Art China Hebei Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Some Operatic Chinoiserie in Yu County, or, the Endemic Drama

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Drawings of actors and performers from the panels above an opera stage

An essential part of an village fort in Yu County is the village opera stage. The standard Mandarin for this would be 戲台 xi tai, “Opera Platform”, but Yu County people call these structures 樂樓 yue lou, “Music Houses”. Outsiders find this quaint. Before the Communist takeover, there were at least 700 opera stages in Yu county, spread over 738 villages. Now there are around 300 opera stages still remaining, some perfectly intact and some almost totally collapsed. To be clear, this is a lot of opera stages. According to one count, the entire province of Shanxi contains only 146 such pre-Communist stages, less than half the number in the one county of Yu. And while the building of these opera stages is not usually recorded in literary sources, we actually can tell some things about who used them and when by visual and written information on the walls of the stages themselves.

When a particular opera troupe played a show at a particular stage, it was common for them to write a small graffito on the back interior wall of the stage to memorialize the performance. Many of these still remain. From these we know the names of many of the late Qing opera troupes operating in Yu County or visiting from neighboring regions. The Yu County scholars Tian Yongxiang 田永翔 and Wang Zhijun 王志軍 state that they’ve counted the names of at least 400 individual opera troupes from the stage walls. They divide the types of performances into 大戲 “Great Opera”, 秧歌 “Seedling Songs”, 弦子腔 “Zither Tunes”, 道情 “Operas of the Way and Emotion”, 賽戲 “Temple Fair Plays”, 燈影戲 “Lamp-Shadow Plays”, 高蹺戲 “Plays on Stilts”, 羅羅腔 “Lolo Tunes”, 耍孩兒 “Playing with the Children”, and others.  These two authors provide a whole history of opera in Yu County, pointing out that musical performers have existed in Yu County since antiquity, being mentioned in the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) records of the Kingdom of Dai (代國), which had its royal city in what’s now Yu County. Opera stages, however, came much later. I can’t ever recall seeing a dated epigraph in an opera stage earlier than the Daoguang Reign of the Qing (1821-1850), and there are numerous ones after that. From this we can infer that opera, or at least opera stages, really took off in a big way in Yu County from the early part of the 19th century.

As for the opera stages themselves, they are generally one-roomed structures, enclosed on three sides and raised up to a height of 1.5 meters or so off the ground on a mud and stone platform. In all cases they face a temple, for the purposes of offering operatic performances to the gods. The stages themselves are bisected about halfway in by a decorative wooden screen stretched between pillars, which encloses the front stage from a rear area which is invisible to the spectators. This wooden screen is often decorated with colorfully painted panels depicting actors, musicians, and tumblers. On the side walls of the front part of the stage there are often murals which would serve as scenery for the plays.


An opera stage from the front. The stage faces a temple to Lord Guan across a little square, and is boarded-up against the elements.

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The interior of an opera stage, looking in; note the paneled wooden screen across the middle and the effaced frescoes on the outer flanking walls.

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An opera stage from the inside looking out. The wooden screen has been taken down here and the room is being used for storage; note the frescoes on the outer flanking walls.

In present-day Yu County the opera-stage murals are usually heavily damaged or completely effaced, as wind and rain can come in through the open face of the stage. Nevertheless enough of them remain that one can discern two main decorative tropes. The first, and more common, is paintings of folding screens. These give the illusion of a wealthy interior and the panels of the screens themselves are often painted with monochrome Shan Shui “Mountains and Water” scenery. The second, less common trope, is architectural drawings. These are quite rare and I’m only aware of seven extant examples in all of Yu County, of which only one survives in anything like an intact state. Nevertheless there’s enough of them, and the architecture depicted in them is distinctive enough, that it’s possible to say something about what these drawings are and what they’re supposed to be representing.

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To begin with, the standard composition for these drawings is as follows (for examples, see above and below). Two scenes are painted on the two sides of the opera stage. In each of these scenes, there is a large, multi-storied building painted towards the inside of the stage. These are often multi-storied structures with rows of western-style windows and sometimes domes or barrel-arched roofs on top. On the upper floor of these buildings are sometimes balustrades or belvederes of a type sometimes found in western buildings but almost never seen in China. At the base of this structure there is a sort of gate portico or platform. This portico and the large multi-story building behind it are often enclosed by a wall in the lower part of the composition. In front of this portico and towards the outer side of the stage, the scene opens up onto a plaza or open country where figures may or may not be found. Sometimes in the plaza and sometimes in the background beneath a further compound wall, you can see one or several Chinese-style pagodas rising up. The compositions typically have strong blue coloration.

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Note the various elements: The tall western-looking building on the right (the inner side of the stage), the portico or gate at the bottom center, and the Chinese-style pagodas behind a wall to the left (the outer side of the stage). 

Occasionally one or both of these structures have plaques hung over the gates which give a legend. There are five extant legends, which are as follows:


(1) Partially illegible; I can make out Si Ji? Chun [ ] Ben 四吉?春[ ]本, “Four Auspicious? Spring [illegible] Basic”, which obviously doesn’t make any more sense in Chinese than it does in English, so who knows.


(4) Si Wang Lou 四望樓, “The Tower of Gazing in the Four Directions”


(3) Si Wang Ting 四望亭, “The Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions”


(2) Xi Yang Lou 西洋樓, “The Palace of the Western Seas”


(1) Yi Da Gong 意大宮, “Intentions-Great Palace”, or possibly Yi Da Guan 意大官, “Intentions-Great Official”. This overwrites an apparently earlier legend in blue ink which says [ ][ ] Zhen Shi, [ ][ ]真事 “[two illegible characters] True Affair”.

So what does all this mean? It turns out that at least two of these titles can be matched to actual buildings that exist or once existed.


1) 四望亭

The Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions

There’s two versions of this in the inscriptions, one of which is a pavilion or pagoda (ting 亭) and one of which is a mansion or tower (lou 楼). Nevertheless they seem to refer to the same thing. The key to identifying the structure is two figures on the top of the pagoda in two separate drawings, a young girl and a monkey. They’re just visible in the drawing below, as beneath them various figures comment and posture.

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A monkey and a girl atop the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions

These two figures come from an anonymous folk novel called either “The Green Peony” 《绿牡丹》or “The Full Tale of the Pavilion of Gazing in Four Directions” 《四望亭全传》. Opinions on when this was written seem to differ (I’ve seen it put at various points between 1600 and 1900) and nobody knows who wrote it. This story ostensibly narrates the swashbuckling saga of some young braves during the age of the Empress Wu Zetian (624-705). Interestingly enough, although the play contains plenty of male characters, the main warriors are all female. The central heroine is a young circus performer named Hua Bilian 花碧莲, “Flower Jade-Lotus” who takes up arms against the various men who want to marry her and then against the empress of China herself, aiming to rescue the deposed heir of the Tang Dynasty and restore him to the throne. “The Green Peony” became a popular subject for plays; the “Dictionary of Chinese Bangzi Opera Titles”《中国梆子戏剧目大辞典》lists two extant plays named “The Green Peony”, and notes that each of these can be broken up into many smaller plays, which are performed individually. The summary of the action of the plays is as follows:

Hua Zhenfang travels with his wife and daughter, making a living by performing. He becomes friends with Luo Hongxun and Ren Zhengqian. Wang Lun is the son of the evil official Wang Huaiyi. Wang Lun plots to kidnap the daughter of the Hua family, Jade-Lotus, and force her to marry him. Jade-Lotus and her mother create great havoc in the official’s palace, and break out and escape. On the road in Yangzhou, they pass by the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions. Jade-Lotus climbs up the pagoda to capture a monkey but loses her footing and falls. Fortunately she’s caught by Luo Hongxun. Hua Zhenfang promises her in marriage to Luo Hongxun. Wang Lun uses a huge amount of gold to hire the assassin Pu Tianpeng to kill Luo Hongxun. Luo Hongxun, however, gives Pu Tianpeng silver ingots and the two part. Pu Tianpeng’s father in law, Bao Zeng’an, hears about this and invites Luo Hongxun to his village, “Stockade on the Waters”,  for a meeting. Bao Zeng’an’s daughter, Golden-Flower, gets drunk and challenges Luo Hongxun to a contest of the martial arts. In a moment of anger she wounds him, but Bao Zeng’an and Hua Zhenfang etc. come to the rescue.

The second play seems to be a sequel to the first. The action moves from personal conflicts among the characters to national swashbuckling among the great and powerful of the Tang Dynasty. Jade-Lotus takes the center stage as the main martial hero:

During the Tang Dynasty, the empress Wu Zetian orders Zhang Tianyou to take the city of Fangzhou, but he suffers a great defeat. The virtuous official Di Renjie [the famous “Judge Dee”] has characters tattooed on Zhang Tianyou’s back, and releases him back to the court. In resentment, Zhang Tianyou asks the empress Wu to have Di Renjie executed. Just at this time, from the west of the nation of Qi comes a strange beast which no one is able to tame. The Empress Wu gives an order that a master of strange creatures be found. The Green-Forest peasant rebel heroes Hua Zhenfang and Bao Zeng’an order the two girls Jade-Lotus and Golden-Flower to travel to the capital. They are successful in subduing the beast, and they are both granted the title “The First of the Three Ranks”. The Empress Wu sends Wei Shihua to lead Jade-Lotus to subdue Di Renjie as well. Along the way, Wei Shihua is able to capture the Lord of Luling, Li Chengjian. But he doesn’t expect that Jade-Lotus and the others will change sides. They attack Wei Shihua and kill him in a fight, saving the Lord of Luling [who goes on to replace Wu Zetian and restore the Tang Dynasty as the Zhongzong Emperor].

Just in case you wanted to picture this, here’s a clip from an old movie of “The Green Peony” which shows the first meeting between Jade-Lotus and Luo Hongxun.

Of course the couple is fated to be, but Luo Hongxun and Jade-Lotus are separated and don’t meet again until the twentieth chapter, which is the important one for our purposes. The scene now is at a crossroads near the east gate of the city of Yangzhou 揚州. Yangzhou is a town of great refinement on the lower Yangzi river, famous for its literati, its courtesans, and for having been repeatedly and brutally sacked at various points in history. Our hero Luo Hongxun and his drunken friend Yu Qian have gone out to attend a fair at the Temple of the Three Officials 三官廟. Yu Qian catches sight of a monkey which has escaped from a neighbor’s house. He leaps onto the roof to catch it. The monkey, frightened up, jumps from the roof onto the side of a pagoda which sits in the middle of the street, called the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions. Yu Qian leaps after it. The two of them shimmy up the side of the pagoda but Yu Qian still can’t catch the monkey.

Right at this moment, Hua Zhenfang, his daughter Jade-Lotus, and the nine Ba brothers are driving their horses in through the city gate. The street is mobbed with spectators watching the scene on the pagoda. Not a man to sit in traffic, Hua Zhenfang stampedes his horses into the crowd and scatters them all. He rides up to the base of the pagoda and recognizes his old friend Yu Qian climbing around up there. He makes inquiries and finds that the owner of the monkey is willing to pay ten silvers if someone can catch it, and twenty silvers if a girl as pretty as Jade-Lotus will climb up there in front of everybody and do it. After some haggling, a deal is made.

Here’s from the story. I think this is fun:

Hua Zhenfang shouts up at Yu Qian, “This malicious little creature, it doesn’t need someone like you to catch it. That’s like cutting up a chicken with a cattle knife! Uncle Yu, we haven’t had the chance to meet for so long, I implore you to come down and talk, and my daughter will go up in your place and catch the monkey for you.” He turns to Jade-Lotus. “Daughter! Get up there!”

And you only have to see – Jade Lotus uncoils her body and leaps onto the first floor of the pagoda. The crowd of people watching all raise their voices to applaud: “Such a skill is rare to find, even in a thousand years! Truly amazing, truly amazing!”

At the moment that Jade-Lotus leaps onto the pagoda, the monkey is within, but startled by her it jumps up onto the second floor. Jade-Lotus pauses just for a moment, but then uncoils her body once again and leaps up after it onto the second floor. Granny Hua sees her granddaughter on the second floor of the pagoda, and immediately releases her own body and leaps up onto the very top floor of the pagoda. The crowd on the ground once again applaud, “For such an elderly person to have such energy – she really is an old robber’s wife!” And when Hua Zhenfang sees both his mother and his daughter preparing to ascend even further, he, Yu Qian, and the other six all spread out to stand around the four sides of the pavilion.

Jade-Lotus has now attained the second floor. She takes out a handful of the fruits she’s been carrying against her breast, and tosses some of them in front of where the monkey can see, sitting herself up above so as not to startle it. When the monkey catches sight of the fruits he immediately takes them up in his hands and gobbles them down into his mouth. When he’s finished, Jade-Lotus throws another handful, and the monkey once again takes them up and eats them. Jade-Lotus very slowly inches forward, until she’s about two or three feet away. Suddenly the monkey sees her and is startled, and flees towards the south side of the pagoda. Jade-Lotus is behind a wall and she can’t see where he’s gone. Ba Long is standing on the ground at the south side of the pagoda. He shouts up: “The monkey’s gone to the south!”

Jade-Lotus turns towards the south. She throws another handful of fruit out that way. Once again, the monkey takes it up and eats it. Jade-Lotus inches closer to it, until she is almost up to the creature, but once more the monkey is startled and flees off somewhere else, she can’t see it. It seems to Jade-Lotus that if the monkey hadn’t been scared off by Yu Qian, she would have been able to capture it easily with this method. But her father Hua Zhenfang and Yu Qian are standing beneath, shouting up: “The monkey’s jumped over onto the northern side!”

Jade-Lotus turns towards the north. The monkey jumps up onto the top floor. She goes up after it. Happily, up above doesn’t have walls blocking her line of sight. Jade-Lotus formulates a plan. She says: “I have to drive this creature out onto one of the corners of the pagoda roof. That way, he’ll have nowhere to escape to. That’s the only way I’ll catch him.”

Once again, she takes out another handful of fruits from her shirt, and throws them onto the protruding north-east corner of the roof. Once the monkey sees that there’s fruit there, he heads towards the north-east corner to pick it up and eat it. Jade-Lotus slides herself ever so slightly towards the monkey. She reaches out an arm to grab him. The monkey sees that Jade-Lotus is blocking the escape route to the right, he’s got no empty space to escape through. The animal panics, and uses all his might to leap, hoping that he can jump right over Jade-Lotus’ head. For many years though nobody has kept up the Pagoda of Gazing in the Four Directions. The wood is rotten and the mortar and bricks are coming apart – and Jade-Lotus and the monkey both fall! On the ground the people exclaim: “How terrible! Someone’s fallen down!”

As Jade-Lotus falls, Hua Zhenfang, Yu Qian, and the Ba brothers are all dismayed and without any recourse. Jade-Lotus has absolutely no way of saving her own life. The only hope comes from one young man beyond the four or fifth ring of spectators, who shouts: “You still haven’t moved to save her – what are you waiting for!”

将身一纵过来,将花碧莲双手接住,抱在怀中,坐在尘埃。众人齐道:“难得这个英雄,不然要跌为肉泥!” 花振芳同众人跑过来一看,接住花碧莲者,不是别人,正是骆宏勋大爷!
He uncoils his body and with a single leap he’s there, and catches Jade-Lotus with both hands, and holds her to his breast, sitting down onto the ground. Everyone shouts: “What an extraordinary hero! Without him, she’d have been crushed to meat-mush!” Hua Zhenfang and a whole crowd all run over and with one glance they see – the person who’d saved Jade-Lotus was none other than Luo Hongxun!

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So that’s the story. This would have circulated both in the form of operas and of vernacular storytelling performances. Here’s one video of it being performed in Jiangxi style; the entire play takes five hours of watching to finish.For vernacular storytelling, here’s one of the “Jade-Lotus Catches a Monkey” section being first sung and then narrated by this guy from Langfang 廊坊. This dude tears it up:

As noted above, there’s one pavilion with the legend Si Ji? Chun [ ] Ben 四吉?春[ ]本, “Four Auspicious? Spring [illegible] Basic”. I still have no idea what this means, but if you look closely you can see the figures of Jade-Lotus and her grandmother climbing around on it. The monkey’s been scratched out.



Interestingly, as it turns out, the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions actually exists in real life, and there’s some argument to be made that at least one Yu County painter had actually seen it. It sits just within the eastern gate of the old city of Yangzhou. This is nearly 600 miles as the crow flies from Yu County, but the drawing and the structure itself match fairly well. Here’s the drawing and the building as it stands today; I stole this image from the internet.


I still have no idea why everyone in Yu County felt the need to draw this specific pagoda from this specific story on the walls of their opera stages, but I think it’s interesting. I had fun pursuing this particular monkey of the mind across the internet and eventually catching it, so I’ve put up the results here.

Some Miscellania:

(1) After extensive googling, I can say that there are at least two other buildings in China which have the name 四望 “Gazing in the Four Directions”. One of these is an unremarkable pagoda in Chongqing. The other is a little pavilion in a park in Harbin. According to the government website for Harbin’s Hulan District, this was constructed by a governor named Lu Kezun 路克遵 in 1927, with fines he’d levied on some ne’er-do-well named Zhu the Black Son (朱黑子). Zhu had been found guilty of stealing the colorful park railings and using them to decorate his whorehouse.

(2) The whole thing about letting loose the horses and pursuing the monkey is possibly some sort of Buddhist metaphor. This comes from the stock phrase 心猿意馬 “The monkey of the mind and the horses of the thoughts”. These have to be properly reigned in so that the practitioner can concentrate.

(3) According to Baidu Baike, there’s record of a structure with the name “Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions” having been built in Yangzhou in the early 13th century. Unfortunately it’s noted as sitting south of the city, while the present one clearly sits right at the east gate. A second gazetteer from the Qianlong reign puts the building of the structure in 1559, when it was constructed by the adjacent Confucian Academy as a pavilion to the gods Wenchang and the Kui-Star. Hence it was known as the Wen-Kui Tower 文奎樓. According to the dominant theories on the internet, the pavilion only acquired the name “Gazing in the Four Directions” after 1853, when the Taiping rebels took the city, propped up ladders and scaffolding onto the sides of the thing, and used it as a watchtower. It retained this use until Qing loyalist troops retook the city a few years later. That said the pavilion is clearly mentioned in the late-Ming “Green Peony” as having been located at a crossroads near a gate in the Yangzhou city wall, so my guess is that this theory is bunk.

(4) This is off-topic, but the whole thing reminds me of a story told to me by an elderly resident of the lower fortress in Futu Village (浮圖村). In the center of this village is an archway on top of which sits a tower room. The tower was originally a temple to the god of literature, Wenchang, but after the Communist takeover this was found to be both feudal and unpropitious. Sensibly enough the villagers decided that rather than going to the trouble of tearing the giant stone tower down, they’d just rename it in honor of Mao’s 1963 Socialist Education Movement, which aimed to “Purify Politics, Purify the Economy, Purify the Party Organization, and Purify Ideology” (清政治,清经济,清组织,清思想). Thus the tower was rechristened “The Tower of the Four Purifications” (四清樓). It remained unmolested right through the Cultural Revolution and retains this name today.

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2) 西洋楼

The Mansion of the Western Seas

Now we turn to the other structure identified by name on the opera stage at the Big Stubborn Fort, the Xi Yang Lou 西洋樓, “The Mansion of the Western Seas”. As noted above, these drawings usually portray multi-story buildings with long rows of windows and occasionally domes on top, both architectural forms not found in traditional Chinese architecture. As it turns out, there’s an explanation for this available fairly nearby: “The Mansion of the Western Seas” was the name of a European-style palace constructed by Italian and French Jesuits for the Qianlong Emperor in the middle of the 18th century.  The western mansions were constructed over a roughly twenty year period, beginning in 1749 and coming to completion in the early 1770s. The palaces were built to showcase the European concept of hydraulic-powered fountains, which the Qianlong emperor found fascinating, and to hold the extensive Imperial collection of European artifacts and exotica. The compound and the several buildings within it sat in the northern part of the Garden of Perfect Light (Yuan Ming Yuan 圓明園), a vast Qing summer palace in the fields north of Beijing, which was originally begun by the Kangxi emperor in 1690. The Mansions of the Western Seas were famously looted and then put to torch along with the rest of the Garden of Perfect Light in 1860 by the Anglo-French invasion force during the Second Opium War, in revenge for the torture and execution of British envoys. Since the European mansions were built of marble while the much vaster Chinese palace surrounding it was built of wood, the only part of the Garden of Perfect Light that survives today is the ruined masonry of these European buildings. The tumbled-down masonry is today preserved as a “national ruin”, to commemorate China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers during the Opium Wars.

The reader here should be aware of how exotic multi-story buildings, arcades, domes, belvederes on the roof, and other such architectural features were in China. For this we can quote the French missionary-painter Jean-Denis Attiret, in his famous epistle on the Garden of Perfect Light:

“Their Eyes are so accustom’d to their own Architecture, that they have very little Taste for ours. May I tell you what they say when they speak of it, or when they are looking over the Prints of some of our most celebrated Buildings? The Height and Thickness of our Palaces amazes them. They look upon our Streets, as so many Ways hollowed into terrible Mountains; and upon our Houses, as Rocks pointing up in the Air, and full of Holes like Dens of Bears and other wild Beasts. Above all, our different Stories, piled up so high one above another, seem quite intolerable to them: and they cannot conceive, how we can bear to run the Risk of breaking our Necks, so commonly, in going up such a Number of Steps as is necessary to climb up to the Fourth and Fifth Floors. ‘Undoubtedly’, said the Emperor Cang-hy whilst he was looking over some Plans of our European Houses, ‘this Europe must be a very small and pitiful Country; since the Inhabitants cannot find Ground enough to spread out their Towns, but are obliged to live up this high in the Air’.”

- Attiret, “A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens near Pekin“, 1747, trans. Sir Harry Beaumont.

In any case, it’s my contention here that whoever drew these images on the opera stages of Yu County had clearly seen the western structures outside of Beijing. The following black and white engravings were made in European style by a Manchu painter named Yi Lantai 伊兰泰 in 1783, and represent the most complete record of the Mansions.

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花園正面 – The Maze, from “The Delights of Harmony, p.40.

Domes are never found in Chinese architecture almost as a rule; there was at least one in the Mansion of the Western Seas, in a pavilion at the center of the maze.

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海晏堂北面 – North facade of the Palace of Calm Seas, from “The Delights of Harmony”, p.46.

Long, multi-story buildings of several stories.

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湖東線法畫 – Painting of perspective, east of the lake.

Receding perspective was a novelty, and one of the purposes of the Mansions of the Western Seas was to showcase this Western artistic technique. This depicts what “The Delights of Harmony” describes as, “a long basin leading to a European village painted in perspective on walls erected like a theater set” (p.9).

All this so far is a bit circumstantial. Actually the clearest indication that someone in Yu County was familiar with the buildings and ornamentation styles of the Mansion of the Western Seas comes not from the opera houses themselves but from the interior frescoes of a particular shrine to the God of Wealth 财神殿 located at the south end of a village fort in Yu County. (As usual I’m not going to say where.) These scenes flank either side of the small temple room and the main votive statue, and depict devotees bearing treasures to what is presumably the palace of the God of Wealth. The composition of the images is identical to the opera-stage drawings: a large multi-story building on the inner side of the hall with a pagoda on the outer side, and a gate or portico at the base of the structure. And one glance at the ornamentation style of the windows marks the scene as representing not only western-style architecture, but the specific quasi-baroque style of the Mansions of the Western Seas. The below color pictures come from “Yu County Temple Frescoes”, p.243.




方外觀正面 - Main Face of the Belvedere, from “The Delights of Harmony”, p.43, detail.


養雀籠東面 – East Face of the Aviary, from “The Delights of Harmony, p.42″, detail.




海晏堂北面 – North facade of the Palace of Calm Seas, from “The Delights of Harmony” p,46, detail.

So in this case it seems pretty clear – someone in Yu County was familiar with not only the general forms of western architecture, but the specific ornamentation types of the Mansions of the Western Seas. This actually sheds light on the interpretation of one of the other gate legends recorded above. One of the buildings is titled Yi Da Gong 意大宮, “The Intentions-Great Palace”. Besides just being a strange name for a palace, this isn’t any more grammatical in Chinese than it is in English – at very least it should be Da Yi Gong 大意宮 “Great-Intentions Palace” and not “Intentions-Great”. But if the building is intended to portray a baroque mansion designed by the Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione, the meaning is suddenly obvious. The full title should be Yidali Gong 意大利宮 “The Italian Palace”. The Chinese painter in Yu County, finding “Italy” a mouthful, simply lopped off the -li in Yidali and gave the palace a two-character name that sounds much more acceptably Chinese.

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The Italian Palace

As for how some lowly village painter in Yu County would have found his way into the Emperor’s own summer palace, Attiret’s letter, quoted above, presents something of both the problem and the solution.

… ‘Tis very fortunate for me, that I had got the little Knowledge of Painting that I have: for without this, I should have been in the same Case with several other Europeans, who have been here between Twenty and Thirty Years without being able ever to set their Feet on any Spot of this delightful Ground [the Garden of Perfect Light]. ...There is but one Man here; and that is the Emperor. All Pleasures are made for him alone. This charming Place is scarce ever seen by any body but himself, his Women, and his Eunuchs. The Princes, and other chief Men of the Country, are rarely admitted any farther than the Audience-Chambers. Of all the Europeans that are here, none ever enter’d this Inclosure, except the Clock-makers and Painters; whose Employments make it necessary that they should be admitted every where. The Place usually assign’d us to paint in, is in one of those little Palaces above-mentioned; where the Emperor comes to see us work, almost every Day: so that we can never be absent.

 – Attiret, “A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens Near Pekin“, 1743, trans. Sir Harry Beaumont.

Which is to say, nobody but the emperor, eunuchs, and concubines were allowed into the Garden of Perfect Light. The only exceptions were artisans and painters. And little Yu County, on the wrong side of the Taihang range, had nothing whatsoever in abundance other than superb artisans and builders.

The Mansions of the Western Seas must have been well known to Yu County people. The structures stood at the far northern extremity of the Gardens of Perfect Light, north of the city of Beijing and right along the normal traveling route over between Yu County and the capital. Yu County people would surely have seen the exotic, multi-story buildings rising over the garden walls as they passed to and from Beijing. And it’s conceivable that the destruction of the gardens would have made the place better known to the people of Yu County. After its vengeful sack by European troops, the 64 square miles of what was once the Qianlong Emperor’s grand pleasure gardens reverted to brush and farmland. The only buildings that still stood were the gutted marble remains of the Palaces of the Western Seas, several buildings of which were photographed still standing amid the cornfields well into the 20th century. As I hope I’ve demonstrated with this blog, Yu County people were an imaginative lot, and it’s hard to see how they could have passed by the towering ruins of strange, foreign palaces along the road to Beijing and not taken an interest. And what better to do with these curious buildings than to paint them as a kind of reverse-chinoiserie background for your opera stage?

And this gets to what’s actually interesting about these few and ruined images, drawn on the walls of dilapidated buildings in a remote Chinese county, hundreds of years ago. It turns out that in these tiny walled villages you have a miniature counter-narrative to the whole tragedy of 19th and 20th century Chinese history. Everyone knows that 19th century China behind its walls was conservative, patriarchal, and closed to the outside world. And yet in every single village these illiterate farmers built sumptuous opera stages so that they could have light, color, excitement. They loved tough, smart, working-class heroines who took up arms against the powerful and unjust, and also sometimes just had fun chasing monkeys around on the roof. And when they found themselves faced with a foreign culture, their reaction was one of admirable curiosity, openness, and imagination.



- 无名氏著. 绿牡丹. 杭州: 浙江古籍出版社 : 浙江省新华书店发行, 1985. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <>
[Anonymous. The Green Peony. Hangzhou: Zhejiang Classics Press: Distributed by Zhejiang State Xinhua Bookstore, 1985. Web. 17 Dec. 2014 <>]

– Attiret, Jean-Denis, S.J. (1702-1768). “Lettre du Frere Attiret de la Compagnie de Jesus, Peintre au service de l’Empereur de la Chine. A M. d’Assaut. A Pekin, le 1. Novembre 1743,” in Lettres édifiantes et curieuses écrites des missions étrangères par quelques missionnaires de la compagnie de Jésus. Paris: Guérin, 1749, 27:1-61. English translation of 1752 by Joseph Spence [Sir Harry Beaumont], A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens near Pekin; rpt. in The English Landscape Garden, ed. John Dixon Hunt (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1982).

- Thiriez, Régine. “Old Photography and the Yuanmingyuan.” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 6.3 (1990): 203-18. Taylor Francis Online. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <>.

- Thiriez, Regine, and Karen Turner. The Delights of Harmony: The European Palaces of the Yuanmingyuan & The Jesuits at the 18th Century Court of Beijing. Ed. Ellen Lawrence. Worcester, Massachusetts: Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Galler & College of the Holy Cross, 1994. Print.

- 王志军, and 田永翔. 中国蔚州民俗文化集成:地方剧种概说. 北京: 中国戏剧出版社, 2012. Print. [Wang, Zhizhun, and Tian, Yongxiang. China Yu County Folk Culture Series: Summary of Local Opera Types. Beijing. China Opera Publishing Company. 2012. Print. This also comes emblazened with the resplendent English title, “Chinese national culturei ntegration Yu Zhou The endemic drama”.]
- 殷建宏. 戏台与社会:明清山西戏台研究. 北京: 中国社会科学出版社, 2009. Print. [Yin, Jianhong. Opera Stages and Society: Researches on Ming-Qing Period Opera Stages in Shanxi. Beijing. China Social Sciences Press. 2009. Print.]
- 蔚縣博物館. 蔚州寺廟壁畫. 北京: 科學出版社, 2013. Print. [Yu County Museum. Yu County Temple Frescoes. Beijing. Scientific Press. 2013. Print.]

- 中国梆子戏剧目大辞典. 太原: 山西省戏剧研究所, 1991. Print. [Great Encyclopedia of China Bangzi Opera Titles. Taiyuan: Shanxi Province Opera Research Institute, 1991. Print.]

Art China Translation

On the Description of the Kunlun Mountains or Tibet found in the Classic of Mountains and Seas


”The Classic of Mountains and Seas” is a long list of real and invented mountains, rivers, gods, countries, sacrifices, plants and peoples. It was traditionally ascribed to the Sage King Yu, who wandered about primordial China channeling off the waters of the Deluge, setting order to things, and naming the mountains and rivers. In an epilogue to the first five books, “The Classic of Mountains”, Yu is made to state that he travelled across 5,370 mountains which occupied an area of 64,065 li. I don’t know if this is the exact number of mountains or li described in the book but it does in truth contain a very great number. Unfortunately Yu’s Epilogue is generally agreed to be spurious and a later interpolation, and nobody knows who really wrote “The Classic of Mountains and Seas”. Scholars think it was composed between the third and first centuries BC by several different unknown authors. It was then famously annotated once at the end of the Han Dynasty in the third century of the common era and then a second time in the Qing Dynasty at the start of the eighteenth century and has since been translated several times into English.

The book contains several long sections concerning the Kunlun Mountains or the Kunlun Wasteland, which seems to refer more or less to Tibet. In fact of all the delirious mass of mountains and tribes of men described in “The Classic of Mountains and Oceans,” the Kunlun, or Tibet, receives the longest and most detailed description and is mentioned most often. The most curious thing is that it is left very ambiguous what exactly the Kunlun is, or are, because in the same breath they are mentioned as a range of mountains, a single mountain, a mound, an immense wasteland, and a city, which is holy. 

We are told that the Wasteland of the Kunlun is 800 leagues square and 80,000 feet high. It is also a city, called “The Great God’s City on the Earth Below” or perhaps “The City that is Beneath the Emperor of Heaven.” The Wasteland of Kunlun, or the city of God, has nine gates on each of its four sides. each of which is guarded by a creature called the Opening-Brilliance. The Opening-Brilliance has a body as large as a lion and nine human heads, all of which face east. It is also standing on the peak of Kunlun, which, we gather, is now a single mountain. East of the Opening-Brilliance a group of Shamans stand about the fallen body of the God Yayu. The Shamans possess an elixir of immortality.

It’s enlightening to know that the story of Yayu and how he died actually bears relation to the history of “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” itself. (I’m getting this information from the introduction to the published translation by Anne Birrell, by the way.) The earliest existing preface to the work, written around the year AD 6, records that around 50 BC a man was found enclosed in a cave in Shaanxi, shackled to the floor, with his hands bound behind his back using his own long hair. The discovery was reported to Emperor Xuan of the Former Han Dynasty, who sought at length for an explanation. Finally the palace Librarian and Archivist, Liu Xiang, pointed out that “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” contained a potential explanation. At the start of the section called “Treatise on the Western Lands Within the Seas”, it is related that the God Yayu was murdered by the lesser gods Betrays-Responsibilities and Wei. In retribution, a greater god sentenced the two murderers to be shackled by the right foot, bound up in their own hair, and hung from trees on a mountaintop to die. The Emperor Xuan was favorably impressed, and thus the fame of “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” was ensured. Elsewhere it is related that Yayu had the head of a dragon and ate human beings. Getting back to the point, according to the book Yayu’s corpse can be found on the wasteland or mountaintop or in the city of Kunlun, which is to say, in Tibet, beneath the nine-headed eastward gaze of the Opening-Briliance, guarded by the elixir-bearing shamans with the strange names.

“The Classic of Mountains and Seas” relates other things about the Kunlun. Many different types of trees grow there, and many rivers cross it, flowing mainly from west to east but sometimes looping to the north or turning south. Also many different animals abide there. So does the Queen Mother of the West. Elsewhere it is said that she lives on a mountain north of Kunlun, or perhaps within it on a mountain of flames. In further chapters many other places are listed as laying to the north or the south of Kunlun, but these places are obscure and the people who live there are vague.

Most of the rest of “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” is monotonous. There are some useful factoids: “There is also the Country of No-Intestines. The people there bear the surname Ren, which means “responsibility”. They have no children or descendants, and eat fish.” “There is a god which has the face of a man but no arms, and his two feet are reversed on top of his head. His name is Sighs.” Then there are an enormous number of descriptions of mountains, listed in apparently linear order of distance going in any of the cardinal directions and helpfully annotated with the suggested animal sacrifices to be made to each. “And traveling north for two hundred and eighty li there is a mountain called the Great Salty Mountain. There is no grass or wood here, but beneath it is a great amount of jade. This mountain cannot be ascended from any of the four directions. There is a snake the name of which is called Long Snake, which has hair like hog bristles. It makes a sound like drums and wooden clappers.” On the mountains live diverse flora and fauna, some of which are monstrous and eat people, some of which can be eaten by people to medicinal effect, and some of which are reclusive and when they appear herald certain things, like spates of arson, or the wanton dismissal of officials in the nearby towns. 

Various things occurred to me when I was reading it. Umberto Eco makes the following comment about Hesiod’s “Theogony”: “At first sight we might think that form is characteristic of mature cultures, which know the world around them, whose order they have recognized and defined; on the contrary the list would seem to be typical of primitive cultures that still have an imprecise image of the universe and limit themselves to listing as many properties as they can name without trying to establish a hierarchical relationship among them. For example, we might interpret Hesiod’s “Theogony” in this sense; it is an inexhausted list of divine creatures that certainly refer to a genealogical tree that a philologically patient reading could reconstruct, but this is definitely not the way in which the reader (even the original reader) reads or listens to the text, which presents itself rather as an intolerable swarm of monstrous and prodigious beings, a universe overpopulated with invisible individuals that runs parallel to that of our experience and whose roots are sunk in the mists of time. Yet the list turns up again in the Middle Ages […]” (The Infinity of Lists, p.18.) Also, and I’m not totally sure if this is actually relevant here, but in the Maitrāyanī Samhitā it is recorded that, “Indra is said to have cut off the wings of the mountains, which originally alighted wherever they pleased and thus made the earth unsteady. The wings became the thunder clouds.” This raises the possibility of a Deluge not of waters but of mountains.

Anyways for fun I decided to translate all the bits of the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” that have to do with the Kunlun Mountains. I did it based on this one from The Chinese Text Project 中國哲學書電子化計劃 and with a lot of help from the notes and modern-Mandarin version provided here, on 古詩文網. I also scanned in some illustrations (異獸圖), which came from an anonymous and fragmentary Qing dynasty printing with commentary by one Wang Bo (王紴), reprinted in 歷代山海經文獻集成, vols. 6 and 7,  edited by文清閣 and published by 西安地圖出版社, 2006, print. As usual if the reader wants to contest certain fine points of translation then he can bloody well go translate it himself.


From the Treatise on Western Mountains (西山經):

And traveling west for another four hundred and twenty li, there is a mountain which is called Mount Bell. This mountain has a son named Drum. His appearance is that of a dragon’s body and a man’s face.

zhong shan zi gu

Mount Bell’s son, Drum

He and Qinpi murdered Baojiang on the sunny side of Mount Kunlun, and so the Emperor of Heaven had both of them killed at a place called the Yao Banks on the eastern side of Mount Bell. Qinpi was transformed into a great osprey. The osprey’s appearance is that of a eagle with black markings and a white head, with a red beak and the claws of a tiger. Its call is like that of a morning swan. When it is seen it portends great numbers of soldiers. Drum was also transformed into a bird called a Jun, which has the appearance of a sparrow hawk. The bird has red feet and a straight beak, yellow markings and a white head. Its call is like that of a swan. When it is seen it portents a great drought in that town.

qinpi and gu

The bird called Jun which Drum transformed into, and the bird called Great Osprey which Qinpi turned into.

And traveling west for another hundred and eighty li, there is a mountain which is called the Mountain of Peaceful Tools. The Gaze River is also here, which pours down into the flowing sands. There are many marked rays, which have the appearance like that of carp, with the body of a fish and the wings of a bird, great markings, white heads, and red beaks. Thus they are commonly found walking in the Western Sea and swimming in the Eastern Sea, by means of flying at night. They make a sound like the phoenix-chicken, and their flavor is both sour and sweet. The meat induces madness when eaten, and when they are seen they portend great bumper harvests in all the lands beneath heaven.

wen yao

The Marked Ray

And traveling west for another three hundred and twenty li, there is a mountain which is called the Mountain of the Pagoda-Tree River. The Hill-of-Seasons River is also here, which flows down into Lake You. In this lake are a great number of snail mothers. Above it there are large amounts of gypsum and realgar, as well as great deposits of pearl-like rocks, gold, and jade. On the sunny side of the mountain there is much red millet, and on the shady side many mines of gold. This is truly the Emperor of Heaven’s only flat garden. The god Yingzhao governs it. His appearance is that of a horse’s body and a human face, with the markings of a tiger and the wings of a bird. He travels about to all of the Four Seas, and his call is like the sound of a pomegranate. To the south this mountain looks out on the Kunlun. Its light is resplendent and its atmosphere is invigorating.

ying zhao shenThe God Yingzhao


To the west the Mountain of the Pagoda-Tree River looks out on the the Great Marshes, which is where Lord Millet was buried. Upon it is much jade, and on the shady side is much of something that looks like yao wood. To the north it looks out upon all of that adjoins. The scholar-tree ghost Lilun lives there, and it is the abode of zhan hawks. To the east it looks out on the four slopes of Mount Heng. There are poor ghosts which live there, each according to its kind. From it comes a greatly pouring river, which is extremely clear. The Heaven God is there, which has the appearance of a bull, and it has eight feet, two heads, and the tail of a horse. Its cry is like that of a Bohuang. When it is seen it portends the appearance of soldiers in the cities.

tian shenThe Heaven God

To the west four hundred li is a place called the Hill of the Kunlun. This is truly the Emperor of Heaven’s only capital on the world below. The god Luwu rules it. This spirit’s appearance is that of a tiger’s body with nine tails, a human face and a tiger’s claws. The Luwu rules the nine divisions of the world and the times of the emperor’s gardens.

shen lu wu

The God Luwu

There is a beast there, which has the appearance of a sheep and four horns, which is called the Earth Cricket. It eats people.

tu lou

The Earth Cricket

有鳥焉,其狀如蜂,大如鴛鴦,名曰欽原,蠚鳥獸則死,蠚木則枯。有鳥焉,其名曰鶉鳥,是司帝之百服。有木焉,其狀如棠,華黃赤實,其味如李而無核,名曰沙 棠,可以禦水,食之使人不溺。有草焉,名曰薲草,其狀如葵,其味如葱,食之已勞。河水出焉,而南流東注于無達。赤水出焉,而東南流注于氾天之水。洋水出 焉,而西南流注于醜塗之水。黑水出焉,而西流于大杅。是多怪鳥獸。
There is a bird there, which has the appearance of a bee, except the size of a mandarin duck. Its name is Admiring-Origins. If it stings a bird or animal then that animal will die, and if it stings a tree then the tree becomes withered. And there is a bird there, which is called the Quail Bird. This bird governs the hundred recompenses of the Emperor of Heaven. There is a tree there, which has an appearance like that of a pear tree. It has yellow flowers and red fruits, the taste of which is like a plum but without a pit. This tree is called the sand pear tree. It can prevent floods, and eating it makes a person not urinate [or alternately, not drown]. There is a grass there, which is called bin grass. Its appearance is like that of the kui flower, and its taste is like an onion. If you eat it all difficulties will be stopped. The Yellow River comes out from here, flowing first to the south and then pouring to the east where it enters Not-Arriving. The Red River comes out from here, and flows to the southeast where it pours into the River of Broken-Channel-to-Heaven. The Yang River flows out from here, and goes to the southwest where it pours into the River of Ugly-Embankments. The Black River comes out from here, and flows to the west into Big-Shaft. There are many strange birds and beasts here.

qin yuan

The Admiring-Origins

Another three hundred and seventy li to the west, there is a mountain which is called the Mountain of Happy-Wandering. The Peach River comes out of it, and to the west flows into the Lake of Millet. Here there is much white jade. In the lake are many Slippery Fish. Their appearance is that of snakes except they have four legs. They eat other fish.

gu yu

The Gu Fish
[My text reads “Slippery Fish” 滑魚; the picture
 has Gu [魚+骨] Fish]

Traveling west by water four hundred li, there is a place called the Flowing Sands. Another two hundred li further suffices to reach Snail Mother Mountain. The god Long-Chariot rules this place, and this is the result of the Nine Virtues of Heaven. His appearance as a god is like that of a person except with the tail of a zhuo leopard. Atop this mountain is much jade, and at its foot are many blue rocks and no water.

shen chang chengThe God Long-Chariot

Another three hundred and fifty li to the west, there is a mountain which is called Mount Jade. This is the abode of the Queen Mother of the West. The Queen Mother of the West has the appearance of a person but the tail of a leopard, the teeth of a tiger, and a good roar. She has wild hair and wears jewelry. She governs disasters from heaven and the five catastrophes.

xi wang mu

The Queen Mother of the West

There is a beast there, which has an appearance like that of a dog but with the markings of a leopard and the horns of an ox. It is called Jiao. Its cry is like that of a dog, and when it is seen it heralds great bumper harvests in that country.

jiaoThe Jiao

There is a bird here, which has the appearance of a wild chicken except red. Its name is called Victorious-Meeting, and it eats fish. Its sound is like that of a deer, and when it is seen it heralds great floods in that country.

sheng yu

The Victorious-Meeting

Another four hundred eighty li to the west, there is a mountain which is called the Hill of Xuanyuan [the Yellow Emperor]. There are no grasses or trees. The River of Tears flows comes out of here, and flows south to pour into the Black River. There is much red millet, and lots of gypsum and realgar.

Another three hundred li to the west, there is a mountain which is called the Mountain of Massed Rocks. Beneath it is the Stone Gate. The Yellow River passes out of it and flows to the west. Of all the myriad types of trees, there are none that do not grow on this mountain.


From the Treatise on Northern Mountains: (北山經):

…And traveling north for two hundred and eighty li there is a mountain called the Great Salty Mountain. There is no grass or wood here, but beneath it is a great amount of jade. This mountain cannot be ascended from any of the four directions. There is a snake the name of which is called Long Snake, which has hair like hog bristles. It makes a sound like drums and wooden clappers.

chang shi

Long Snake

And travelling north for another three hundred and twenty li there is a mountain called the Abundant Buzzing (Dun Hong) Mountain. There are many palms and evergreens upon it, and at its foot is much purple ci grass. The Abundant Buzzing (Dun Hong) River is here, and it flows to the west into Lake You. It comes out of the north-east wing of the the Kunlun Mountains, and is truly the only source of the Yellow River. In it are many Red Trout.

chi waRed Trout

Of its beasts there are many rhinoceroses, yaks, and hu pigeons.

mao niu hu jiuA yak and a hu pigeon

And travelling north for another two hundred li there is a mountain called the Lesser Salty Mountain. There is no grass or wood here, but much green jade. There is a beast here, which has the head of an ox, and a red body, the face of a man, the feet of a horse, and its name is called Yayu. Its cry sounds like that of a child. It eats men. The Abundant (Dun) River comes out from here, and it flows into the Goose Gate River. In it are many shishi fish, the meat of which will kill a man.

ya yuYa Yu

From the Western Treatise on the Great Wastelands (大荒西经):

In the midst of the Great Wasteland there is a mountain, the name of which is Sun and Moon Mountain. It is the axle of heaven. The Heaven’s Gate of Lady Heavensmouth [吴姬] is where the sun and moon enter in. There is a god which has the face of a man but no arms, and his two feet are reversed on top of his head. His name is Sighs.


Jade Hat sired Old Child, and Old Child sired two sons Heavy and Black. The Emperor of Heaven ordered Heavy to sacrifice to heaven above, and ordered Black to work the earth below. The earth below therefore gave birth to Choke. Choke is located at the western extremity of the world, in order to govern the passage of the sun, moon, stars, and constellations.


There is someone with his arms reversed. His name is the Heavenly Keeper of Beasts.

tian yuThe Heavenly Keeper of Beasts

There is a woman washing a moon. Emperor Excellent’s wife, Constant Xi gave birth to twelve moons, and thus began to wash them.

chang yi yu yueConstant Xi Washing the Moons
[Each of the little circles in the water has the character 月 for “moon” on it.

There is a mountain called Dark Cinnabar Mountain. There are Birds of Five Colors, which have human faces and hair. There are Blue Wen Birds, Yellow Ao Geese, Blue Birds, Yellow Birds. Where these gather together, that nation will be destroyed. There is a lake which is called Fierce Wing’s Strivings, Jade Hat’s Lake.

wu se niaoThe Bird of the Five Colors

In the midst of the Great Wasteland there is a mountain, the name of which is Ao’ao Steel. The sun and moon enter here. There is a beast which has heads on the left and right. Its name is called Pinpeng.

pin pengPinpeng

There is Sorcerer’s Mountain. There is Gully Mountain. There is the Mountain of the Golden Gate. There is a person called the Corpse of the Yellow Lady. There are Close-Winged Birds. There are White Birds, with blue wings, yellow tails, and dark beaks. There are Red Dogs, which are called the Dogs of Heaven. The places where these descend will have war.

tian quan bai niaoA Dog of Heaven and a White Bird

South of the Western Sea and by the shores of the Flowing Sands, behind the Red Waters and before the Black Waters, there is a great mountain. There is something called the Hill of the Kunlun. There is a god with a human face and a tiger’s body, with markings and a tail, entirely white, which is located here.

kun lun shenThe God of the Kunlun

Beneath it are weak waters which circle it in a whirlpool, and beyond them are mountains of flames. Anything that goes into them is always burned up. There is a person wearing jewelry, with the teeth of a tiger and a leopard’s tail. She lives in a cave. Her name is the Queen Mother of the West. All creatures and things can be found on this mountain.


From the Great Treatise on the Northern Wastelands (大荒北经):

In the midst of the wastes there is a mountain, which is called The Northern Limit, the Carpenters Square of Heaven. The waters of the sea flow north into it. There is a god, which has nine heads with human faces and the body of a bird. The god’s name is Nine-Phoenixes.

jiu fengThe Nine-Phoenixes

There is another god, which holds a snake in its mouth and snakes in its hands. It has the head of a tiger and the body of a man, with four hooves and long elbows. Its name is Hard-and-Good.

jiang langThe Hard-and-Good

In the midst of the great wastes there is a mountain, which is called Becoming the Capital and Carrying Heaven. There is a person, who has two yellow snakes for earrings. This person’s name is the Striding-Father. Lord Soil gave birth to Belief; Belief gave birth to the Striding-Father. Striding-Father could not measure his own strength. He wanted to pursue the light of the sun. He chased it to the place where it sets. Then he drank up the water of the Yellow River, but there was not enough, so he went into the Great Wetlands. He never reached it, and died in that place. When the Responding-Dragon had killed Unusually-Moronic, he also killed Striding-Father, and then departed for the south to dwell there. Therefore there is much rain in the south. There is also the Country of No-Intestines. The people there bear the surname Ren, which means “responsibility”. They have no children or descendants, and eat fish.

chi youUnusually-Moronic

Venerating-Work had an minister whose name was Xiang-yao. He had nine heads and the body of a snake all curled up around itself. He feeds on the soils of the nine divisions of the world. The soil that he breathes on becomes marshy lakes, exceedingly rank and bitter, such that none of the hundred beasts are able to dwell there. When Yu the Great was damming up the waters of the Deluge, he killed Xiang-yao. Xiang-yao’s blood was so exceedingly stinky, that it was impossible to grow grains in that place, and there was so much water about that nobody could live there. Yu the Great dammed the water. He piled up dykes three times and thrice they collapsed, until finally he made the place into a lake. Because of this all of the emperors took the dyke as an altar. The place is located north of Kunlun Mountain.

There is a mountain of hills. Tall bamboo grows on it.

In the midst of the great wastes there is a mountain, which is called Not-Turning. The waters of the sea flow into it.

There is a mountain called Linking-Offspring. Upon this is the altar of Venerating-Work. Those who would fire arrows here do not dare do so in the northern direction. There is someone wearing blue clothing. Her name is called the Yellow Emperor’s Woman-Demon. Unusually-Moronic raised soldiers to attack the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor thereupon commanded Responding-Dragon to attack Unusually-Moronic in the wilderness of Ji prefecture. Responding-Dragon dammed up the waters. Unusually-Moronic appealed to the Earl of the Wind and the Master of Rain to release great winds and rain. In response, the Yellow Emperor sent down from heaven Woman-Demon, and the rain stopped. Thus Unusually-Moronic was successfully slain. But Woman-Demon was not able to return to the world above.

nv ba

The Woman-Demon

Where she dwells, there is no rain. Uncle Jun spoke of this to the Emperor, and afterwards she was given a place north of the Red Waters. Uncle Jun thus became the lord of the fields. Woman-Demon at times goes off into exile. Those who wish for her blessings must say, “Oh Spirit, come north!” But first they must clear out the water channels, so that the gullies and ditches are freed of obstacles.

chi shui nv zi xianThe Offering of the Woman of the Red Water

From the Western Treatise on the Lands Within the Seas (海内西經):

In the lands within the seas, the south-west is hillier than the north.

Betrays-Responsibilities had an official who was called Danger. Betrays-Responsibilities and Danger murdered Yayu. The Emperor of Heaven therefore bound them both in shackles on top of the mountain called Distant-Relatives. He clamped their feet and bound their hands behind their back with their own hair, and suspended them thus from a tree on top of the mountain. This is located north-west of Open-Forehead.

er fu chen weiBetrays-Responsibilities’ Official, Danger

The Great Wetland is a hundred li on a side. Flocks of birds are born there and shed their feathers there. It is north of Goose Gate. Geese go out from amidst the Goose Gate Mountains, which are located north of High-Willows. High-Willows is north of the Kingdom of Dai.

The grave of Lord Millet is encircled by mountains and rivers. It is west of the country of the Di people.

The country of the Flowing Sands and the Yellow River where the inhabitants have the surname Feng is three hundred li on every side. In the western there is an wetland, and in the center there is a mountain. It is located to the west of the grave of Lord Millet.

The Flowing Sands exit from Mount Bell, and flow west and then south across the Waste of the Kunlun. They enter the sea to the south-west at the Mountain of Black Water. East Lake is on the eastern side of the Great Wetland. The Yi People are east of East Lake. The country of the Mo people is north-east of the River of Heroes. The place is close to Yan, and wreaks havoc upon it. The Fierce Bird lives to the north-east of the Country of Mo. This bird has red, yellow, and blue markings. It roosts in the east.

Within the seas, the Waste of Kunlun is in the north-west. It is the capital city on earth of the Emperor of Heaven. The Waste of Kunlun is square and eight hundred li on a side, and it is ten thousand feet high. Upon it is a grain tree, which is the height of eight xun and takes five men with their arms spread to encompass it around. At each face are nine wells, which have jade for railings. At each face are nine doors, and the doors are guarded by the beast called Opening-Brilliance. All of the hundreds of gods reside here. At the edge of the Red River is the Eight-Pointed Cliff. Only Lord Yi was able to climb to the ridgeline of this cliff.

The Red River emerges from the south-eastern corner and goes to its north-east, then to the south-west pours into the Southern Sea to the east of the Country of Abhorrent-Fires. The Yellow River emerges from the north-eastern corner, and goes to its north, and and in the south-west it once again enters into the Sea of Bo. The Auspicious River and the Black River emerge from the north-western corner, then turn east, and go east, and again turn to the north-east, and enter into the sea to the south, passing the Completely-Square Bird to the east.

To the south of the Kunlun is a watery depth that is three hundred feet deep. The Opening-Brilliance beast is like a type of great tiger with nine heads, each of them with a human face. It faces east, standing on top of the Kunlun.

kai mingThe Opening-Brilliance

West of the Opening-Brilliance there are fenghuang phoenixes and luan bird phoenixes, and they are all covered in snakes and draped with snakes, and in front of their breasts are red snakes.

North of the Opening-Brilliance there are the seeing-flesh creature, the pearl tree, the literary jade tree, the yuqi jade tree, and the tree of escaping death. The fenghuang phoenixes and luan phoenixes all carry shields. There is also Li Zhu, as well as grain trees, pines, sweet water, holy wood, and mandui, which is also called the straight-wood-of-crossed-teeth.

East of the Opening-Brilliance are the Shaman Peng, the Shaman Bright, the Shaman Di, the Shaman Shoe, the Shaman Sail, the Shaman Image. They stand on either side of the corpse of Yayu. Each of them holds the medicine of escaping death, with which they will revive him. Yayu has the body of a snake and the face of a man. He was killed by the official of Betrays-Responsibilities. Atop the Following-Constant tree there is a three-headed man, who is looking at a tree of langgan jade.

ya yuYayu

South of the Opening-Brilliance is the Tree Bird, which has six heads, as well as hornless dragons, fu dragons, snakes, apes, leopards, bird ranking trees, with trees and wood around the outside of the pools, reciting birds, xun hawks, and the Seeing-Flesh creature.


From the Northern Treatise on the Lands Beyond the Seas (海外北经):

Venerating-Work had a minister named Xiang-liu. He had nine heads, with which to devour the nine mountains. Everything that Xiang-liu pushed against was crushed into lakes and rivers. Yu the Great killed Xiang-liu. His blood stank, such that it was impossible to plant trees or the five grains. Yu the Great dug the place up. He piled up earth three times and three times it collapsed. Finally he piled it up into the Altar of All the Emperors. This is located north of the Kunlun, and east of Rouli. Xiang-liu had nine heads, each with a human face. He had the body of a snake, which was blue. People there don’t dare to shoot arrows to the north, for they are in fear of the Altar of Venerating-Work. The altar is east of Xiang-liu. It is square. At the corner there is a snake, which is the color of a tiger. The snake’s head faces the south.

xiang liuXiang-liu

The country of Deep-Eyes is east of here. Each of the people there has only one arm and one eye. It is east of the altar of Venerating-Work.

The country of No-Intestines is east of Deep-Eyes. The people there are very long and have no intestines.


From the Northern Treatise on the Lands Within the Seas (海內北經):

In the lands within the seas, the the north-west is hillier than the east.

On the Mountain of Snake Shamans, there is a man standing holding a cudgel and facing east. This mountain is also called Mount Turtle.

The Queen Mother of the West leans on a table and wears jewelry. South of her are three blue birds, which are there for the Queen Mother of the West to take and eat. This is north of the Waste of Kunlun.

There is a person called the Earl of the Great Procession, who holds a dagger. East of him is the Country of Enfeoffed Dogs. The corpse of Betrays-Responsibilities is also east of the Earl of the Great Procession.

The Country of Enfeoffed Dogs is also called the Country of the Dog Barbarians. Their appearance is that of dogs. There is a girl, who is right now kneeling and making an offering of millet as food. There is a horse with markings, which has a body like plain white silk, a red mane, and eyes like gold. Its name is the Auspicious-Amount. If you are able to ride it, you will live to ten thousand years.

quan rong

A Dog Barbarian

The Country of Ghosts is located north of the corpse of Betrays-Responsibilities. The creatures that live there have the faces of men and only one eye. Another saying is that the god Betrays-Responsibilities is located east of them, and that they have the faces of humans and the bodies of snakes. The Centipede-Dogs are as dogs, but blue, and they eat people starting with the head. The Exhausting-Strangeness has an appearance like that of a tiger, except it has wings, and it also eats people starting with the head. Those who are eaten are those who have let their hair down. The Exhausting-Strangeness is located north of the Centipede-Dogs. Another saying is that they start eating from the feet.

The Emperor Yao, the Emperor Ku, the Emperor Cinnabar and the Emperor Dance each have two altars. Each one is square, and they are located north-east of the Kunlun.

The Large Bee has an appearance like that of a grasshopper. The Red Moth has an appearance like that of a moth. The Jiao insect has the body of a person with the markings of a tiger. On its lower legs it has [something, composed of the characters 啟 over the character 月]. It is east of the Exhausting-Strangeness. Another saying is that its appearance is like that of a person. It live north of the Kunlun Waste. The Tafei has the head of a man and the body of a beast. It is blue.

The corpse of the Jubi is that of a person, with its neck cut off and its hair loosened, missing one hand. The people of the Ring-Dogs have heads of beasts and the bodies of men. Another saying is that they have the appearance of hedgehogs, similar to dogs. They are yellow.

huan gou

A Ring Dog

The creatures of the Mei have the bodies of men, dark heads, and straight eyes.


A Mei

The people of the Rong Barbarians have the hands of men and three horns.




A Rong Barbarian

The Country of Those With the Surname Lin has Treasure-Beasts. They are as large as tigers, colored all over in the five colors, and their tales are longer than their bodies. They are called the Zouwu, and if you can get on one you will ride for a thousand li in a day.

zou wu

The Zouwu

South of the Kunlun there is a forest of blocked up water which is three hundred li on a side. At the greatest extent of its depths it is three hundred feet. Only the Ice-Peace is accustomed to living in this place. The Ice-Peace has the face of a person, and rides two dragons. Another saying calls the place the Depths of Extreme-Loyalty.

The Yellow River pours out of Sunny-Muddy Mountain. Then it pours through Ice-Gate Mountain. The corpse of Prince Night has two arms, two legs, a chest, a head, teeth, but all split apart and in separate places. The sage emperor Shun’s wife Deng Bishi gave birth to Night-Glow and Torchlight, who can be found in the Great Lake of the Yellow River. The spiritual power of the two girls can light up the area for a hundred li on a side. Another saying calls their mother Deng Beishi.

The Country of Lid is south of Great Yan, and north of the dwarfs. The dwarfs belong to Yan. The Land of the Morning Calm is east of the Serried-Sun, north of the sea and south of the mountains. The Serried-Sun also belongs to Yan. The Archer Girl of Serried-Sun can be found on the islands of the sea and the Yellow River. The nation of the Girl Archers is on the sea, and belongs to the Archer Girl of Serried-Sun. To the south-west, it is encircled by mountains.

Big Crabs can be found in the sea. The Hill Fish has the face of a person, hands and feet, but the body of a fish. It is found in the sea. The Great Bream lives in the sea. Ming Zuyi lives in the sea. Mount Penglai can be found in the sea. The market of the giants can be found in the sea.

da xie A Big Crab



Art China Hebei Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Some Inconclusive Evidence for Alien Abductions in Yu County



The Dragon Kings live in the Crystal Palace beneath the ocean and dispense rain. For this reason they are worshiped in the districts that border the Gobi. Temples to the Dragon Kings in Yu County are decorated with scenes of the Dragons riding out amidst clouds and deluge. Underneath these painted storms are commonly little scenes depicting common people going about their business. These can be various and interesting. I’ll write a full and informative post about Dragon King Temples in Yu County at some point, but I thought I’d point out here an alarming little cautionary tale to be found on the walls in one particular temple in the northern part of the valley. The reader is invited to make his own conclusions regarding UFO abductions, ancient astronauts, etc.

Yu County gets some pretty good rainstorms during the spring and summer. These spiny characters below drag their carts of water through the clouds and dispense it by ladle to the terrestrial realm below.



If you’re out in the fields when this happens, your best bet is to drop your rakes and hoes and make for cover.


Those who get under the trees in a timely fashion will generally have no problem surviving the storm.


If you’re not fast enough though, you could get hit by lightning. The drum descending upon the fellow in this picture symbolizes thunder.



Even worse though, you could just get abducted by dragons.


Presumably this guy got eaten. I personally find this little story worrisome. At very least it’s food for thought for next time you’re out in a thunderstorm.


Art China Fortresses Shanxi Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Pillar Orders in Yangyuan County



So, in other news, I’m back in Boston. I’m using the libraries, applying to grad programs in Tibetan Studies, and catching up on old stuff. I’m also done walking, maybe for good, and so am going to be changing this blog around to be more focused on art.

To that end I’m going to back post some stuff I’ve had sitting around for a while. These are pillar capitals found under the eaves of walls of fortress-villages of Yangyuan County (陽原縣). I’m not sure how much this particular ornamentation style extends beyond Yangyuan; I’ve never seen it in any of the neighboring counties and in fact it seems pretty specific to certain villages within Yangyuan. In most villages, no houses have pillar capitals; in some villages, every house has them. It’s possible that the style extends north from Yangyuan, which is a direction in which I’ve never explored, but it does not extend south into Yu County and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t extend east or west either. I’m interested though in the idea of micro-cultures, which can be limited to specific counties or even particular villages which simply had unique artistic traditions. Here’s my collection:







China Translation

Drawn With a Very Fine Camelhair Brush: Some Asiatic Enumerata

敦煌石窟全集;佛轉故事書卷,p.127, cave 61

cave 419

The upper image is cave 61 at Mogao, taken from 敦煌石窟全集:佛轉故事書卷,p.127.
The lower image is from cave 419, taken from 敦煌石窟藝術,莫高窟第四二零窟,四一九窟 (隋), p.10



Buddhists divide suffering into three types.

1) Dukkha Dukkha: The Suffering of Suffering. This refers to pain, hunger, unhappiness, what we usually think of by the word “suffering”.

2) Vipariṇāma Dukkha: The Suffering of Change. All things are impermanent and any happiness comes with the knowledge that it will someday end. Sickness, old age, and death are inevitable for us all.

3) Saṃkhāra Dukkha: This is the most subtle of the three types of suffering. It refers to the suffering of being at all.



On West Lake at the Midsummer Festival there’s nothing whatever to see. The only thing to do is to watch the people who attend the Midsummer Festival. If you go to look at these people, you should divided them into five types, and look at each.

One type plays drums and flutes from houses and boats. They wear high hats and extravagant clothes amidst the lanterns and fires and watch actors and operas as voices and light mix in the chaos. These people can be called, “those who go to look at the moon but don’t see it.” Look at them!

One type is both on the boats and among the houses. They mingle with famous entertaining girls and talented women, and bring with them child actors, and their laughter is mixed with shouts. Then they sit on open pavilions and gaze and glance to the left and right. These are the ones who are beneath the moon, but who aren’t actually looking at the moon at all. Look at them!

One type is also out on the boats, singing. They entertain famous courtesans and idle monks, pour soft cups of tea and sing in low voices, with soft flutes and light harps, as the sounds of men and instruments mix together. These are are the ones who are beneath the moon, and they are looking at the moon, but they also want people to look at them looking at the moon. Look at them!

One type is found neither on the rafts nor on carriages. They wear neither shirts nor turbans, but have become drunk on wine and full on food, and go shouting in groups of three or five, jostling their way through the crowds of people, either at the Monastery of Auspicious Light or at Broken Bridge, shouting, hooting, and causing a ruckus. They pretend to be drunk, singing off-key songs. They look at the moon, and they look at the people who are looking at the moon and look at the people who aren’t looking at the moon as well, while in fact they don’t see a single thing. Look at them!

One type rides on little boats with light curtains, and warm themselves around stoves of clear tea. When the tea has been brought to boil they quietly pass around white porcelain bowls of it. Among good friends and beautiful women they sit together awaiting the moon, either concealing themselves in the shadows of trees, or escaping the hubbub in the middle of the lake. They look at the moon but nobody sees that they look at the moon, and in fact they are not even really so intent on looking at the moon. Look at them!


- By Zhang Dai, 1597-1679.
Translated by me from the version found here



“Though there are many types of females, there are none that are not included into these four types – lotus, picture, large conch, and elephant. A woman of the lotus type is best. She is beautiful, with smiling face; her body is slender and supple. She has no freckles, and her color is ruddy and white. She has shiny very long black hair, and her eyes move about like frightened deer. Her nostrils are small; her eyebrows are thick. She likes clean clothes and simple food. She wears only a few adornments, like flowers and so forth. She is altruistic and a doer of virtue. She has abandoned desire for others than her own husband. Her breasts are soft, round, and big. Her vagina is about six finger breadths deep. Her menstruation emits a fragrance like a lotus; therefor she is of the lotus type. The wife of King Rama, Sita, the wife of the Pandava [princes], Draupadl, and so forth are lotus types. Mostly in former times there were many of the lotus type; they are born among good lineages in the central areas of agreeable lands.

The picture type is of medium height. She is not very fat and not very thin. She has roving long eyes which are like petals of a lotus. Her nose is like the sesame flower. She wears clothes of various colors and a garland of yellow flowers. She likes all kinds of pictures. She is enthusiastic to hear interesting stories. She keeps various small birds, parrots, and so forth. Always a group of children stays around her. Her body is as beautiful as a painted picture; therefore she is said to be of the picture type. She has less inclination for the bliss of copulation. Her other attributes are like those of the lotus type. Her reproductive organ is roundish and eight finger breadths deep. Her pubic area has little hair, and her menstruation is clear. Ulomaka and Rasajna are women of the picture type. It is said that the picture type appear on the banks of great rivers, such as the Ganges, Kaveri, and Sindhu [Indus].

The large conch type is thin and tall. Her neck is crooked; the tip of her nose goes upward. The shape of her face is long and of beautiful color. She eats various foods again and again. She is clever at protecting her household, her servants, and those around her. She talks well; her mind is clear, and she is only a little secretive. It is easy for her to become acquainted quickly with all whom she meets. She has little respect for her elders, but it is said she mixes compatibly with her own family. Her jealousy and passion are great. Her genitals are warm and ten finger breadths deep. Her pubic hair is thick, and her secretion comes out easily. A sour odor is emitted from her body and vagina. Most women of the world are included in the great conch type but from the differences of quality and temperature of the region many different shapes and colors occur. The three qualities of being talkative, having a facile tongue, and having a crook in the neck are taken as being unmistakable signs of this type.

The elephant type is short; her limbs are broad. Her mouth and nose are thick. Her hips are larger than anything else. Her eyes are reddish; her hair, coarse; her shoulders, rounded. Her breasts are very large and hard like stone. She eats a great deal, and her voice is strong and anxious. She covers her whole body from head to food with adornments. She likes adultery and low gossip. Most of this type separate from their husbands. She acquaints with large men of great strength and all others she finds. As she has strong passion burning hard, she wants to sleep with every son and father. She needs to copulate many times each day. Though a hundred men do it, she is not satisfied. Her genitalia is very hairy and burns with heat like fire. It is always dripping wet and has an odor like that of an elephant. An adulteress like her is not suitable as a wife, but as she is vigorous in the act, she is renowned as the superior of maid-servants.

By dividing again each of the four fundamental types of women into four, there are sixteen types. Understand the divisions – the lotus of lotus type, etc. – in accordance with what was explained earlier about the types of men.

The divisions were spoken by Maheshvara. Vatsyayana speaks of two groups of three types each, making six. In that system the three types of males are rabbit, buck, and stallion. The three types of females are doe, mare, and elephant. The best, middle, and last of those two groups should be underestood according to the order of their presentation. Though many modes of division are explained in the commentaries, except for only minor points they all agree.”

 – From “The Treatise on Passion” by Gendün Chöpel
trans. Jeffrey Hopkins & Dorje Yudon Yutok. p.173-175.


མི་མ་ཡིན་པས་འཛིན་པའི་རྒྱལ་ཁམས་བརྒྱད། The Eight Realms Controlled by Non-Humans

1) ལྐོག་པ་བྲང་འགྱར། “Those With Throats Stuck to Their Chests”

2) ཐེ་རང་མིག་གཅིག་པ། “The One-Eyed Therang [demons]”

3) སྐྱེ་ལྤ་རྨེ་ཤ་ཅན། “The Goitred Moley Ones”

4) སོག་པོ་སྤྲེའུ་ལག་ཅན། “The Monkey-Handed Mongolians”

5) རྒྱ་མོ་ཁྱི་ཁྱི་ཅན། “The Chinese Women who Possess Dogs”

6) རྣ་བོ་ཆེ་བོང་བུ། “The Large-Eared Donkeys”

7) ཚེ་ཚེ་ར་མགོ་ཅན། “The Goat-Headed Goats”

8) ཙུ་ཏ་རྐང་གཅིག་པ། “The One-Legged Tsu-Ta”

 – From Jigs-med-gling-pa’s “Discourse on India”
Trans. Michael Aris


Chöpel, Gendün, trans. Jeffrey Hopkins, and Dorje Yudon Yutok. Tibetan Arts of Love: Sex, Orgasm, & Sexual Healing. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1992. Print.
敦煌硏究院, 江蘇美術出版社編; 主編段文傑; 編著楊雄. 敦煌石窟藝術. 莫高窟第四二零窟, 四一九窟(隋). 南京: 江蘇美術出版社, 1996. Print. [Dunhuang Academy, Jiangsu Arts Press; Edited by Yin Wenjie, written by Yang Xiong. Dunhuang Grotto Arts: The 419th and 420th Caves at Mogao (Sui Dynasty). Nanjing: Jiangsu Arts Press, 1996. Print]
Jigs-med-gliṅ-pa Raṅ-byuṅ-rdo-rje, and Michael Aris. Jigs-med-gling-pa’s Discourse On India of 1789 : a Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of the Iho-phyogs Rgya-gar-gyu Gtam Brtag-pa Brgyad-kyi Me-long. Tokyo: International institute for Buddhist studies, 1995.

施萍婷. 敦煌石窟全集:佛教故事書卷. 香港 : 商務印書館, 2002. Print. [Shi Pingting. The Complete Collection of the Dunhuang Grottoes: Volume on Buddhist Stories. Hong Kong, Commercial Press, 2002. Print.]

Art China Hebei Shanxi Translation Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

List-Cities and Form-Cities: Umberto Eco in Yu County

taken from 故城寺壁畫, 16-17


gu cheng si

gu cheng quan jingThe uppermost image of the temple interior is from 故城寺壁畫, p.16-17. The other photos by me.

In “The Infinity of Lists”, Umberto Eco makes the distinction between “form” and “list”. “Form” is whatever can be delimited, given boundary and shape. “List” is anything limitless and impossible to describe other than by necessarily unsatisfactory enumeration. “List” can be further differentiated from “Catalog”: a list is potentially infinite, while a catalog delineates the entirety of a set, and thus limiting it and giving it form. These distinctions apply in literature as they do in art. They can even apply to buildings and cities:


“The homology with the rhizome obliges us to think also of territorial and architectonic lists. Earlier we remarked how difficult it is to imagine a pictorial list given that the picture frame limits space and, so to speak, prevents us from thinking of an “et-cetera”; but we did grant that it is possible to suggest (and we have seen how) an incalculable continuity beyond the limits of the frame.

Likewise we ought to say that there is no architectonic “et-cetera”, since every architectonic edifice circumscribes and delimits its own space, and exists precisely because it separates an internal living space from the space surrounding it. This holds not only for buildings but also for cities delimited by walls, or those that spread out in a star shape from a central square (like the ideal cities of the 16th century). But it was the same with the form of the Roman castrum, a square subdivided by vertical and horizontal lines, and in fact we commonly talk of city and outskirts, city and district, city and surrounding territory.

Yet when we leave the city built around a central square and move on to the American city that spreads out from “Main Street”, we find that this spinal column of the city can be infinitely prolonged, and gradually cities spring up where the centre fades seamlessly into suburbs that get bigger day by day so that sometimes it is difficult to say where the city ends and the rest of the territory begins. This eventually leads us to the “city-territory”, the main example of which is Los Angeles, which has no centre and is practically the outskirts of itself. Los Angeles is an “et-cetera” city and so, if we wish to accept the metaphor, it is a “list-city” rather than a “form-city”.

A “list-city” is shaped like an open maze. Certainly, the classical structure of the maze is that of delimited space. But it is a closed space structured in such a way that those who enter it feel that it is impossible to find a way out. The maze is form, but for those who enter one it represents the experience of impossibility of getting out and hence of endless wandering – and this is the source of its appeal and of the fear it can strike into people. Paradoxically, the maze is a non-linear list, which rewinds itself like a ball of wool, and again the homology with the structure of a rhizome tells us something about this Achilles’ shield as infinite as the catalog of ships.”

 – “The Infinity of Lists”, p.240-241


If ever there was a place and society which built “form-cities” rather than “list-cities”, it was, par-excellence, Yu County in the Ming Dynasty. By the year 1600, Yu County was a world in which every single settlement had been enclosed in square walls. Hundreds of mud-walled “form-fortresses” rose over the fields, oblong and monotonous, each with its own slight variation on the template but all bearing the same essential, ordered components, the same cardinal orientations, the same street plans, the same temple towers, the same gates, the same opera stages, the same temples at the same geomantically appropriate places. It was a place in which all space had form. (One is tempted to quote the Heart Sutra on Form and Emptiness here, but this is maybe too off-topic.)

And yet for all that, Yu County was also a society obsessed with catalogs, and arguably lists in Eco’s sense as well. Almost every temple in Yu County had some kind of fabulous series running across the walls: either paneled comic-book style illustrations of popular epics and the histories of the gods, the Life of Sakyamuni, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Journey to the North, the Fifty-Three Stations of Sudhana, or  great complicated scenes of buildings, deeds, beasts, men, battles, sages, the whole variegated and monstrous hosts of the Dragon Kings riding out from the Crystal Palace amidst sturm und drang, dispensing lighting and rain, all of the different Buddhas of this or that sutra, visual and written lists of donors, magistrates, villagers, and more besides.

Below, I’m going to introduce two particular sets of lists or catalogs which are found in Yu County, neither of which I can reproduce entirely here for various reasons. The first set of list comes from the Buddhist ceremony called “The Great Feast of All on Water and Land” (水陸大齋), sometimes referred to in English sources as the “Shuilu Ceremony”. In this ceremony the names of all of the inhabitants of heaven, earth, and hell are read out and called to attend the offering of food, where they can gather numinously about and listen to the Buddhist teachings being chanted in the temple. To this end, the images of these beings are drawn on silk hangings or, in Yu County, directly on the walls of the temple, in massive everyone-and-the-kitchen-sink processions of monstrous, mythical, and mundane entities that wrap about the main prayer halls in huge motley parades. The second type of list is that of the “Images of the Hundred Trades” (百工圖). These images depict men engaged in all of the myriad trades available in pre-modern China. These two types of lists or catalogs are interesting because, together, they present an unmatched visual panorama of the spiritual and economic world of Yu County, both divine, infernal, and material in the good Marxist sense.


Images of the Great Feast of All on Water and Land are not limited to Yu County. According to Dan Stevenson, the ceremony originated in Sichuan in the first millennium AD and involved images or paper effigies from an early date. The most famous published set of Water-and-Land drawings are those from Baoning Monastery in Youyu County, Shanxi (山西朔州市右玉縣寶寧寺). These were originally painted on silks scrolls, and have been published in full by the Beijing Cultural Relics Press (文物出版社) under the title The Ming-Dynasty Water-and-Land Paintings of Baoning Temple (寶寧寺明代水陸畫). There’s also a collection from the White Cloud Temple (白雲觀) in Beijing published under the title The Compendium of Spirits on Water and Land: Historical Water-and-Land Paintings from the Repository of Beijing’s White Cloud Temple (水陸神全: 北京白雲觀藏歷代道教水陸畫). I haven’t looked at this yet.

The only other published collection that I’m aware of comes from Yu County, under the title of The Frescoes of the Stubborn-Fort Monastery (故城寺壁畫), edited by the Cultural Relics Research Bureau of Hebei Province (河北省文物研究所) and the Yu County Museum (蔚縣博物館) and published by the Beijing Scientific Press (北京科學出版社). This is where I got the image at the top of this post. This is also the only one of these sets which can be securely dated. According to plaques still hung on the prayer-hall rafters, the monastery was built in the second year of the Zhengde Reign or 1507. The abbot who oversaw the process was named De Jun (得俊). The money came from members of the Jia (賈) family and the Fan (范) family. The painter was named Li Han (李漢). There are 112 groups of figures and 539 individuals. The identity of the figures and the specific individual or village that paid for that piece of painting are written in cartouche nearby. The whole thing is reproduced in the book, so if you’re really interested in this and can’t go to Yu County, or you can but the dimwitted monk who keeps the Stubborn-Fortress Monastery is out all the time and can’t seem to afford a real lightbulb for the prayer hall, I recommend just going and finding this in a library.

Besides the set in Stubborn-Fort Monastery, there are several sets of Water-and-Land frescoes around the Yu County area which have never been reproduced or published in full. The Monastery of Redoubled Peace (重泰寺) in the northern part of Yu County has a massive set, which is very partially reproduced in Yu County Temple Frescoes (蔚州寺廟壁畫), also by the Beijing Scientific Press. There is another beautifully preserved set located in the Monastery of the Peaceful Sage (安賢寺) in neighboring Guangling County (廣靈縣). This is the most wonderfully intricate and zany of the lot, although whoever drew it never got around to filling in the cartouches. There’s another set, which I’ve never been to, in the main hall of the Monastery of Perfect Enlightenment in the Hunyuan County Seat (渾源縣圓覺寺) over the mountains from the basin of Yu and Guangling. Finally, there’s a mostly effaced set in the main hall of the Lower Jade Springs Monastery (下玉泉寺) in Yu County and a newly-painted set in the main hall of the Dharma Ornament Monastery in Datong City (大同市區法華寺). There’s probably more that I don’t know about too, and even more than that before the Cultural Revolution. The point of all this being that water-and-land spirit catalogs were an extremely widespread decorative trope on the main prayer halls of Buddhist monasteries along the Xuanhua-Datong-Shuozhou frontier.

Here’s some from the Monastery of Redoubled Peace in Yu County:


The place sits on the rim of a canyon that cuts through high, sloping plains in the north of Yu County. The monastery was built expecting an attack. To the south it borders unscalable precipices on two sides. To the north a thick wall of pounded mud blocks off the compound. Standing on the buttresses there you can see north up to the walls of Xian and Zhou Family Fort. To the south, twin fortresses called the Yan Family Stockade and the Fort of the Gao and Li Families’ Temple stand on either rim of the gorge, connected by a wall across the canyon floor that guards the way up to the monastery.

I’d spent the night before I got there sleeping in a cherry orchard, in a haze of pink blossoms. Then I walked over brown fields as the sun bloomed out over the Lesser Five-Peak Mountains in the far south. As I walked I began to meet little parties of people heading the same way. “Where are you going!” I’d call. “To the Monastery of Redoubled Peace!,” they’d shout back. “A temple fair today!”

In the canyon beneath the monastery walls, cars were pulling in. Vendors had set out carts selling clothes, toys, balloons, tools. I sat on a stool and had some fried dough for breakfast as the crowd grew. Villagers were pulling up by motorcycle and minibus and mule cart, trickling down by narrow paths over the red canyon walls on foot. I bought some incense from an old woman at the foot of the stairs. Then I climbed up onto the cliff top and went into the monastery. Note for the below that you could take issue with some of the following translations and also that it was dark in there.



The Treasure-Banner of the King Who Governs Sickness and the Senders of the Five Illnesses


The Treasure-Banner of All the Ghosts who Dwell Idly on Water and Land among the Reeds, and Those Devils of the Stagnant [ ] [ ] Wood


The Treasure-Banner of the King who Opens the Teachings, the Great Scholar of the Face


[The cartouche is illegible]


The Treasure-Banner of All Those Ghosts who were Overly Punished Without Committing a Crime, and who Hold Hatred against the Magistrate’s Wrongs


The Treasure-Banner of the Eight Hot Hells

More from the Monastery of the Peaceful Sage in Guangling County. It snowed the night before I came here. I ate hand-worked noodles on the street in the Guangling County seat and then set out walking through the snow-covered fields. In a village I saw a poster about how not to electrocute yourself. Sheep blocked the snowy road and a woman on a bicycle gave me a pamphlet for a forbidden cult. A man invited me into a house by a little shrine and poured me tea. I gave him peanuts but he had no teeth to chew them with. The whole world was white with snow and gold with cornstalks scattered across the fields. Later on some old men brought me into this monastery.



Note that these images don’t have cartouches so your guess is as good as mine about who these are.




So that’s that. All the sets I’ve seen seem to have some core figures but they also contain figures that are unique. There’s probably a grad thesis in comparing them all and working out who’s who and when it was all drawn and why, but as the Russians would say, not my hemorrhoid, слава богу.




People in Yu County would have you believe that there is only one set of Images of the Hundred Trades. In fact there are at least three. There’s one on the walls of the Pavilion of the Water Spirit (水神堂) in Guangling County next-door to Yu. The Pavilion of the Water Spirit is a nice little temple on an island in the center of a circular lake. The lake is located in a grove outside of the southern walls of Guangling. It’s one of the most eminently pleasant places in the whole valley and I recommend a visit. So far as I can tell, the Images of the Hundred Trades there is just as complete as the one in Yu County except less well publicized and also lacking cartouches. I have all these photographed and I may put them up at some point. There was also a set on the walls of the Temple of the God of Wealth (財神廟) in the township of the Royal City of Dai (代王城鎮) back in Yu County, but these are too effaced to be really legible, and also the Daoist who lives there is an ornery individual.

Yu County’s famous set of Images of the Hundred Trades however is located in the village called The Origin of Summer (夏源村), in a temple to Lord Guan there. The temple is composed of three halls, a main one in the north and two flanking ones (配殿) on the east and west. The side walls of the two flanking halls have square paneled murals depicting the Hundred Trades, of which there are sixty four. I would have translated all of these and posted them ages ago except that the temple is kept locked, and the people who run the party committee in The Origin of Summer village won’t give me the keys. However, they’ve been partially published now in Yu County Temple Frescoes (蔚州寺廟壁畫) and there’s even a little book about them, The Hundred Trades in City, County, and Village: The Frescoes of the Temple to Lord Guan in the Origin of Summer Village in Yu County, (附縣鄉裏百工:蔚縣夏源關帝廟壁畫) by one Dai Jianbing (戴建兵). If I ever get into that temple I’ll publish the lot right here, but for now here’s a few from the pages of Yu County Temple Frescoes, p.162-165.


The southern wall of the eastern flanking hall at Xiayuan.

Each of the little panels has a picture of a different trade, and a poetical cartouche identifying it. I’ve translated these directly; you can look at the picture yourself and tell more or less what they mean.

shu qian louThe House of Coining Moneyjing xuan mu cai

Choicest Quality Wood Materialsmei jiu hong hang  The House of Jars of Beautiful Liquorren zhi yi fu

Benevolent Quality and Righteous Wealthdu shu lin

The Forest of Reading Books

geng lv ye

Plowing the Green Wilderness



So that’s that. Whether Umberto Eco would count these as “lists” in his technical sense or just “catalogs”, I’m not sure. These images do suggest, I think, infinity, arbitrarily subdivided. Consider again the Water-and-Land images in the Stubborn-Fort Monastery. Besides the great processions flanking the eastern and western walls of the prayer hall, there are smaller sets of figures on the lower parts of the southern wall. One set of these contains a little list of the potential deaths, or of the dead. The titles are, in full: “The Ghosts of Those Who Died From Sickness, Disease, or Hunger, etc.” (疾病餓鬼等眾). “The Society of the Ghosts who Died Unnaturally, etc.” (橫死鬼社等眾). “Those who Died Unnaturally By Their Own Works, etc.” (自作橫死等眾). “Those who Create Evil Karma by Killing and Wounding with Knives, etc.” (冤孽刀傷殺害等眾) “Those who Unjustly Died a Bitter Death, etc.” (冤枉苦死等眾). “Those who Perish By Stabbing Their Own Bodies, etc.” (自刺身亡等眾). “Those Who Die by Carts or Rickshaws, etc.” (車輦身亡等眾). “Those who From Ancient Times have been Harmed by Medicine” (往古藥傷等眾). And a final panel on which the cartouche has been erased. Surely these are not all of the potential deaths worth memorializing on a wall? Add to this the fact that many of these images are painted so high up, in a hall lit presumably only by candles and scant daylight through lattice-and-paper windows, that nobody would ever have been able to examine them or read the cartouches. The effect, if not the intent, was one of dizzying, un-exhausted profusion.

Then there’s the category of “various”. Next to the curiously specific list of deaths we find the following image:

qiao zui“Those with Clever Mouths, Big Tongues, Bad Breath, and Large Stomachs.” Image from 故城寺壁畫, p.248.

Which seems like an infinitude to me.




Works Cited:

戴建兵. 附縣鄉裏百工:蔚縣夏源關帝廟壁畫. 天津: 天津古籍出版社, 2013. Print. [Dai Jianbing. The Hundred Trades in City, County, and Village: The Frescoes of the Temple to Lord Guan in the Origin of Summer Village in Yu County. Tianjin: Tianjin Classics Press, 2013. Print.]

李信軍, 白雲觀管理委員會. 水陸神全: 北京白雲觀藏歷代道教水陸畫. 杭州: 西泠印社出版社, 2011. Print. [Li Xinjun, the Governance Committee of White Cloud Temple.  The Compendium of Spirits on Water and Land: Historical Water-and-Land Paintings from the Repository of Beijing’s White Cloud Temple. Hangzhou, Xiling Seal Engraver’s Society Publishing House. 2011. Print. ]

山西省博物館. 寶寧寺明代水陸畫. 北京 : 文物出版社, 1985. Print. [The Shanxi Provincial Museum. The Ming-Dynasty Water-and-Land Paintings of Baoning Monastery. Beijing: Cultural Relics Press, 1985. Print.]

Stevenson, Dan. “Text, Image, and Transformation in the History of Shuilu Fahui, the Buddhist Rite for Deliverance of Creatures of Water and Land.” Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism. Ed. Marsha Weidner. Honolulu: U of Hawaii, 2001. Print.

蔚縣博物館. 故城寺壁畫. 北京: 科學出版社, 2010. Print. [Yu County Museum. The Frescoes of Stubborn-Fort Monastery. Beijing. Scientific Press. 2013. Print.]

蔚縣博物館. 蔚州寺廟壁畫. 北京: 科學出版社, 2013. Print. [Yu County Museum. Yu County Temple Frescoes. Beijing. Scientific Press. 2013. Print.]

chou kou

Art China Inner Mongolia Translation

Inner Mongolian Village Governance Comics

The Great Wall on the Mongolian border near Old Garrison


Around December during a dip into Inner Mongolia along the Great Walls I found myself begging around for water in a little village there. Some Hanzu farmers, with uncharacteristic niceness, invited me in for lunch. The above is the inside of their house, which consisted of three arched cave rooms cut into a loess hillside. On the wall around the sleeping platform they had the following cool posters:



These are apparently the illustrations from a little comic book-style booklet on village governance ordinances in Inner Mongolia.  It seems like an unusual thing to make a comic book about and some of these drawings are actually surprisingly well done. (They have a nice color scheme, don’t they? And kind of an ’80s aesthetic, except trippily transplanted into rural, communist Inner Mongolia.) So I thought I’d translate the whole thing. There’s obviously a lot of gaps, as half of both posters were hidden; I suppose if you want to know more about Inner Mongolian village governance, you can go to there and find out more yourself. This goes along with my general interest in vernacular visual cultures of all types. For those of you who care about rural jurisdictional pyramids, I’m translating 村 and 嘎查 as “village”, 鄉 as “villageship”, 蘇木 as “arrow”, and 鎮 as “township”. 



I) In accordance with the “Legal Code for the Organization of Village Committees of the People’s Republic of China” and incorporating the realities of the [Inner Mongolian] Autonomous Region, the following methods will be used.


[The sign on the wall says, “The Village Committee”]


II) The village committee is the the base-level collective self-governing organization for the self governance, self education, and self service of the village people. It puts into motion democratic elections, democratic decision making, democratic governance, and democratic supervision.


[The sign on the gate says, “The People’s Government of Bayan Sumu”]

III) The people’s governments at the arrow, villageship and township levels give guidance, support, and help to the work of the village committee of Gacha, but they cannot interfere with affairs that in accordance with the law fall within the realm of the self-governance of the village. The village committee will partner with the people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels in launching new projects.

IV) The village committee will be instituted in accordance with principles that are convenient for mass governance, and in accordance with the living situation of the people, their historical preferences, the size of the population, etc. The creation, dispersal, and jurisdictional adjustments of the village committee will be suggested by the people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels. After being discussed and agreed upon by a meeting of the village people, it will be reported to the people’s government at the arrow level in order to be approved.


V) The village committee is formed from the chairman, the vice-chairman, and three to seven members of the committee. These are chosen by direct election from the village people. The precise number of posts will be suggested by the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments in accordance with the specific situation of the village, and will be decided by discussion during a meeting of the people of village or a meeting of their representatives. Among the committee members of village, there should be a quota of an appropriate number of female candidates. If the village is inhabited by multiple nationalities, there should be committee members who belong to whichever nationalities represent a minority. Among the members of the committee, there should be none who are spouses or are close relatives. The chairman and vice chairman of the committee are not permitted to be in charge of the financial affairs of the village. Those who are spouses or close relatives of members of the village committee members are also not permitted to be in charge of financial affairs of the village.

VI) The village committee can establish subordinate committees in accordance with need. If the population of the village is small, the committee can also not establish subordinate committees, and just divide their work between the committee members.

VII) The village committee can, in accordance with the specific situation and the wishes of the villagers, divide up to form smaller groups. The leaders of these smaller groups will be decided by group meeting. The groups can launch projects under the direction of the village committee.


[The sign says, “The Main Responsibilities of the Village Committee”.]

VIII) The village committee receives its responsibility from the assembly of the people of the village. The main tasks of this responsibility are as follows:

  1. To organize both herding and farming people to develop a multi-faceted economy. It has the task of serving and coordinating the production of the village.
  2. To protect the two-level system of using household contracts as a basis and simultaneously centralizing and decentralizing, in order to prevent the legal rights and benefits of collective economic groups, the village people, and other economic groups from being harmed.
  3. In accordance with the law, to manage, protect, and use in accordance with reason the land, prairie areas, mountain forests as well as the electrical, irrigation, and other facilities which collectively belong to the herders and farmers.
  4. To manage the financial affairs of the village.
  5. In accordance with the economic development needs of the villages and pastoral areas, to draw up and implement a building plan for the village, setting up public works and develoments to the general benefit in the agricultural fields and pastoral areas, as well as in forestry, irrigation, roads, electricity, communications, education, technology, culture, sports, and social security.
  6. To educate the people of the village to take care of public property, protect and improve the natural environment, and develop and make use of natural resources in accordance with the law and with reason.
  7. To propogate and implement the constitution, laws, regulations, and national policies. To educate and urge the village people to take part in payment of taxes, military service, volunteer education, and other tasks as defined by law, as well as to uphold the basic national policy on family planning.
  8. To develop cultural education and basic level technological knowledge, and to launch different forms of activities to develop civilized spirit.
  9. To mediate quarrels among the people, to promote family harmony, to encourage the unity of the village people and to promote the unity and mutual assistance of hamlets within the villageship.
  10. To mutually assist in acheiving a secure society, and to protect the normal order of production and life. To assist relevant agencies, and to educate, assist, and manage any members of the village who have been stripped of their political rights in accordance with the law.
  11. To convene the assembly of the people of the village and the assembly of the representatives of the village, to make work reports, and carry out their decisions and suggestions.
  12. To reflect the comments, needs, and advice of the village people to the sumu, villageship, and township level people’s governments. To guard the rights and interests of the village people in accordance with the law.


IX) When the village committee discusses and decides upon issues, it must fully carry out the democratic process, and support the principle of the minority serving the majority.

X) The committee members of the village committee are not required to separate themselves from production, and they can enjoy an appropriate subsidy for missed work.


[The sign says, “The Great Assembly of Villagers”]

XI) The village assembly is composed of all the members of the village who are over eighteen years of age.

XII) The village assembly is convened by the village committee. The assembly is headed by the chairman of the committee, or the chairman can entrust it to the vice-chairman. The assembly must be called at least once a year. It should be attended by at least half of the residents of  the village over eighteen years of age, or representatives from at least two thirds of the families. All of its decisions must be agreed upon by over half of the assembly. If over one tenth of the villagers or over one half of the representatives of the village families make a proposal, then the village assembly should be called in a timely fashion.


XIII) The assembly of the village can decide by discussion the following matters:

  1. The assembly can elect, recall or by-elect members of the village committee. It can consider and make decisions upon the resignation of members of the committee.
  2. The assembly can hear and consider the work reports of the village committee, reports on financial income and expenditure. It can consider and make decisions on important affairs of the building projects in the village, economic and social development plans, annual plans, and related public affairs or public welfare works.
  3. The assembly can consider and make decisions on setting up collective economic projects, contractual cases, and contractual cases dealing with building public welfare works. The assembly can decide on the use of collective economic profits.
  4. The assembly can consider and make decisions on how to pay money to the arrow, villageship, and township level fundraising projects, as well as methods for deducting and retaining funds for the village use and raising money for public welfare works.
  5. The assembly can consider and make decisions on cases to do with contract management, the uses of compensation money for requisitioned lands, the allocation of land for building houses, and arrangements for meeting targets on family planning.
  6. The assembly can evaluate the work of the members of the village committee, as well as decide which village members can receive subsidies and the standard of the subsidy.
  7. With the precondition that it does not contradict the constitution, laws, regulations or policies, the assembly can create self-governing regulations, a village contract, or other regulatory systems.
  8. The assembly can alter or reverse inappropriate decisions of the the village committee.
  9. The assembly can alter or reverse inappropriate decisions of the the village representative assembly.
  10. The assembly can discuss and decide on other major issues that affect the common wellfare of the village.


XVII) The village committee should create a democratic financial management group organized out of the village people. The democratic financial management group will be composed of three to five people, elected out of the the village assembly or the village representative assembly. Members of the village committee, their spouses, and those directly related to them are not allowed to become members of the democratic financial management group.  The democratic financial management group represents the masses at a fixed date to look up […] financial items of account, and with respect to financial affairs publicly […] to relevant organs of the people’s governments reflect financial […]


[The text for this one is hidden. The board says, “Village Tasks Public Board”, with two charts, “income situation” and “expenditure situation”.]


[The sign says (I think, I don’t read Mongol), “Olji Moron County People’s Government”]

XLI) The results of the election of the village committee members will be reported by the newly elected members to the arrow, villageship, and township people’s governments to be put on record. If the people of the village have objections to the process or results of the elections, they can register a written appeal to the arrow, villageship, township level assemblies of people’s representatives or the people’s government, or to the arrow or county level standing committee of the assembly of people’s representatives and to relevent government bureaus. The relevant bureaus should take responsability for making an inquiry and dealing with the situation in accordance with the law.


[The paper says, “Request for Dismissal”]

XLII) The village assembly has the power to dismiss members of the village committee. One fifth or above of the voting-eligible population of the village can jointly sign their names to request that a member of the village committee be dismissed. The request for dismissal should be made in written form to the village committee, as well as filed in the records of the local arrow, villageship and township level people’s governments, explaining the reasons for the request for dismissal. The local people’s governments at the arrow, villageship, and township levels should undertake an investigation to determine whether or not the reasons for dismissal and the joint signatures are in accordance with the truth. The work of the investigation should be completed within three months.


XLIII) In response to a joint-signed request for dismissal made in accordance with laws and regulations, the village committee should convene an assembly of the village people within three months to vote on the issue. If the village committee does not convene the village assembly within the three month period, then the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments can convene the assembly and being the voting. The chairman of the committee will preside over the assembly for dismissing a member of the village committee. In the case that the villagers wish to dismiss the committee chairman or the majority of the members of the committee, the someone in charge from the arrow, villageship, or township level people’s governments can officiate.

XLIV) When the village assembly convenes to discuss the dismissal of a committee member, a representative of those who made the request for dismissal should make an explanation to the assembly and answer relevent questions. The person who is to be dismissed has the right to attend the assembly and to make objections in his own defence.


[The sign says: “Total number of voters: 458. Those in agreement with the dismissal: 346. This is over half; the dismissal is in effect.”]

XLV) In order for a member of the village committee to be dismissed, over half of the population eligible to vote in the village must vote in favor. The voting and procedure will use the same methods for normal voting and procedure as outlined here. The results of the vote will be reported by the village committee to the arrow, villageship, and township level people’s governments.


[The piece of paper in the guy’s hands says, “resignation”.]

XLVI) If a member of the village committee requests to resign his post, he should submit his request in written form to the village committee. The committee should then convoke the village assembly or the village representative assembly and achieve more than half of the votes in favor. If a person is elected as a member of the village committee and his spouse or direct relative is also a member of the committee, the spouse or relative should then resign. If a member of the village committee in accordance with the law comes under investigation for responsibility in a criminal affair or is sentenced to labor reeducation, then his or her position will be accordingly terminated.


XLVII) If there are not enough members of the village committee, whether because not enough were voted upon, they were dismissed, resigned, were transferred away, their employment was terminated, they died, their residence permit was moved away, or a lack caused by any other reason, then a by-election should be held within three months. The election will be presided over by the chairman of the village committee. The election will use the election procedures and methods found here.


[The above is the inspirational calligraphy of Li Peng. It says, immortally, “Village Self Governance Is Good!”]

Central Asia China Photos Xinjiang

Photography in the Urumqi Bazaar




These were some photos I took in the bazaars at Urumqi and Turpan during a trip there this January. I’ll post more about the trip itself later on, but for now, some photos. Although taking pictures of bazaars is a pretty touristy pursuit, these are probably the closest to “photojournalism” I’ve come yet. I was thinking about all of the stereotypical China and Xinjiang topics: Uyghurs, Hans, and the all-seeing State; eating pigs and eating people; Istanbul and Beijing; the Nanjing judge and Uyghur thieves.

China Diaries Hebei Inner Mongolia

Beijing diaries

So, I arrived in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on foot yesterday, having walked here continuously from Henan Mongolian Autonomous County, Qinghai Province. It took a long time and a lot of it was pretty terrible to be honest. I wish I hadn’t done it. The Trans-Asia Trek is not yet finished, though, because there’s still a stretch of Gansu I haven’t covered. I’m also going to continue my project about fortresses in Yu County over the next few months. Here’s a link to a map of the route across China.

I was keeping kind of a sporadic diary for the last few weeks from Datong, so here’s that if you want a taste of it all:

“I take a bus to Datong and sit next to an elderly peasant whose farts smell strongly of cigarettes. The TV on the bus is playing a Korean soap opera in which a drunk girl on the Seoul metro vomits onto the head of a seated old man. The peasant next to me cackles gleefully through the whole thing, while gumming away at a pasty white bread buns.

The next day I take a minibus to New-Glory District and start walking from there. The road leads up over dry, dreary hills in a gray haze. Where the road crests each hilltop there is a small pagoda. Stunted waist-high pines lead off in striped, undulating rows, each labelled with an ostentatious rock inscription by the road, the Glorious Pines Volunteer-Planted Forest, the Beautiful Mountain Volunteer-Planted Forest, the Civilized Light Volunteer-Planted Forest. Every few hundred meters there is a little sign that says, “The Forest is Protected by Men! The Mountains are Governed by Men!” I make up a poem: “Roses are red, violets are blue. Don’t start a forest fire, or the forestry department will arrest you.”

I get drunk that night with coal truckers and go wandering around trying to find somewhere to sleep, but am turned out of some hostels, and so enter into a coal yard and get chased by dogs and a man with a flashlight, crash unsteadily off into the leaf-crunching bushes, heart pounding, hide, and then walk until I come to a field amidst the un-tall trees and sleep there under the hazy moon, shivering in my sleeping bag.

In the morning I climb up a hill to get my bearings. I can see the mud ramparts of the Ming-dynasty Great Wall, running across the plain beneath me. This means that I have wandered into Inner Mongolia during the night. Against the Wall I can see the ramparts of three garrison forts that I know from my map, Settles-the-Barbarians Fort, Achieves-Victories Fort, and a third one with no one left inside, and no name that I know. There must have been a border crossing here, I realize; here beneath me is the exterior customs yard where caravans driving sheep and horses were drawn up beneath the Wall, trading silks and tea, here the great tower that watched over it, there are the inner and outer gates through which Mongol and Bukharan merchants passed, the ramparts and bastions and barbicans that met them on the inside where the garrison forts rise suddenly up out of the prairie grass.

My water bottles froze solid in the night, so I go down into Settles-the-Barbarians and ask some friendly old people to pour boiling water into them.

I cross a river on the ice beneath the Wall and climb up onto a plateau, past the main road and some half-abandoned villages of collapsing shingled beams and stone arches denuded of their mud mortar. To the south I can see distant corrugated mountains covered in blue snow. I wander all day through windy steppe, thinking about nothing. That night after a long time walking on dirt roads in the cold I come to a place called Black-Earth-Terrace.

There is a hostel in Black-Earth-Terrace but the manager tries to kick me out. I sit on a bed and refused to leave. She speaks in the dialect of the Inner-Mongolian Chinese and I find it hard to understand her. Eventually after a lot of arguing it comes out that her hostel is not officially registered but has the tacit assent of the town police. No foreigner has ever been in this town before but she’s adamant that I’m not supposed to stay here.

“So don’t tell anyone,” I say to her.
“They’ll find out!”
“So call the town police and let me talk to them,” I say. “I don’t care.”
“Then the county police will find out about the hostel!” I ignore her and spread out my things on the bed.

Eventually the police chief of the town shows up. He looks me up and down and says, “this is too special, too special,” something which he continues to interject at intervals throughout the rest of our conversation. “Do you need any help or assistance? Is there anywhere I could assist you in going or could I bring you to anywhere else that you’re having trouble being at? I could take you back to the county seat if you want.” Eventually he seems to agree with himself that I’m not in need of assistance and there is no need to call the county authorities, and leaves, still muttering “too special, too special” under his breath. The woman who runs the hostel comes in sullenly and asks for money. I give it to her. On the wall above my bed, surreptitious graffiti has been scratched: Need a tractor? Call xxx-xxxx-xxxx. Cheap bulldozer, rent by the hour!

In the morning I eat a bowl of plain noodles with a hard boiled egg in it and then walk all day up into bare, beige mountains along a paved road. The villages here are covered in particularly un-subtle propaganda. Giving birth to just one child is good! and, It’s equally good to give birth to a boy or to a girl! Sometimes there are little poems. Increase population quality, scientific development! Whether it’s a boy or a girl , that’s irrelevant! At dusk I get to a town called Muddy-Springs-Caves, which is surrounded by snow.

Some Sichuanese workers put me up for the night. They’ve driven up here all the way from Sichuan in a caravan of 500 men to build power lines over these hills. The Sichuanese can speak good Mandarin and seem open, cheerful. It’s a relief to talk to them. Their cook is a brown little woman from Yunnan with a smock, golden earings, and tribal tattoos running up her arms. She cusses incessantly in an unbroken stream of Yunnanese that nobody can make head or tails of. Some elderly villagers hover around listening to us suspiciously, not understanding what we’re saying. For a moment I don’t feel like an alien. They give me a bed and there is some huge commotion in the night that involves loud bodily eructations, but I sleep right through it.

I go the wrong way the next morning and take a massive, horrible detour through destitute mountains. Everything is covered in snow and I’m tired. When I finally get to a road around midday I’m in completely the wrong place and somebody walks up to me and asks if I’m from Uruguay. I go into a canteen on the roadside. On the wall is a famous poem written by Mao Zedong, after the beset Red Army had fought its way across the Six-Bend Mountains and stood looking down over the labyrinthine loess country of Ningxia and Shaanxi, and safety:

Heaven is high and the clouds are light
We watch the geese fly south and out of sight.
If we don’t reach the Great Wall we’ll never call ourselves heroes-
We point our fingers, and the journey lasts twenty thousand miles.

Mao Zedong was a shitty poet.

I walk all afternoon and into the night and get to a dusty, narrow, ice-covered town called “Shop” which is lit only by the headlights of endless rumbling coal trucks on the rutted road between boarded-up houses. The one hostel is run by a deaf-mute guy in the back of a junk lot. He communicates by writing, although he doesn’t know very many characters. We sit and have a great conversation about how much prostitutes and motorcycles cost in America. On the wall of the room there’s a poster of a blond woman on a Yamaha, pouting and leaning seductively forward to expose her pale, pendulous breasts. The hostel has no toilet so you can either pee in the yard or unlock the gate and go outside to crouch by the road. That night I have diarrhea.

Before I even get out of the town in the morning the police find me and drive me back. “We need to take you back to town so we can photocopy your passport,” they tell me. They pass it back and forth. None of them have ever seen a passport before.
“Just take a picture of it here,” I say. But we drive back to the station anyway.

Today is a day for getting your ID card made at the police station so the place is mobbed with peasants, who keep throwing open the door of the interrogation room to gape at me until they are chased out by the police and must content themselves with standing on tip-toes to ogle in through the window. The chief of police is a friendly guy called Batur. He’s the first Mongol I’ve met in Inner Mongolia. Of course the photocopier is broken so they end up taking pictures of the passport anyway. Then they keep me there for two idiotic hours while they argue back and forth about what needs to be Done about this Situation. I want to snap at them but hold my tongue. Eventually they decide that this extraordinary event of my arrival calls for a formal statement from the detained, in which I confess to being in their town, having spent the night in it, having walked through it, having purchased a bowl of instant noodles in the town store and consumed it, and then having attempted to leave the town, perambulating, which all gets put down there in black and white and affirmed by me on each page with my signature and red stamps of my fingerprints above every relevant bit. Then they try to make me drink beer, to see if I might confess something else if drunk, and then when I don’t they drive me back to the spot three hundred meters away where they picked me up and set me down there, having wasted a whole morning of everyone’s life.

I walk for a long time on an empty road. Signal towers dot the brown mountain ridges. Eventually I cross the Great Wall again. I lay down in a grassy field on the inner side. I can see geese flying north against the clouds. Slowly, gently, it begins to snow. I’m out of Inner Mongolia once more.

: : : : : : : :

In Huai’an county I end up staying in the official government hotel, which is a moldering place in an empty lot some kilometers out from the town itself. The rooms come provided with a little expository booklet titled, in English, “Humanistic Huai’an”. The only way to get food is to walk twenty minutes to another remote apartment complex where there are some restaurants. The children there crowd around the windows whenever I eat and screech “foreigner! foreigner! foreigner!” For fun I pretend I don’t understand and then suddenly leap up and run to the door to scare them off, howling and cackling.

That night when I get back to the hotel I see a caravan of black cars pull up around the rotary and and ten or twelve men in leather jackets jog in the doorway. I wonder if they’re police here for me so I go around the back, hop a fence, and sit in the garden looking in through the windows. The guys stand around in the lobby smoking and talking on cellphones for about the amount of time it takes me to finish a can of potato chips and get bored. I try the side doors to the hotel but they’re all locked. I’m cold. Eventually I just go in. The guys look me up and down but nobody says anything so I go up to my room. About an hour later the actual police do knock on my door, eight of them in uniform, and mill around awkwardly in my room while one of them looks at my passport.

“Don’t you guys sleep?” I ask them.

“The Huai’an police are ready for duty twenty-four hours a day!” one of them replies seriously.

Then they leave. I go down and complain to the wide-eyed girls at the front desk. “Bunch of god-damn time wasters.” The suspicious-looking leather jacket guys who are still down in the lobby smoking all come and commiserate with me.

I spend all day walking down the highway, sit for a while on the mud bastions of a place called West Sand Fort, and then go on over depressive loess hills to get to another great fortress on a plain there. That night I get invited to dinner by a guy named Mr. Stone, who I run into in the intersection of the town, where the drum tower once stood. Mr. Stone owns an illegal iron mine near here and wears yellow-tinted sunglasses. He’s very impressed that I’ve walked here all the way from Qinghai.

“How long have you been doing this?” he asks me.
I tell him, “five years.”

The two of us get drunk. We have a sumptuous dinner behind closed doors in the banquet room of the town’s fanciest restaurant, which Mr. Stone swears in whispers is run by the mafia. Mr. Stone avoids phone calls by telling people he’s out to dinner with his “American business associate”. After that all the supposed mafia people who run the restaurant want to take a picture with me, and we get turned out of two hostels because I’m a foreigner, and eventually drunk-drive our way back to Huai’an in an SUV that came from somewhere and install ourselves in the fanciest hotel in town, from which Mr. Stone disappears, and I never hear from him again, and in the morning I have to hire a taxi to drive me back to where I was, hungover and pissed off about this little detour.

The weather gets warm and windy. Spring is coming and the farmers are suddenly out in their fields, bandy-legged old men with wrinkled faces raising hoes to hack at the earth. A friendly guy lets me throw my bag onto the back of his donkey cart and we walk together up into a town called Third Fort. I haven’t eaten all day, so I buy a bowl of instant noodles and some strips of tofu in a shop there. Some children come to ogle me as I eat until I get tired of it. “It’s not a zoo,” I tell them. For once, the shopkeeper listens to me and hussles them out. I go up into the mountains and cross a pass called Lion’s Mouth. it’s a perfect north-Chinese day. I can taste hearth-smoke, noodles, garbage; golden light, old men squat on the roadside in padded blue coats, donkey carts and tinny-honking white minibuses, corn stalks burning, barren fields, ragged purple ridges, blue sky, wind. I walk until long after dark and sleep on the floor of abandoned house underneath an old mud signal tower.

I’m close to Beijing now but you wouldn’t know it except for the creeping haze. These mountain villages are destitute and the people all gone. I get lost. An old man offers to show me the way and we wind through a maze of ice-floored loess canyons. He is tiny, spindly, with a grey stubble of a beard. He seems friendly but I can’t understand anything he’s saying. Eventually when we reach a pass he turns back. I lose the trail again on grassy hilltops and end up fighting my way through thorns down into a valley and back up the other side.

Eventually, and totally by accident, I come to a temple in the mountains. The place is cut into a rock outcropping in the bend of a remote slope, washed by green cedars that seem miraculous. The last gray light of the day is streaming down and lighting up the low barracks of the monks’ quarters, the two-storied main hall fronting the cliff face, the stairs cut into the rock that lead into chapel rooms in hollowed-out boulders poised over precipices, the brick stupa, balanced precariously amid stones and thorns, carved with the cross-legged figures of Buddhas in meditation. There’s one monk, a friendly young guy who tells me to go on in, it’s unlocked.

The main chapel is devoted to the Buddha of the Earth Treasury, who has taken a vow not to pass on into Nirvana until all the denizens of hell have been rescued. The chapel has been renovated. On the walls someone has drawn a gleeful mural of the judgement and torture of souls sent to hell. There are women having their breasts sawn off, Men having knives plunged into their genitals, people wriggling their legs while being carried off by grinning demons, crucified in obscene positions and impaled, kneeling, bowing, kowtowing, supplicating before Yama the judge of hell, his long-bearded leering officials, their scrolls and robes, and the terrible psychopomps Horse-Face and Ox-Head.

The caves up above can be reached by staircases cut into the gloomy rock. Inside are the bulky, crude figures of stone Buddhas, now headless and featureless, black and impassive. The ceilings have been painted, long ago, in a grid meant to imitate tiles. Each square is embroidered with blue and red clouds, lines drawn in white on the black surface, then within them mandala wheels, swirling mists and wish-fulfilling jewels, lotuses, the lines curving off into blackness where more rows of figures can be made out, dark as the void. I kneel and I hope that emptiness intermingles somewhere in that pitch extremity. I pray.”

Art China Hebei Yu, Guangling, and Yangyuan

Ragpicking on the Northern Frontier


China feels distopian these days. Up in Yu County, plastic bags blow across dead fields underneath skies black with coal dust. Toothless old men in collapsing villages stand staring blankly in the cold. Off in the gray distance, the frames of tower blocks loom. I go wandering through dry, garbage-strewed villages, prying open old doors and hopping mud walls, searching for treasure.



Above top: coffins stored in a ruined temple. Bottom: the interior of an Empress Temple (娘娘廟).

Fifty years ago every village in Yu County had at least one temple, and often four or five, plus a large opera stage. All of these were adorned with frescoes, sculptures, and wood- and stone-carving. Some of them still remain.



Above top, another Empress Temple. Bottom, the words “Destroy the Private” written on a temple wall, left over from the Cultural Revolution. On the opposite wall, not pictured, is written “Erect the Public” (立公).

A lot of these places have just been boarded up, or turned into sheep pens or grain storage houses. I have to do a lot of entreating with elderly men who own the keys to rusty locks and scaling walls to get into some of these places. Nobody seems to care.



Above top, a Temple to the True Warrior (真武廟) and bottom, an opera stage (戲臺), both now used as storage spaces.

Since I don’t have all that much intelligent to say about this stuff as a whole I’m going to let it speak for itself. Note that I’m not going to say where any of this is, because a lot of it is quite valuable, and does get stolen. Here are some of the highlights:




Above: Three different Shrines to the True Warrior (真武廟), all located on mud towers on the northern walls of villages. The last one was repaired and repainted recently, paid for by what appears to be the last remaining resident of the village. 


No idea what the above represents, although I intend to figure it out. The procession is marching towards the Crystal Palace (水晶宮), which is the residence of the Dragon Kings. And yet it doesn’t seem to be a temple dedicated to the Dragon King, which is peculiar. 


These are from the interior of a Buddhist monastery, built in the Qianlong Reign of the Qing. Another interesting element is the presence of “comic-book” style paneled narrations. Common topics are the life of Sakyamuni in Buddhist temples, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and other popular stories. 



Since this collection is going to be growing endlessly, I’ve decided to put up the rest, including details of some of the more intricate frescoes, as a sidebar. So if you scroll down you’ll see it on the right and you can look through the whole set.

Another thing I’ve been collecting is specimens of wood and stone carving from around Yu County.


This is the gatehouse of a fort. Note the ornamental brackets (斗拱) and the little panels bearing images of animals to either side of the gate inscription in the center. I’m not sure what the significance of these little panels is but every fort seems to have some. Similar panels show up on either side of door lintels in temples or what were wealthier homes, often as ornamental pillar-caps.




Another good area for carving is the ornamental screens (影壁) that still sit opposite to the doors of the more sumptuous courtyard houses.


Below is the most spectacular example I’ve come across of this yet, from an abandoned courtyard in the back of some crumbling village. 


Detail of the lower panel of the screen, from the left:






Here’s the rest. I’ll keep adding to these as more come in, so check back.