Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Road to Heaven

A couple months ago, the New York Times had an article about the rise of Daoism in China that I featured in a blog post. A few days after posting that article, I read a post on the excellent China Beat blog by the author of the NYT article, Ian Johnson, giving some reading suggestions for those interested in learning more about the history of Daoism.

I've never had a tremendous interest in Daoism, but figured it wouldn't hurt to better familiarize myself with the history of the religion a bit. I picked up the number one book on Johnson's list - The Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter.

I got very excited about this book just a few moments after opening it. The following map is on the page after the table of contents:

I copied this on a copy machine and then scanned it. Doesn't look quite as good as it does in the actual book. If you can't tell, this is a map of where Porter goes searching for hermits: Xi'an and Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province (the Sian in the middle of the map is Xi'an). The setting of Porter's book is where I lived while I was in China.

I thoroughly enjoyed that this book takes place on my old stomping grounds in China. Visiting ancient temples, meeting Daoist hermits, climbing serene mountains - Xi'an and its surrounding area is just a surreal place. When it comes to history and culture - the birthplace of Daoism, the numerous dyasties, the terracotta warriors, the beginning of the Silk Road, etc. - Xi'an can't be beat.

Outside of my three climbs of Hua Shan, I hadn't been to any of the places that Porter writes about. But anyone who's read my blog before or has seen my travel recommendations knows that I'm crazy about Hua Shan and am very taken by the Daoist aspects of that mountain.

Porter goes to Hua Shan in the book and has an entire chapter on the mountain. He gives a thorough history of Daoism on the mountain. Here is the beginning section of his Hua Shan chapter - "Sound of the Crane" from page 60:

"The Road To Heaven" - A photo I took at Hua Shan in 2008
Very romantic stuff, this. Between this chapter in Road to Heaven and the chapter "The Hermit of Hua Shan" in China Road, I've been able to learn a lot about Hua Shan since leaving China.

Qian and I just bought tickets for a three week trip to China this summer. I'm hoping to consult the map at the beginning of this post and the pages of Porter's book as a guide for an off-the-beaten-path couple day excursion outside of Xi'an. I'm not expecting that I'll run into hermits or go searching for the history of Daoism like Porter did. But spending some time in the Qinling mountains at the heart of China's Daoist history is something I want to try to do on our trip.

While there were parts of Road to Heaven that I really appreciated, it is hard for me on the whole to endorse the book very enthusiastically. The book was only 220 pages, yet it took me several weeks to finish. Many of the stories, history, and interviews with hermits ran together badly by the middle of the book. I got stuck/bored for long periods of time.

If you don't know the difference between Buddhism and Daoism, are interested in China's folk religions, are planning a trip to Xi'an, or want to read the history of China's only major home-grown religion, Road to Heaven is something you may appreciate. I didn't love the book, but I'm glad I picked it up.


Ryan said...

I've read a couple books about Daoism since coming to China (and a couple before coming). Cheers for the loose recommendation Mark, I'll definitely see if I can hunt Porter's book down, as well as check out Ian's post over at China Beat.

I can totally relate to what you're saying about a book getting dry, but still feeling compelled to finish it. I'm on my second attempt to read a Julia Lovell's The Great Wall, which is by all accounts a fantastic book on Chinese history -- but you can't squeeze 5,000 years worth of history in a book without it running on a bit. For her part, Lovell does a decent job of trying to keep things focused and interesting.

Mark said...

I'd check this one out if you're interested in Daoism, Ryan.

I didn't do a very good job on actually talking about the book in this "review." There's a lot of history, lots of interviews with hermits in it. It was Johnson's #1 book for good reason.

On a personal level, I enjoyed the Xi'an-specific aspects of the book since I'm so closely connected with Xi'an.

If I get a fixing for a new China book, I'll check out the Lovell book you've referenced.

One other thing that I found downright excruciating about this book is the use of Wade-Giles instead of pinyin. It's not as though this book is the only offender in that regard. Most books written before 1990 use Wade-Giles to romanize Chinese names.

A couple of examples of what I'm talking about here:

Wade Giles - Pinyin
Peking - Beijing
Sian - Xi'an
Fukien - Fujian

This may not be a big deal to some, but it just pains me to get through a book written with the old Wade-Giles method. Having studied Chinese on and off for a few years now, I understand the brilliance of pinyin on a deep level. I'm offended by Wade-Giles.

I think this problem affected my feelings on the book.

Mark said...

This is an interesting follow-up/story on this book -