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The Jade Emperor’s stone fish

As I prepare for a few quiet days at the beach (weather reports bode well) before returning to Beijing for 10 days and then a slew of events in late September, I realize that I haven’t posted the story of the Jade Emperor’s stone fish and our outing to Tanzhe-Shi, a temple west of Beijing, in June. That little adventure ends up as part of the preface to a book, The Good Library Manual, we’re publishing next week, and I’d like to explain why.

Karen Christensen at Tanzhe-Shi, with the Jade Emperor's Stone FishI suggested the trip to Tanzhe-Shi because some of the events in a favorite novel, Peking Picnic, took place there. Tom, Rachel, and I took the subway to the end of the line at Pingguo Yuan, which means “apple garden.” The area is the source of much of Beijing’s pollution and to an American eye the scale was staggering: nuclear power plants looming above orphaned overpasses waiting for roads to connect them, vast fields spread with indeterminate building activity (and no hard hats in sight), and, remote in the haze, a temple perched on a steep hillside. The incongruity of the name, “apple garden,” made us laugh, but the taxi driver didn’t get the joke at all when Tom asked if he had translated it correctly. We spent a wonderful afternoon wandering through the terraced courtyards of Tanzhe-Shi, and plan to go back in the spring, when the fruit trees will be in bloom and even today, according to a guidebook, there are itinerant beekeepers. (The photo here was taken was taken in front of a stone fish supposedly given to the temple by the Jade Emperor, the legendary Daoist ruler of heaven.)

When I got home, I decided to reread Peking Picnic. I couldn’t find my copy – my books are scattered through a dozen rooms and there are only occasional pockets of order – so I took the easy way out: I used the online interlibrary loan, and within a few days a copy was waiting for me at Mason Library. It had come from the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, and had, as I could see from the date stamps, been checked out by many other people since 1937.

I had been focused on how much China had changed over the decades since the book was written, but those rows of purple date stamps made me think about just how much this part of the world, too, has changed. They made me feel part of a community of people interested in China, tied to this place but also thinking about the wider world.

Peking Picnic is the story of a group of foreigners in China during the 1930s warlord period. The main character, the intellectual wife of an English diplomat, reflects on how we humans connect to particular places and yet somehow manage, practically and imaginatively, to live global lives, adjust to new vistas, and learn to see the world from other perspectives. These things are fundamental to what Berkshire Publishing tries to do, and also, in a broader sense, to what libraries are. The book opens with a few sentences that I suspect many of my friends and colleagues will understand and sympathize with:

To live in two different worlds at the same time is both difficult and disconcerting. Actually, of course, the body cannot be in China and in Oxfordshire [read New York, or East Hampton] simultaneously. But it can, and does, travel rapidly between the one place and the other, while the mind or the heart persists obstinately in lingering where the body is not, or in leaping ahead to the place whither the body is bound. The whole man – or perhaps chiefly the whole woman – is in such circumstances never completely anywhere.

Finally, here’s some information about the Jade Emperor from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History:

From the time of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126 ce), the supreme deity of the Chinese has been popularly conceived of as the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang Shangdi), the supreme ruler of the heavens and the underworld and the protector of mankind. According to Daoist legend, the Song emperor Zhen Zong (968–1022; reigned 997–1022) experienced a visitation from the Jade Emperor in a dream, afterwards proclaiming himself the deity’s incarnate descendant. This official acknowledgement of the Jade Emperor placed the god at the pinnacle of the Chinese pantheon and formally sanctioned the popular conception of an elaborate bureaucratic order in the spiritual world that paralleled the imperial institutions of the world below.

In Chinese popular religion, the Jade Emperor reigned supreme over all the Daoist, Buddhist, and other popular deities of traditional lore in addition to commanding the various spiritual forces of the natural world. Approached primarily through intermediaries, the Jade Emperor was often implored by the common people for good harvests and protection against natural calamities. He was also turned to for the remission of sins, in the hope that his pardon, as the ruler of the underworld, would secure a more favorable afterlife. This popularized conception of the supreme deity was, therefore, less abstract and more accessible to the masses than the Tian associated with classical Confucianism.

By Michael C. Lazich, “Chinese Popular Religion” in the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 1st edition 2005, 2nd edition forthcoming Autumn 2010.

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