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Destinations Translating Guilin, China

Author: pakce  |  Category: Destination Translating Guilin China

The Guilin area of China’s Guanxi Province has long been an inspiration for poets and artists. The lines of one ancient writer say: “He who travels in the Guilin hills finds himself in a fairyland.”

A fairyland is as good a way as any to describe this area. The rocky crags and steep karst hills rise dramatically up from the flat plain. The Li River wends its way among them, small bamboo rafts float lazily by while villagers harvest wild greens from the banks.

“You can’t translate Chinese poetry into English. It won’t sound right,” said Xu Zhiyuan, a local college student. “Sure you might be able to say, ‘Mist-hid, clouded hamlet, a mild, tranquil place.’ But that’s just a sentence trying to translate Yuan Mu [a Qing Dynasty poet]. It doesn’t sound the same or even mean the same in Chinese. So why try?” Although Zhiyuan was no doubt right, a person might well be inclined to read poetry while in Guilin–even in translation.

Guilin was first established more than 2,000 years ago by the Emperor Qinshihuang, who is known today because of the giant army of terra-cotta warriors in Xian that he created during his lifetime. During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 619-906), Guilin thrived and huge halls and stone walls were erected around the city.

Up until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Guilin served as the capital of Guanxi Province. Today, it is a rather large, bustling city that attracts visitors from around the world. Guilin, however, has made some attempt to preserve its natural beauty and skyscrapers are not allowed as they will block the view of the poetically named hills: Cloud-Catching Pavilion, Bright Moon Peak, White Horse Cliff, Five Tigers Catch a Goat Hill, Folded Brocade Mountain.

Along the Li River to Yangshou

From Guilin, travelers can catch a bus or a boat down the Li River to the small town of Yangshou. While the bus is faster and cheaper, the stunning scenery of the Li River is well worth the extra time and cost. “The river forms a green gauze belt, the mountains are like jade hairpins,” Han Yu, a Tang Dynasty poet wrote. Drifting down the Li River, it’s easy to feel lost in time. Women kneel on the bank washing clothes. Water buffalo loll in the water. Here and there small villages dot the shore.

This place seems to be made for poetry. Even an overcast day adds to the other-worldly quality of the place as mist hovers low over the limestone cliffs. In the poem “Green Mountain” Yuan Mu wrote:

Clouds come and the green mountain is not
Clouds go and the green mountain is
I long to ask the green mountain
“Could you be aware
That you come and go too?”

-Translated by Jerry M. Spiller

And the mountains do seem to disappear through the clouds, only to appear again when the wind blows the mist away. The light, too, changes both the waters and the mountains to shades of silver, then blue, and finally to a soft green. The Chinese love to find shapes in works of nature and all along the way, your boat captain may point out horses galloping through the clouds, a stone frog leaping into the water, or a turtle evident in the sides of a cliff. When you finally reached Yangshou, you may feel as if you had just passed through of a zoo of cloud and rock.

Although Yangshou is clearly a tourist town, it nevertheless retains some flavor of its old roots. The buildings have been renovated in traditional Chinese style. Stone bridges arch over the canals. The winding streets and small alleys lead to busy markets and outdoor food courts.

Nature influences poetry, art

It’s a rock lovers’ paradise. Rock climbers scale the sheer walls. Geologists study the strange karst formations formed thousands of years ago when Asia collided with India and created the conditions for the areas topography towering cliffs, deep caverns and the miles of karst rock formations.

One local man, Stone Liang creates art with stones which he sells in his shop, Nature House. “I look at life,” he said. “Then I look at the rocks. Life is inside them and each one has its own story. I just bring the story out.”

For a relaxing afternoon, consider taking a bicycle into the countryside. Most of the guesthouses offer bicycles for free or inexpensive approximately $5 per day. On Yangshou’s winding roads you’ll pass small altars honoring the ancestors decorated with talismans, garlands of flowers and incense offerings. Most of the altars are an eclectic mix of Daoism and Buddhism with a lively variety of gods and goddesses thrown in. You’ll pass abandoned temples overgrown with weeds and, nearer to town, a new temple that reflects China’s recent prosperity.

Ancient Chinese poetry is a spiritual poetry, strongly influenced by Daoism. When the senses are awakened by nature or by the gods, it goes beyond words. Even in translation the “chi” or energy of the poem comes through. When coupled with a transcendent landscape of hills, moon and cloud such as you find in the Guilin area it’s as though the voices of China’s past poets are singing from the rocks.

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