December 1, 2007 at 9:51 pm #26464
If you want to read a great book…here it is! This will be a great read for 2008, a great book long overdue!
My Journey in Mystic China
Old Pu’s Travel Diary
By (author) John Blofeld
Translated by Daniel Reid
Foreword by Chungliang Al Huang
Page Count: 296; 6.00 (width) x 9.00 (height)
Includes 8-page b&w insert
Imprint: Inner Traditions
The only English translation of John Blofelds memoirs as a Westerner living in China prior to the Communist Revolution
Paints an intimate portrait of the grace and refinement of ancient Chinese civilization
Originally written in Chinese for Chinese readers, revealing a rare glimpse of Blofelds private Chinese side and uncensored views
The last book by the great English sinologist, translator of the I Ching and author of Taoist Mystery and Magic
The reveries and remembrances contained in the travel diaries of John Blofeld cover every aspect of his life in China–from visits to opium dens and sing-song houses to sojourns in the Buddhist monasteries and Taoist hermitages of Chinas sacred mountains. Here is a vivid glimpse of old China as it existed in elegance and grace for three thousand years before Chinas Communist Revolution. Originally written in Chinese for a Chinese audience, Blofelds travel diary reveals a rare, uncensored view of pre-communist China to which few westerners have been exposed.
About the Author(s) of My Journey in Mystic China
John Blofeld (1913-1987) was an eminent sinologist and humanist who authored numerous books on Buddhism and Taoism, including The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, Taoist Mystery and Magic, and a translation of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. He lived in China from 1932 until 1949 when the Communist Revolution forced him to relocate to Thailand, where he remained for the rest of his life. Daniel Reid, translator, met and became close friends with Blofeld at his home in Bang-kok during the last year of his life. After Blofelds death, Reid lived and worked in Blofelds own study translating this, his last work, into English.
Ok….here some previews!:
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
I’ve already mentioned the special features of the four seasons that were unique to Peking, so now I’d like to discuss some of the diversions the city’s residents pursued in their leisure time.
Chinese people everywhere have always savored the delicious flavors of fine cuisine, and the residents of the ancient capital were certainly no exception. Indeed, their social life revolved primarily around the banquet table. For everyone in society, from merchants to writers, the discerning ability to properly compose a meal in restaurants by ordering the correct combination of dishes was an indispensable skill which even I studied a bit, and so you can well imagine how important this was for high ranking officials and other dignitaries in former times. Prior to the War of Resistance against Japan, anyone who wished to taste the very best in gourmet Chinese food could pick no better place than Peking. Strangely enough, what’s known today as so-called “Peking Cuisine” never existed before as a category in the culinary arts of China. Of course Peking Duck has always been a dish uniquely associated the capital, but other than that, northern Chinese food consisted mainly of the culinary style of Shantung, and therefore “Peking Cuisine” is really a misnomer. Since Peking has served as China’s capital city for many centuries, it naturally attracted the best chefs from every province and region in the country. Moreover, the great men who came to the capital from distant provinces to serve as ministers of state would have certainly included among their entourage of assistants and relatives talented chefs who were skilled in the preparation of their native homelands’ finest delicacies.
(According to what a friend told me, the original meaning of the phrase “to feast in Kuangchou” was not that “Cantonese cuisine is superior to all other provinces.” As a matter of fact, most people from the northern and western regions of China feel that Cantonese food is far too bland and cannot compare with the grand cuisines of Szechuan, Hunan, Shantung, and Suchou. If that’s the case, then why did this phrase spread so far and wide? The reason is that ever since the latter years of the Tao Kuang emperor’s reign, Kuangchou had become the center of foreign trade, and thus the city of Canton was full of wealthy tycoons who liked to vie with each other in providing their guests with strange unheard of delicacies. While these exotic dishes reflected the host’s wealth and status, they were not necessarily the most palatable foods.)
Chinese banquets always included fine wines, but according to longstanding etiquette, one must never lose one’s sense of decorum after drinking. Chinese people become intoxicated quite easily, and therefore they are very fond of drinking games and can become quite boisterous at banquets, but very rarely do they allow themselves to get roaring drunk in public. According to scenes described in old Chinese novels and the works of famous poets, the ancient Chinese were accustomed to frequent drinking. However, an acquaintance of mine, Mr. Chu Chian, who had served as a senior official in the capital, informed me that back in the days when the emperor was still on the throne, even though officials and ministers of state were required by custom to do a lot of drinking, whenever they were entertaining guests or attending formal receptions, they always used beverages with very light alcoholic content.
It’s most unfortunate that since the late Ching dynasty the sort of self-control exercised when drinking liquor has not been applied to smoking opium. Prior to the reign of the Tao Kuang emperor, Chinese people were not in the habit of smoking opium, until shameless Western merchants started peddling large quantities of it to China. Opium is far more addictive than alcohol, and also far more dangerous. Prior to the War of Resistance, both Peking and Tienchin had many “smoking groves,” a term used in reference to opium dens. Among my own circle of friends, there were very few addicts, but after attending banquets, some of them liked to visit opium dens or brothels in order to enjoy a taste of “black rice.” Sometimes I joined them.
One time, a professor named Fan took me along for a smoke. I had smoked opium once before in Canton and had quite enjoyed it, but I was very afraid of becoming addicted. Mr. Fan took note of my discomfort and said, “Nothing can be judged as being either good or bad in itself. Whether something is harmful or beneficial depends entirely on how it is used. While common people may find it difficult to control themselves, gentlemen know when they’ve had enough and are quite capable of exercising restraint and avoiding danger.” His reasoning convinced me, and so, rather than refusing his offer, I smoked a few pipes with him and enjoyed the sensation of of entering a totally different world. However, the next day I received an unexpected scolding from my friend Pu. He said, “That professor is probably a hopeless opium addict. People like him always say things like that in order to persuade others to believe their story, but their real purpose is simply to entice people to join them without arousing any doubts.” I later discovered that what Pu had told me was correct. Professor Fan had already been addicted to opium for a long time. Only his wife knew the real truth, and one day she inadvertantly let his secret slip out.
Today, people may well believe that visiting brothels and smoking opium are shameful activities, but I don’t agree. During the time that I lived in Peking, I was only twenty two years old, and though I was not particularly promiscuous, I was nevertheless quite attracted to the beauty and tender charm of young women. That goes without saying. However, in those days it was impossible to find a girlfriend from a good family. Even for a young Chinese lad, living alone in the city was always a very lonely experience, and this was even more so for a Western youth. At least young Chinese men all had sisters and other female relatives back home to whom they could sometimes turn for female companionship, but how could someone like me find such solace? The girls in sing-song houses were skilled in using sweet words to make a man feel happy, and they were trained to carry themselves with a highly refined sense of elegance. In fact, they were often even more sophisticated than girls from good families.
After I had learned sufficient Mandarin to understand basic conversation, these girls warmly welcomed me to become their “language student.” Contrary to my expectations, sing-song girls were not necessarily greedy for money. According to my own experience, rarely did any of these girls demand excessive payment, and some of them dispalyed considerable depth of feeling. It was only due to the misfortunate treatment they received from society that they were compelled to sell their smiles and sell their bodies. How could one possibly look down on them for that? You could even say that these girls became my benefactors by using the simplest words and phrases to help me slowly but surely learn a well cultured style of conversation. In those day my male friends, such as my colleagues at school as well as Pu and Heng, found little interest speaking Chinese with a beginner like me, and so they always conversed with me in English. Thanks only to the companionship of a few sing-song girls did my Mandarin gradually grow smooth and proper, and not only did my manner of speech become more fluent and courteous, it even began to draw praise from strangers. How on earth could I not be moved to gratitude by such efficient tutelage from these “lady profesors?”
Occasionally my friends invited me to go with them to listen to opera performances. Although I could not understand the words, I soon began to like Peking Opera, but since I found it difficult to appreciate the finer points of this performing art, it did not become a passion for me. Many people in Peking were deeply devoted connoisseurs of opera, and some of them could recite by heart all of the lyrics in the most famous operas, and could even accompany themselves on the hu chin as they sang. What I loved most of all was ancient Chinese music, especially the seven-stringed zither. In those days, there were still a few old masters who played the zither with such consummate skill that it entranced the soul.
In the sing-song houses there were some girls who excelled in playing the Chinese lute. Even today, whenever I read the lines of The Lute Girl’s Lament, my eyes fill with tears of nostalgia for the past. It’s clear from this poem that the great poet Pai did not look lightly down on sing-song girls, and I feel exactly the same way, although I must admit such a viewpoint has changed over time. For young people today, relations with the opposite sex have become far more convenient than in the past, and therefore sing-song girls have lost the important social function they once served. Unfortunately, even though most people today may no longer visit sing-song houses, this does not necessarily mean that they are any more chaste than their ancestors.
Another highly refined leisure activity was the game of Chinese chess. Although I was very fond of playing chess, I never became an advanced adept. As for archery and other pastimes favored by my Manchurian friends, I remained completely unskilled. Mr. Heng introduced me to an old Manchu bannerman whose surname was Chu. This venerable old gentleman informed me that the reason the Manchu nomads were able to conquer and control all of China was due entirely to their peerless mastery of the bow and arrow. He willingly agreed to teach me the art of archery, but after only two attempts, I found it so difficult that I quickly lost my determination to practice. Alas!
The sports which the residents of the capital liked to practice most were tai-chi-chuan and all sorts of martial arts. Groups of spectators often gathered on the overpasses to watch martial artists and jugglers practicing their skills below. Before my arrival in Peking, I had never witnesses such wonderful skill. As I stood there watching slack-jawed with amazement, every time I heard a bystander shout “Bravo, bravo,” I too shouted out with all my might in order to express my boundless appreciation. At the time, I would never have imagined that only a few decades later, Chinese martial arts would gain popular international acclaim as it spread far and wide throughout the world.
Indeed, there are probably more tai-chi-chuan teachers in Euroope and America today than there are in China, and most of them are native residents of those countries. Now in my elderly years, whenever I consider this situation, I cannot help but feel saddened to think that just as foreigners in the Western world are beginning to appreciate some of the most advanced arts of ancient China, on the contrary the Chinese themselves seem to be abandoning them, or else taking sudden notice of the precious heritage left to them by their ancestors only after seeing Chinese martial arts featured in foreign films.
Before I finish my discussion of leisure activities, I would like to mention the pleasure of visiting bath houses. Not only in Peking, but also throughout northern China, residential homes very rarely were equipped with hot water facilities. Anyone who wished to have a bath with hot water had to go to a bath house for it. Whenever the weather turned cold, customers swarmed to the bath houses, and many came only to relish the warmth.
Most bath houses had three pools: a warm pool, a hot pool, and an even hotter pool. They were about the same size as a small swimming pool. Unless one first entered the warm pool, the temperature of the hot pool was difficult to tolerate, not to mention the heat of the hottest pool. While soaking in the warm pool, one could call for a bath house attendant to come scrub one’s back. First he placed a large cross-shaped wooden frame into the pool, with the bottom part braced against the bottom, the center part propped against the wall of the pool, and the top part sticking up out of the water. The customer then leaned at an angle on this framework, as though he’d been sentenced to the punishment of dismemberment on the rack. The scrub boys had to exert an extraordinary amount of muscular effort in order to perform this sort of work. Most of them came from Shantung, or had been apprenticed to Shantung mentors. First they wrapped a towel tightly around one hand, and used it to briskly rub out the black particles of dirt trapped in the pores of the customer’s skin. No matter how clean you might have thought your own body was, an amazing amount of dirt always came out in the wash.
After this treatment, the customer stepped into the second or third pool to soak for awhile, then went to the lounge room to rest. The lounge room was equipped with dozens of cots, and there you could lie down comfortably and ask for another attendant to come over and give you a massage, while young manicurists came to trim the nails of your fingers and toes. Fine tea, stuffed buns, steamed dumplings, fresh fruits, and other snacks were available at your beck and call. Since the cots were placed quite close together, the reclining customers merrily engaged one another in casual conversation. For me this was one of the most enjoyable aspects of going to a bath house.
While traveling around China, whenever I first arrived in a new town along the way where I had no acquaintances to receive me, I immediately went to a bath house to relax, and killed two birds with one stone. On the one hand, there were always local residents there who were happy to tell me all about the town’s more interesting diversions, and on the other hand, the bath house was always very warm, whereas the inns seldom had any form of heating other than a small charcoal brazier. Upon first arrival in a town, one always felt freezing cold from head to foot, so if one didn’t go to a bath house, it was almost impossible to ever get warm.
Shantung, known in ancient times as Lu, is one of China’s oldest and most historically prominent provinces. Located on the northern coast about 150 miles south of Peking, it was the homeland of Confucius.
“Black rice” was a popular euphemism for opium.
A stringed instrument used in Peking Opera, drawn with a bow
The Chinese lute is called pi pa. The poem The Lute Girl’s Lament (Pi Pa Hsing) was written by the famous Tang dynasty poet Pai Chu-Yi, after he heard a lute girl playing her heart out on a flower boat.
Known as Wei Chi in Chinese and Go in Japanese (literally “encircle chess”), this game is played with black and white stones on a large checkered board.
“Bannermen” were the artistocratic class of Manchu society, and during the Manchu Ching dynasty, they comprised the highet social class in China
The Clairvoyant Immortal
During those two years that I returned to live in Peking, my life was so replete with peace and happiness that I rarely thought about the political situation in China. At that time, Peking had not yet recovered its pre-war grandeur, and the vestiges of the Japanese military occupation still remained. The furnishings in most residential houses and government buildings were dilapidated, and all items of value had been stolen by the enemy and their Chinese collaborators, or else sold off by their owners. The restaurant, shops, tea houses, and other structures were all old and ramshackle. Nevertheless, Peking still had infinite charm and beauty, and in my mind no place else on earth could compare with it. Despite the adverse conditions, the city’s ancient flavor still delighted my heart.
At that time I never dreamed that soon I would be compelled to leave the adopted homeland that I loved so deeply; on the contrary, I was very eager to find a longterm residence there. Oh, alas! Before long I began to hear frequent reports of relentless attacks on central government forces by the red army. Although the newspapers usually reported red army victories as “defeats,” everyone knew that the power of the Communist Party was growing, and that the situation was becoming more critical by the day. Even I, as a foreigner, could no longer close my eyes to this predicament, for it was clear that the crisis was pressing close.
In those years, my own life there was very interesting. My work as a teacher at the university was pleasant and satisfying. At the same time, my research work also provided me with deep fulfillment, and was begining to show success. My translations of two important volumes of Buddhist teachings by Tang Dynasty Zen masters were in the midst of being printed by a publisher in England. One was The Zen Teaching of Huang Po and the other was the Zen master Hui Hai’s The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai: On Sudden Enlightenment. In addition, in my spare time, I also translated Lao Shi’s novel Memoirs of Cat City into English. (I don’t know why, but those two Tang Dynasty works proved to have broad popular appeal and were continuously reprinted, and they still remain in print to this day. But that short novel by Lao Shi, with all its heart-rending sarcasm, was turned down by several English publishers.)
In 1948, on the night before the Lantern Festival, I unexpectedly encountered a very peculiar event. That day I had heard about a “living immortal” who was staying in the western quarter of the city, and this came as strange news to me. Although I was not certain that there existed such a thing, I really wanted to go meet this so-called “immortal.” Because I’d heard that this “living immortal” would soon be going to the south, and I might therefore miss my opportunity, I decided then and there to immediately go pay him a visit. My servant Old Dzan called a motor car, and as the weather was extremely cold, the open car had a quilt inside to block the wind. The passenger rode as though tucked inside of a Mongolian tent, but the stench was really hard to bear.
It took over an hour to reach the “immortal’s” residence. A note on the gate informed visitors that the “immortal” was in the midst of meditation, and no one was permitted to enter. I was freezing to death, and needed to warm myself by a fire. Using this as an excuse, I mustered my courage and went resolutely inside. The gatekeeper told me that it was forbidden to enter, but he didn’t dare raise his arm to block me and just stood there agitated, so he did not stop me from walking up to the front door and knocking. A servant opened the door and led me into the parlor to warm myself by the fire. And there before my eyes sat the “immortal.” He was sitting cross-legged on a mat meditating. He sat with his back to the door and did not notice that someone had entered the room, and for a long time he just sat there like a lifeless statue.
When he finally stood up, turned around, and noticed me, he did not seem the least bit surprised, and said casually, “Good, good! Mr. Pu, you have arrived.” Struck with wonder and curiosity by his prescience, I asked myself how he could possibly know that my name was Pu. Until the moment that I told my servant to find me a cab, even I did not know that today I would be going to visit this complete stranger. After arriving at his residence, I hadn’t mentioned my name to anyone there. So the moment I heard him address me as “Mr. Pu,” I stood there wide-eyed and slack-jawed with wonder, and felt very astonished.
He called for tea, and invited me to sit down. We sat facing one another, with a small tea table between us. I bowed to pay my respects, then said politely, “It’s a great honor to meet you, esteemed immortal, and please forgive me for disturbing you. Do you have a few minutes to spare? Otherwise, I could. . .”
It was obvious that he was not pleased to hear me address him as “immortal,” and so he riposted with the question, “Is it possible that there exists such a thing as an immortal in this world? And if ineed there really are such strange creatures, by no means should you mistake me as one of them. In my humble opinion, immortals are characters fabricated by human beings. Regretrably, my humble self is sometimes praised by others as being an immortal. How on earth could there possibly be such a thing? Please, sir, address me as Taoist Dzeng.” This white-haired Taoist wasn’t wearing Taoist robes. He wore a long padded tunic of blue satin and felt boots. His hair was cut short, like most elderly men in contemporary China. It was clear that he felt great disdain for charlatans posing as immortals. I said, “Although the venerable Mr. Dzeng is not an immortal, you certainly are endowed with great spiritual power. Otherwise, how could you foretell that my name is Pu?” He poured me a cup of tea before replying, “My humble self may perhaps have a small measure of obscure clairvoyant ability. That’s a very common result of practicing meditation.”
“May I inquire, sir, what business brings you here, that you would risk the cold to come to my residence?” At this moment, Taoist Dzeng’s expression seemed to carry a tinge of sarcasm. With a straight face I replied, “My humble self has for a long time wished to meet a Taoist adept who is highly accomplished in the mystical arts, and to ask him for guidance regarding which type of practices are most effective for restoring youth and prolonging life.” The venerable old Dzeng smiled and said, ” ‘If you don’t believe in the teaching, you cannot obtain its benefits.’ How can I possible explain this in words? Ha ha, Mr. Pu has climbed famous mountains, and has received teachings from many great Buddhist monks and Taoist adepts, so why would you find it worthwhile to ask for guidance from my humble self? I daresay, sir, that you must be familiar with some words of advice from the Tao Teh Ching. The general meaning of this advice is that visiting famous mountains and traveling afar to seek teachings about the Tao is not nearly as useful as staying home, shutting the door, and examining your own mind.” When he finished speaking, he gazed steadily into my eyes, as though concentrating the full power of his attention on making me understand.
At that moment, a very peculiar sensation suddenly arose within me. All of a sudden, he, I, and everything in the space between us, while still retaining their external appearance, seemed to condense into an inseparable singularity, as though we had suddenly dissolved into one amorphous entity. This dimension of existence gave me a feeling a great joy. For a short while, my mind was mesmerized and my spirit was lost, but at the same time, I knew that this condition was definitely not a distorted fantasy. The strange thing was that although I felt very happy and at ease in that state, I also felt that I could not withstand this man’s spiritual power much longer, and that if I did not soon break free of his gaze, I might never return to the normal world, and so I quickly lowered my eyes and terminated that mysterious sensation.
Just then, a group of visitors arrived to see him. They seemed to have come by previous appointment. Therefore, I did not wish to disturb him any longer, bade him farewell, and took my leave. A few days later I heard that the venerable Dzeng had already departed by train for the south. I had missed the opportunity to inquire in detail about several strange matters. For example, how had he known my surname? How had he known that I visited many famous mountains, and that I’d sought teachings about Buddhist doctrine and Taoist mysteries from numerous renowned masters? Relatively speaking, these few matters were not very important. Before we’d met, it was possible that the old man had casually heard that there was a Westerner named Pu living in Peking who had a strong interest in Taoism, and possibly he’d heard people discussing my appearance and other things about me. Although this was only a slight possibility, it was also not impossible. But Old Dzeng had definitely caused me to experience the phenomenon known as “myriad objects uniting into one whole,” and for a very short time I had entered into this mysterious dimension.
I’d like to discuss in more detail the meaning of this so-called “uniting as one whole” phenomenon, both from the perspective of Taoist teaching as well as modern science. When Old Dzeng fixed his penetrating gaze on me, I definitely and very clearly perceived the inseparable and boundless nature of all phemonena. That is to say, my perception at the time was that even though all objects had their own separate relative identity, at the same time they were also all completely unified as one primordial entity. That of course defies logic, and is a principle that lies beyond rational debate. I had long ago learned from my Buddhist and Taoist studies about the relative nature of reality, and that only through a higher level of wisdom could one really understand the true nature of phenomena. And yet, in only a few fleeting moments, Old Dzeng had given me a direct experiential perception of the fundamental nature of reality.
Regrarding this matter, there is a passage in the Tao Teh Ching which states:
We look but we don’t see it
and call it indistinct
We listen but don’t hear it
and call it faint
We reach but don’t grasp it
and call it ethereal
Three failed means of knowledge
I weave into one
with no light above
with no shade below
too fine to be named
returning to nothing. . .
and discover the ancient maiden
This is the thread of the Way
The words “weave into one” in this passage refers to the essential, indivisible unity of all phenomena. The last sentence states that we must clearly understand that all phenomena arise from the same formless, invisible source, the infinite ocean of primordial energy, which Lao Tze refers to here as “the ancient maiden,” the “mother of all things.”
Modern science can now provide evidence for this idea of the primordial unity of all manifest form thoughout the universe. It has been demonstrated by science that matter (form) and energy (formless) are interchangeable and that they both share the same essential vibrational nature. Einsten’s famous equation E=mc2 defined the dynamic commutability between these two dimensions of existence. Furthermore the advanced science of quantum physics now agrees with the fundamental hypothesis of ancient Eastern cosmology that the entire manifest universe is formed and shaped by consciousness, and that nothing whatsoever exists beyond the infinite luminous field of primordial awareness. After my meeting with the old Taoist Dzeng, I never again had the opportunity to communicate with another genuine Taoist master in China. That was the last time I received the benefit of direct personal guidance from a traditional Chinese master regarding the ancient teachings of the Great Tao.
The 15th day of the first month in the traditional Chinese new year, based on the old lunar calendar. It celebrates the first full moon of the new year and usually falls in late February or early March.
Translation by Red Pine (Bill Porter) in Lao Tze’s Taoteching, Mercury House,
San Francisco, 1996.December 1, 2007 at 11:25 pm #26465
I found the excerpt that you posted to be very entertaining and
fascinating. I will be ordering this book.
StevenDecember 2, 2007 at 3:40 am #26467
When I was in Thailand I heard Reid was living in Blofield old house. And that he later moved to Laos – the golden triange, the epicener of opium and heroin smuggling. Later I heard he was addicted….perhaps Blofield’s influence? Last I heard he had moved to a remote part of Australia to kick his addition.
I have read blofield’s other accounts, they are general as far as Taoist practice goes, but give nice texture and background. I will probably read this as well. Thanks for posting.
michaelDecember 4, 2007 at 5:40 pm #26469
He is running a detox program in Australia with his wife. His latest book is called the Tao of Detox.
SimonDecember 5, 2007 at 4:17 pm #26471
The story of Reid’s connection to Blofeld:
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