Yin Yang and Mickey Mouse

By Jheri St.James

     Chinese culture has colored so many aspects of global life: Chinese astrology concepts, Tai Chi Chuan, Chi Kung and other martial arts, acupuncture, the I-Ching or Book of Changes, Chinese cuisine, Oriental arts and architecture, the concept and symbolism of Yin-Yang--duality.

     Then there are mundane facts to consider. The mind bends under the weight of data about China, home of the oldest continuous civilization and the world’s most populous country (1.3 billion).

     There are the statistics: Situated in eastern Asia, bounded east by the Pacific; third largest country in the world (next to Canada and Russia); area of 9.6 million square kilometers (3,696,100 sq. miles), 1/15th of the world’s land mass. China’s border stretches over 22,000 kilometers on land; 18,000 kilometers coastline, washed by the waters of the Bohai, the Huanghai, the East China and South China Seas; 6,536 islands larger than 500 sq. meters; the largest of which is Taiwan. But China is, of course, much more than statistics can articulate.

     There is history: the Shang (1770-1120 B.C.); Zhou (1120-221 B.C.); Quin/Chin (221-207 B.C.); Hann (207-220 A.D.); Sung (960-1279 A.D.); and Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) Dynasties are now but a list of eclipsed rulers and epochs in China’s history, a list that does not even approach the last half of the 20th Century where even more dramatic changes occurred, thanks to the historical impact of men like Chaing Kai-Chek, Mao Tsi Tung, Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao, current President. But Walt Disney? Really, now.

     There is the three-part geography: A high Tibetan Plateau, mountain ranges and steppes in Western China; lowlands, highlands and part of the Gobi desert in North China; and a maze of hills and valleys in South China. China boasts deserts, mountains and fertile river basins as well as the highest and one of the lowest places on earth; it is high in the west and low in the east. There is the Yangtze River in central China and the Huang He (Yellow) River in the north. Beijing is the capital (formerly Peking), and China’s largest city is Shanghai. And geography means soil, and the collection of some of its soil is the point of this journal entry.

     There are economics: Jeffrey E. Garten, Dean of the Yale School of Management said, “There is no doubt in my mind that China is headed towards being a great power and as such will shatter the global status quo.”

     There is Chinese literature and art: As recently as the 17th century, China had the largest and most sophisticated empire on earth, one that used its cultural prestige to hold diplomatic sway over much of Asia and beyond. The earliest written records in Chinese date back to about 1400 B.C., making Chinese one of the world’s oldest continuously written languages. The definition and history of Chinese art are beyond articulation in this narrative.

* * *

     And then there is Hong Kong, a former British Crown colony on the coast of southeast China. Hong Kong is an island gateway into Southeast Asia and China, an extraordinary, complex territory of 7 million people that’s a repository of traditional Chinese culture, a recently relinquished British outpost, and one of the key economies of the Pacific Rim. The skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island, across the harbor from Kowloon, China, present one of the most stunning urban panoramas on earth, but Hong Kong also hosts inviting beaches, hiking trails and some surviving bastions of Chinese village life, most of them in the New Territories. Since the handover of Hong Kong to China by the British in 1997, foreign domination has gone from this area, and it is free to grow and achieve balance, even with the current inequality of incomes. The conspicuous consumption of a few hundred super-rich, for which Hong Kong is famous, tends to mask the fact that most people work long hours and live in crowded, tiny apartments.

     Common Ground 191’s soil Hong Kong could be called the youngest Chinese soil, as it has only been since 1997 that it belonged to the mainland again and, as a “Special Administrative Region of China,” Hong Kong is in such a state of accelerated change that its soil must surely embody that.

* * *

     Kevin Wren was in China in February of 2005. He’s an airline employee, so he does that run often, because it leaves from Los Angeles, near his home in Southern California. He had agreed to collect Chinese soil for Common Ground 191 on this trip. We interviewed him for the story of his take on Hong Kong soil.

     “ There’s a huge Buddha statue about 10 miles from the airport. It’s up on a hill and people make pilgrimages to it. I had a day off and I asked the guy to take me someplace interesting, and I took it from there.”

     “Oh, that’s lovely.”

     “Yeah, I took it from the side of the parking lot.”

     “Well, that’s very spiritual of you.”

     “From what I was told it was the biggest Buddha around. And I guess China would have the biggest Buddha’s.”

     “How big was it? The size of a five-story building?”

     “Yeah, it was close to that. It’s a tourist attraction, a place people visit.”

     “So it was huge. Was it gold?”

     “Yeah, it was gold-ish.”

     Buddha’s do not get any bigger than this, especially seated, outdoor Buddha’s. Dreamed up by the community of monks on Lantau, it took more than 10 years to build. Made entirely of metal and consisting of a steel framework covered by a steel and bronze skin, it has over one ton of gold amalgam, with 268 steps.

     “Can you visualize it for us?”

     “I guess it was impressive. I was looking at dirt. Not taking in my surroundings. But so many people collect dirt. Not like for our project, people who do what I do for a living. They bring home sand or dirt from wherever they go.”

     “They do? And why do you think they do that?”

     “I guess just to have something to say—like people collect figurines, you know? And it’s so easy for them just to scoop it up and take it home. I’ve talked to so many people that collect dirt from places they’ve gone to. I say, ‘What do you do it for?’ They say, ‘I just collect it.’ I say, ‘What do you do with it?’ They say, ‘Keep it in jars in the house.’ ‘You know, that sounds stupid to me,’ and they say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re the guy carrying DHL and UPS boxes around. Why do you have so many bags and boxes around?’ ‘I’ve got boxes for dirt.’ ‘You’ve got what?’ ’I’ve got boxes for dirt.’ ‘Excuse me?’

     “Was it an urban or rural setting?”

     “It wasn’t urban in Hong Kong, maybe a couple of apartment buildings within the area, but it was basically just greenery around.”

     “Like a park?”

     “Yes. It was set aside. No water, on a hill with grass and trees. That part of Hong Kong is just green mountains, and it’s—I would say where the Buddha is it’s maybe 40 minutes from where the new Disneyland’s being built. Whenever we left the apartment, we’d say, ‘Hey, there it is,’ but you can’t see Space Mountain yet. It’s not in an urban area. There are apartments around but it’s too rural to be urban, because it’s basically in the mountains. Maybe 20 years from now it’ll become urban because they’ll run out of room.”

     So 40 minutes from the biggest Buddha in the world is the site of the new Disneyland, and our Common Ground 191 soil came from a juncture of these two cultural icons in Hong Kong, a place sorting out two governing systems, communism and colonialism—duality in the place famous for the Yin-Yang symbol. Ah, soh.

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