Golden Gods And Gunpowder

Fuzhou is alive. The heavy doses of sunlight and the sweltering breath of the air take some getting used to (perhaps Tom Robbins would call the place too vivid), but if there’s one thing that sun and water do together, it’s create an alchemy of life. It’s been a while since I last wrote, but there have been half a thousand times between now and then that I’ve thought of writing more, and half a thousand times that I felt I didn’t have time. In the jungles around the Minjiang, there are panthers, monkeys, birds and lizards; there is life devouring life with all the vibrant intensity required by the excess energy of sun and water poured into their half-mad bodies, and the same vicious, hilarious intensity seems to be present in every moment of life in the Minjiang’s city.

At night, during the day, at an odd an unexpected hour, a rattling cacophony of firecrackers sputters and pops, setting off electric bike alarms in a one-block radius. When I leave for work in the morning, there is the Chinese property manager who sits on a plastic stool outside a little shack in front of our apartment, shirtless and pudgy, his eyes vacantly curious, his mouth unsmiling, his front teeth missing, a cigarette burning down to the filter as he stares. In the building twenty feet away from our own, a top floor apartment burned down the other day. Today, as I walk passed the bank on my way to the bus stop, a Chinese armored car guard with what looks like a semi-automatic shotgun can’t help watching me and laughing; a little gold chain hangs round his neck over his body armor.

When my wife and the baby and I go to visit Qishan, a mountain covered in beautiful waterfalls and breathtaking vistas of bejungled mountains shrouded in mist, we take a van from the bus stop to the entrance of the National Park. The van driver presses his foot compulsively to the gas pedal, doubling the speed limit on the straightaways and taking the nearly one hundred eighty degree switchbacks up the mountain so quickly that the rear axle makes a shuddering shearing sound as it pulls through. The road is not big enough for two cars to pass each other, the drivers have no way of knowing how and when someone is coming down the mountain, and there are no seatbelts.

I am laughing, holding on to my seat. Tania is trying to brace herself while holding the baby. Isabelle is sound asleep, flopping around on Tania’s chest as the van bumps and lurches.

I ask the student, Melody, who is our guide, “How many people do you think die on this road due to head on collisions every year?”

Good naturedly she smiles and answers, “Do you really want to know the numbers?”

We all laugh, the van drives into a wall of fog, and the driver accelerates.

All this gives me occasion to wonder how Buddhism ever survived in China. Detachment seems antithetical to the Chinese experience. Everything is too absurd to be ignored. When, on Qishan, we finally break through the foliage and look out on the massive Pearl Breaking and Jade Spilling waterfall that is Qishan’s pride, it takes a few minutes for one of our members to notice that this massive waterfall disappears shortly after hitting the ground. Enough water for a heavy stream or a slight river spills over rocks, falls onto a bed of broken stone, and promptly vanishes. There’s no sign of water flowing down the valley. It’s lost in the tangle of jungle.

But these questions will have to remain unanswered. To the Buddhist question, I may have more of a solution. After Qishan, our enthusiastic van driver drops us off at a nearby Buddhist site that is still under construction: the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. After sliding to a halt, skidding across wet marble, we are greeted by an equally enthusiastic monk, who plays with his prayer beads more as a nervous habit than as any show of serenity. He walks about in front of us explaining every detail of the constructions: the hand-carved dragons and cranes, the meticulously etched marble walls, the boddhi tree imported from India, the solid jade statue of a Buddhist protector deity with garishly red-painted nails. When we break off on our own to explore another part of the monastery, he suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere appears in front of us again to be our guide.

And what can I say? There’s no Buddhist detachment or serenity in this monastery. The carved dragons have a madness in their eyes, and they laugh with a kind of insane abandon from every column and bit of tile. They clutch little envelopes with Chinese characters in their claws, and if they could move it seems all but certain they would tear your face off and flee laughing into the clouds.

But the Buddha himself, that classic Chinese Buddha? You know, the fat one with the huge ears and the laughing smile? Well, he makes an appearance, too. In the last room of the monastery we are to visit before leaving, there is dim lighting. The room is dominated in the center by a giant golden Chinese Buddha. I am perhaps as big as his toe, and certainly no bigger than one of the boots of the four demon-faced warriors that flank him on either side, brandishing umbrellas, polearms and swords. And what does this giant golden Buddha evoke?

I can’t put my finger on why. I’m sorry. But standing beneath this massive golden Buddha, the only thing I feel is a sort of supernatural fear. As though, if this giant golden statue were to come to life, with that aloof but simultaneously uproarious smile fixed upon his gargantuan face, that he would be laughing. I can only imagine that his laughter would be like the laughter of the giant to Jack of the beanstalk fame, but less intentionally cruel. There’s something in this Buddha’s face that seems to say: everything is the most hilarious joke! At the same time, there’s something in his size and his weight and the direction of his eyes that makes it impossible to imagine he would notice someone as small as I– and that if he did, he would notice me only long enough to squish me beneath a vast, golden thumb. This is a graphic image in my mind as I stand before China’s laughing Buddha.  There’s nothing cartoonish in the picture of a glimmering, shining thumb spilling blood and human organs out in every direction as it grinds this flimsy bit of flesh against the marble of his temple floor. The only hope in this vivid and unlooked-for vision is that I, with my clever human mind, can somehow outwit, outrun, and defeat this massive golden god and his demonic bodyguards; but even this fantasy is somehow stifled by the magnitude of the task. Vaguely, I wish for a grenade, or some plastique, but even of these weapons my imagination remains dubious. For what good would a bit of gunpowder do against a golden god? TC mark

image – williamcho

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  • Neel

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read on this site.

  • sarah

    Why doesn’t this have a thousand comments praising it? Oh, right, because it doesn’t have some snarky title like most articles on TC… Excellent writing, I loved it.

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