will explain me to their relatives when they share their pictures, then suspect that I am not a person really, but rather a symbol of something I don’t understand.
The thought distracts me from exploring Wafting Fragrance Hall for a few minutes. I sit unseeing on a bench designed to let me admire the scenery through a latticed wall. Perhaps this is what retirement is all about, being effaced as a person, becoming a social symbol, the “Little Old Lady,” someone to be protected, taught that it is time to move into the shadows. Maybe my notion of starting a new book is just a fiction, designed to let me ignore the fact that I am now a footnote in the books of other people’s lives.
Irritably, I shake off the unwelcome thought to look at the ancient trees, contrasting with low hillocks, bamboo groves and twisting waters that make up the Humble Administrator’s Garden. A small waterfall emerges from the far garden wall. Near it, close enough I suspect, to hear the gentle sounds of falling water, stands Broad View Pavilion, according to my brochure, also known as Clumsiness Remedy Pavilion.
Crossing Lesser Flying Rainbow Bridge, feeling as though I am walking on water, the separation between feet and pond insubstantial, I move into the main garden. An entire landscape unfolds before me, a lake bordered with mountains to the North, pavilions tucked in everywhere. I suppose that if one is banished from the center of the world, the next best thing is to recreate a world to inhabit. The azaleas are in bloom, dotting the mountain with white and pink and, occasionally, red. I smile. I know this flower. After all, it was developed in San Francisco. Ward’s Ruby was not hybridized until well after the Second World War. Given the color, I suppose the government could not resist, perhaps, a little rehabilitation for the unsuccessful official.
Checking with my map and its recommended tour, I ignore the mountain for Mountain View Mansion. It is a substantial building; I might even call it a house. There is one large room with a corridor running along one side. Small tables are scattered about, rattan chairs set to the view. A wall of empty, narrow, deep wooden boxes, stacked to the ceiling, line the hallway. They are, again, according to my guidebook, the repository for scrolls: paintings and poems and calligraphy. I learned in the Shanghai Museum of Art that the perfect literati scroll combines an ink painting, a poem, and exquisite calligraphy.
To my surprise, I am the only person in the room, easy enough to find the best viewing chair. Rain still falls, the drops becoming smaller and smaller until they will eventually become a mist to be dispelled by the afternoon sun. In my mind’s eye, it is easy to imagine esoteric evenings, visiting scholars, unemployed Imperial officials, perhaps, even members of the local elite, intellectuals only, all drinking tea as they examine a particular scroll. I sigh softly. A retreat into a world of friends, books and reflections is as seductive as the replication of the outside world within comforting walls. After all, Socrates once suggested that the unexamined life is not worth living. It may be time for that examination, a trip into the interior of a soul.
A literati landscape is one route that Mandarin officials, fleeing the courts of the Mongols, chose to take. Since calligraphy was one of the skills tested in the examinations to become an Imperial official, it was natural to adapt the exquisite brushwork demanded of those who served the Emperor to landscape painting. The garden is devoted to nature; the painting is the artist’s response, enhanced by the lines of poetry that flow along the top of the scroll, sometimes spilling down one side in exuberance.
In a pensive mood I drift along the edge of a lake in the Affiliated Garden, making my way towards the Thirty Six Mandarin Ducks Hall, no indication that this is a pun. The rain softens the overly bright zinnias, red and mustard yellow, that bloom profusely in a wide variety of small spaces, violently clashing with the gentle pastels of the azaleas along the far lakeshore. An example, I suppose, of the need for lucky color symbolism.
I walk more briskly, hurried along by the weather gods to seek Listening to the Rain Pavilion. A sweet young waitress tries to explain my options. We don’t share a language. She points to one thing, I point to another. We are agreed when she approves of my choice and I accept hers, which is a tall glass of tea, the leaves tightly arranged into a flower with a red center. The leaves slowly unfold as the tea steeps. My choice turns out to be a bag of sweet and salty crackers, tasty, if strange.
I listen to the rain. The Garden of the Disgraced Official is a suitable venue for making a decision I have been postponing. I loved being a librarian, an information specialist who delved into the nooks and crannies of the internet as well as more traditional hard copy, fugitive literature being my favorite, to bring needed tidbits to a variety of researchers at my university. Been there, done that. I enjoyed being at the center of my family, the domestic pole they revolved around. They’ve been there, done that.
I nibble at the last cracker thoughtfully. I am left without a plan. None of the remaining options appeal to me. No option at all! I am unexpectedly flooded with a sense of joy, free to do anything, or nothing, at least nothing that fits into a neat life plan. I have found a title for my new book: Living in the Garden of Ambiguity. It may not be the right title, but then, titles come and go.
I allow the taxi driver to take me to the silk market.
I’ve long been hemmed in by my official hairpin and belt;
It’s lucky I am banished to these barbarians to the south
I don’t meet anyone as I come and go,
Loudly singing under the blue skies of Chu.
Liu Zongyuan (773 – 819 CE) - Three Hundred Tang Poems
The poems can be found in Three Hundred Tang Poems, translated by Peter Harris. 2009. Alfred A. Knoff.
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