Letter from China

Fenster writes:

When I had not yet begun to study Zen thirty years ago, I thought that mountains are mountains and waters are waters. Later when I studied personally with my master, I entered realization and understood that mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters. Now that I abide in the way of no-seeking, I see as before that mountains are just mountains, waters are just waters.

Heavy-duty Sixties retreads like me may recall this quote, from the Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk Qingyuan Weixin.  More will likely recall its Western popularization:  the folksinger Donovan’s refrain “first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”

Nice sentiments but what mean?  I don’t know for Zen, but I have made my own Western adaptation to the quote appropriate for my own experience.   That is, while the Buddhist monk sees in the quote the move to enlightenment, my take is much more pedestrian.  For me, the quote sums up nicely how learning, and all change, happens.   Learning is not primarily a matter of accreting new facts on top of the old.  It’s more a process of disruption, in which a former settled view becomes unsettled, then becomes settled again in a new way.  First you know you know.  Then you are made unstable by knowing that what you know may not be true.  Then you once again know you know.  That’s called learning–the disruptive accretion of falsehoods providing useful new perspectives.

But enough Buddhist talk of illusions—on to the brass tacks, in American fashion.


It is now a week since I arrived in China.  An interesting amount of time—long enough to begin to dispel  erroneous first impressions but too short to give confidence that you know anything yet, really.   I am, I suppose, in the “no mountain” stage.  That’s my caveat, my disclaimer, as I write the letter.

I was asked to come to China at the invitation of a Chinese university.  I’d come to know, and to like, the senior administrators of the university when I served as the lead trainer for them on a visit to the United States in the summer.  They’d come to take a closer look at American higher education, a topic with which I am familiar from many years of work.  We agreed that I would visit them later to teach and to do research.  A two week visit was arranged.

I first spent a few days in Beijing visiting with the parents of a Chinese exchange student now living with my family at home.  Then it was on to several destinations in Shandong province.  My host university manages three campuses in Shandong: a main campus in the ocean side city of Qingdao and two smaller campuses in Jinan and Ti’ian.

So my experience here is not only severely constrained by time but also locale. I have seen a small sliver of a small slice for a split second.  Yet it is hard to square that reality with my experience of the past week, experience in which the new came at me so hard and fast that time seemed to stretch out, like a kid’s experience of an endless summer by the Fourth of July.

For sure, some of the intoxication came from being by myself as an American.  For most of the time here I have been totally and completely with the Chinese.  I have had the pleasure of being accompanied from two skilled translators from the university assigned to me.  But the level of English among older Chinese, even at a university, is not high, and so I have had to go native—or at least as native as the hospitable Chinese permit a foreign guest to be.

Other factors contributed to an almost surrealistic feeling in the first days here.

First, there’s the jet lag.  That’ll get you.

Then there’s the juxtaposition of old and new in peculiar ways. The bright red banners with Chinese slogans, redolent of an earlier Communist era, mirrored by the strikingly similar use of bright reds and yellows in the ultra-sophisticated product advertisements all around.


And then there’s a freakily robust popular culture.  We know our popular culture is freaky but we take that as a sign of our freedom, and China is hardly free.  It’s enough to make you want to revisit Marcuse’s concept of repressive tolerance, and not just for China.  Some things come across as not only Westernized but echt-so, as though I had somehow fallen into Minority Report by way of Brazil.  Is this the future?  No, just the present.

Club LA in Beijing

Adding to the surrealism is that odd haze that hangs on in Beijing and its environs, prompting cognitive confusion  as to whether it is a sunny day or a cloudy one, with the buildings fading off in the distance like in an old Chinese painting of the far mountains.

This not a proper and complete letter, I know.  I will add more as I go along, episodically and intermittently.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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